Tuesday, November 13, 2012

How Should a Teacher Break the News that Your Kid is Weird?

Lunch in the Teachers' Lounge is never dull.  Every day at noon, several of my co-workers and I break bread together and talk about whatever is on our minds.  We talk about our kids, our families, our extracurricular activities, and any of the hundreds of other things friends might discuss over lunch.  As you might have guessed, however, our number one topic of choice is our students.  And why wouldn't it be, right?!  We are all (I assume) working at the elementary school because we love kids, and we want to help our students succeed.  It is obvious that the teachers I work with are a very compassionate bunch, and I am often floored by the level of concern and involvement they have with their students.  Frequently, we will spend lunch talking about how to reach a particular student's needs, or discuss strategies to use in class.  Recently, discussions have veered more toward Parent/Teacher conferences, since we have just completed the first grading period.  Consequently, I have never seen my co-workers look more stressed!

I never realized-- or took the time to think about-- the level of anxiety that a teacher experiences during a Parent/Teacher conference!  One would just assume, because the teacher is the one at the meeting with the grades and the behavior reports and the information, that the teacher would feel confident going into a conference.  Wrong!  Teachers get nervous, too, y'all.  It's not usually the discussion of grades that make teachers shake in their conference shoes, but rather the topic of behavior.  And not so much bad behavior as "weird" behavior-- as in Crazy Train-style weird behavior-- that makes teachers squeamish at conference time.  I have discovered during my daily lunches in the Teachers' Lounge this fall that teachers are often afraid of having the Your-Kid-Is-Acting-Weird Conversation!  The teachers worry about what to say, how to say it, and when to bring "it" up.  They worry that they will say too much or too little.  They worry that the parents will get mad, or get offended, or get up and leave!  Who knew?!

*image courtesy of NYC Educator

It has also been brought to my attention by some of my fellow staff members, that I have a unique perspective on this topic.  What?!-- You mean I have weird kids?!  No way!  Not only have I been a teacher in the past and now work with Special Education students as a paraprofessional, but I have two Special Education students of my own.  (I'm sure you've figured this out by now.)  With two kids on the autism spectrum, I have been through the Your-Kid-Is-Acting-Weird Conversation more times than I can count.  With my kids, it more of a This-Is-How-Your-Kid-Is-Acting-Weird-Now Conversation, but I digress.  Because I have sat on both sides of the conference table, my co-workers have asked me to give them some advice on how to talk to parents about students' behavior concerns at school.

Well, friends and Trainees... I will do my best to give sound advice.  Anyone that feels the need to add to my list should do so, because I can only speak from my own experience.

Things for Teachers to Consider at Conference Time (according to Delirious Mom):

  1. First and foremost, when telling a parent that her student exhibits "atypical" behavior, be very specific about what the atypical behaviors are, and state those behaviors with the concern you feel for the student.  Please don't say "Little Johnny acts weird" or "Little Johnny is very different from his classmates."  Being vague or clinical can be very off-putting to a parent, and will most likely make her defensive and unreceptive to you.  Instead, try saying something like "Have you noticed at home that Johnny is easily startled?  He is very frightened by the fire drill alarm, even when I warn him that it is going to ring."  Or, "I have noticed that Johnny, unlike his peers, prefers to play alone and becomes upset when his classmates try to talk to him.  In my experience, this is rather unusual."  By citing specific behaviors, the parent knows exactly what your concerns are, rather than worrying that you think everything about Johnny is weird-- which is the exact assumption most parents would make if you aren't specific!  Specifics allow the parent to successfully participate in the discussion with you, and let's them consider specific incidents they may have observed at home.  Also, FYI, this atypical behavior may be completely typical at their house!  A parent that has no other point of reference may not realize this behavior is weird at all!  This was the case in my situation with Birdie.  She was my "normal" child until she started school and I realized how unlike her peers she really was!
  2. No matter how you say it, or how receptive the parent appears to be, the news of atypical behavior is hard to hear.  The parents may already know what you are saying, or they may already suspect that their child's behavior is unlike other children the same age, but that doesn't make it easier to hear.  I know that even though I could tell other people-- and sometimes hear from others-- that my kids act weird in social settings, it was painful to hear these things from a teacher for the first time.  As a teacher, you are viewed, to a certain extent, as an expert on child behavior-- whether you realize it or not!  Having the teacher confirm what I already knew about my kids meant that I could no longer excuse their weird behaviors as merely quirkiness.  It transformed these "quirks" into a reality that had to be dealt with.  (It's like saying to a friend "I look fat in these jeans."  You can say that to your friend truthfully about yourself, but you'd probably have hurt feelings if your friend enthusiastically agreed!)
  3. No matter how politely you couch the subject, there is a good chance that, to the parent, it will sound like criticism.  The news will most certainly feel like criticism to the parent-- it did to me, even though rationally I knew this wasn't the case.  On some primal level where rationality does not exist, parents take their children's shortcomings personally, and behavior issues at school are particularly hard to hear about.  Parents may become defensive, emotional, angry, or all three, but they still need to know what is going on with their child!  I was a sobbing mess after my first "talk" with the teachers at school.  It was very hard for me to square up the fact that not all behavior problems are the result of poor child-rearing or lack of discipline-- I felt embarrassed and more than a little defensive, because I assumed that I was failing somehow at raising my child.  I felt this way even though I already suspected my Princess had autism!  Many parents will have the same initial reaction I had.  Imagine how the parents that don't suspect behavior issues must feel!  Parents may leave your conference with ruffled feathers, thinking that the problem is not theirs but yours.  I know that sucks for you as a teacher, but please don't let that stop you from sharing what you've observed.  Once the parents have had time to process this information, most will come back and thank you later for having their child's best interest at heart.  I am so, so grateful for the honesty and open lines of communication I have had with my daughters' teachers!  The information I get from Princess and Birdie's teachers help me make better parenting decisions at home and allows me to reinforce the social skills they are learning at school.
  4. Even though the parents won't be thrilled to hear what you have to say, be as honest as possible about the impact of the student's behavior.  Sugar-coating the facts won't help anyone in the long run.  If you understate the student's behavior and the impact that behavior has on the student and your class environment, the behavior will most certainly continue to occur.  The parents can't possibly understand the significance of what you are sharing with them if you minimize it's importance.  Also, if intervention is needed for the behaviors and the child deserves special services, you aren't helping your student by trying to be nice, you are just delaying those services!  PLUS-- and this is important-- you may be clouding the waters for future teachers that think intervention is required if you don't speak up now.  We have all seen it happen-- a student that displays unusual behaviors that interfere with their own success. but is not disruptive to the class, often falls through the cracks when it comes to getting help.  These kids often don't get recommended because teachers assume these non-disruptive odd behaviors are signs of laziness, or a lack of motivation.  Not all weird behavior is bad behavior-- it's just that bad behavior is more likely to get addressed sooner!  The sooner any odd behavior is addressed, the sooner a course of action can be determined to resolve or understand the behavior.  If you feel a student is exhibiting any unusual quirks or habits, it's worth mentioning to the parents.  Who knows-- you may become a student's educational superhero by expressing your concerns!  Both of my girls have an army of superheroes helping them!

