Kids who act out at school may have good reason — but teachers won’t know about problems at home unless parents tell them. (Illustration: Getty Images)
Problems at home — divorce, death, incarceration, illness — feel like intensely private affairs. But when you also have a kid in school, you might want to consider letting his or her teacher in on the news, as it can be critical to a child’s success and happiness in the classroom, a new study stresses.
“By sharing the information, what a teacher can do is become more understanding of changes in your child’s behavior,” David Maxfield, a social scientist and the study co-author, tells Yahoo Parenting.
Maxfield, along with Joseph Grenny — together, the authors of the best-selling Crucial Conversations book series — recently through their VitalSmarts leadership company surveyed 622 parents and teachers across the country about their communication habits. What they found was that important information is too often being held back on both sides — by parents who don’t inform teachers of difficulties at home and by teachers who don’t alert parents to troubling behavior in the classroom. And the results, they found through a collection of anecdotes, range from misunderstandings to the mishandling of behavioral issues, borne from a lack of context.
Among the compelling anecdotes from teachers, according to the study, was this one: “A fifth grader’s family was awakened by a SWAT team that held them at gunpoint and arrested the father on drug-related charges. The mother then sent her child to school without a chance to tell the teacher, who heard it later on the news. ‘I would have liked to have been told,’ said the teacher. ‘This fifth grader had behavior issues, and by knowing about the incident immediately I could have helped him at school.”
According to the findings of the survey, 94 percent of teachers feel it’s important for parents to inform them of a divorce or separation — but only 23 percent of splitting-up parents say they told their child’s teacher. In addition, 93 percent of teachers want to know about a major illness or accident, 89 percent want to know about a death, and 89 percent want to hear about a child’s depression — while only 21 percent, 26 percent, and 27 percent of parents, respectively, share such information with teachers.
While the researchers did not collect data about why this was the case, Maxfield says he believes several reasons are at play, starting with a parent’s lack of relationship with his or her child’s teacher. “They’re not even thinking of the teacher — or they’re thinking of the teacher as some small part of the child’s life who is providing a service, much like a plumber provides a service.”
He also believes that parents feel an intense sense of privacy and “even embarrassment” around such major issues and feel that telling a teacher would not help at all. “They might think, well, the teacher is not going to fix my marriage,” Maxfield says. “But with this thinking, there’s a lack of realization that a child’s behavior will change and that the teacher will see it and have to guess what’s going on.” Finally, he believes, setting up a time to have an intense talk with a teacher is something seen simply as an inconvenience.
On the flip side, the survey found, parents who wanted to know about their child’s suspected drug use, depression, cognitive problems, or skipped classes were only informed about these issues from teachers in a quarter to half of the time.
In the study, Maxfield and Grenny asked school leadership development coach Jeana Marinelli for advice on how teachers and parents can facilitate relationships with each other. She suggests that parents “over-communicate” with teachers, exchange contact information, and reach out right away regarding any concerns about the child. Teachers, Marinelli says, should introduce themselves personally to each parent, collect information through family surveys, share praise frequently to build trust, and invite parents into the classroom by hosting a special gathering before report-card conferences roll around.
Maxfield says that the idea to survey parents and teachers was inspired by taking a long road trip with his sister-in-law, who is a teacher. “She said, ‘The toughest conversations are the ones that never happen,’” explaining that sometimes she’ll have a student who was a superstar the year before but returns as “a basket case.” And if she doesn’t have the context needed to respond with proper empathy, Maxfield says, she may treat it as a discipline problem, which won’t necessarily help the child.
“So the moral of this is: Don’t allow the teacher to be someone you barely know,” he says. “We all have busy lives. Try to make some time in the first few weeks of school to make a connection.”