I know that this is not a comprehensive list, but these are the things that stand out most in my memory from some of my earliest teacher talks.  I know that I probably made some of my teacher Trainees nervous with my honesty about how it feels to be on the parent end of this conversation, but you need to know how hard it is to be the parent in this kind of Parent/Teacher conference.  That being said, I also want my teacher friends to know how incredibly important and valuable it was to me to hear these things, even if it was hard to hear.  The honesty that Princess and Birdie's teachers have given me has been the very best gift I could ask for from the public school system.  Through open, frank communication and collaboration, I have seen tremendous progress in my girls.  Socially, they are both better adjusted, and both are developing coping strategies that will last them a lifetime.  Without their teachers taking the time to have the Your-Kid-Is-Acting-Weird Conversation with me, I might be writing a whole different blog about Princess and Birdie-- one with a lot less happy and a lot more frustration!  This difficult conversation was the first step toward success for my girls in elementary school, and it is a conversation that every kid with behavior issues is owed.  Please, if you are a teacher, do the difficult thing and tell Johnny's parents the truth, whether they want to hear it or not.  :)

Please, Trainees, if I have omitted something important from this list, share in the comments section below.  This is an opportunity for all of us to learn from one another's experiences of being in the "hot seat" during P/T conference time.  Inquiring minds want to know, and they are counting on you to provide valuable input-- I have lots of teacher Trainees riding the Crazy Train!  


  1. I am a daycare teacher and I found your post very helpful- even though I do miss the funny ones.

    I also completely agree with #4. Most teachers won't say anything if it is just a problem for that student and is not disrupting others. This is sad because they could be having a real tough time and no one ever says anything.

    Thanks again for a great post. And when are we getting more musings? :)

    1. Thanks for the feedback! Don't worry-- there will be a Thanksgiving edition of musings coming very soon!

  2. While I don't work with children, I think this is a brilliant post and I'm sharing it with those of my friends who DO! Great read, Christina!!

  3. 5. Be specific as to what area(s) of the school day are affected by the behaviors. Are the problems social only, or do they also affect academics? Are rules being consistently broken? It helps to have that information because some parents don't care if their kids are social pariahs while others don't feel the kids' academics are as important.

    6. Please note interventions that have been attempted. What adjustments have you, as a teacher, made in the classroom? Ask the parents if they have tried anything at home in regards to the behavior. Collaboration is the key with parents because it makes them feel better to work with someone rather than feeling like they are working against someone.

    1. How could I have left these out! Good call, my friend! These are very important when it comes to getting to the root of behavior problems and then solving them. You rock, my friend. :)

  4. new follower - found you through the blog hop! :)

  5. 7. One thing that I have encouraged teachers to do is to talk about how the weird behaviors have been positive for the kid or if they have even talked with the kid about it. Many times kids don't recognize they are being weird or know no other coping mechanism. Sometimes just talking with the kid about it can bring about some positive change, which should also be mentioned to the parents.

    8. Invite the parents for a hidden observation to view the behaviors. It helps them to see what is being done and they may be able to notice antecedent behaviors that the teacher has missed. For example, I worked with a boy who used to imitate his peers and make up stories about them talking about him or making fun of him. The parents would not believe the teacher, but after I did an observation in school I was able to see that he was attempting to copy his peers because he was lost on what to do. This kid would make noises or face at his classmates. He also thought conversations consisted of facing a person while they talked, not recognizing that the people needed to be facing him as well and he gives them verbal feedback (hence the thought that others were talking about him when they weren't). Also, the parents realized he needed an assessment and recognized some of those behaviors from home. The teacher was able to make adjustments for him and incorporate social skills activities into his IEP.

  6. Great post!! Very sound advice. We've been really lucky so far with teachers who are open and specific, but we also expect some of the behavior issues so we ask them to be specific *every* day in their communication with us so we can address the issues *quickly* at home and try to nip them in the bud.

  7. Good advice! Although I am no longer in the education world (former music teacher and one on one associate), I am on the opposite end of it with a 2nd grader on an IEP for ADD and behavior, among other interesting things. :-)