If Educators Won’t Support Parents of Children Who Are Struggling, Who Will?
Updated: Jun 23, 2021
By Beckett Haight
This post was originally published at Collections of a Special Educator and has been edited for clarity. It contains affiliate links.
If your child is “failing” one or more classes but is planning to party or chill this weekend, this article is for you.
If your child had an in-school suspension two weeks ago, but you can’t remember what consequences you gave them when you found out, this is for you.
If your child’s grade is a “60%” in two or more classes but still has the latest iPhone, read this.
If you are a case manager for a student with disabilities who is struggling, and this sounds familiar, this article is for you.
Students with disabilities sometimes need exceptional parents.
Most parents who have children who are typically developing are like teachers who work in high performing districts; just don’t mess the students up and for the most part and they will be fine. Right?
My experience working four years in the Palo Alto Unified School District in Silicon Valley as a teacher assistant and doing my student teaching there I have seen first-hand that you don’t necessarily need the best teachers to get the best test scores or college placements. The students in Palo Alto were routinely scoring at the top range of schools in California, and some of the schools I worked in were ranked top 100 in the United States. From time to time, I hear teachers mention how the students are coming with the tools, and the teachers just need not hinder them.
I know that’s not entirely true of course as you find English Language Learners, students with disabilities everywhere, including in these high performing districts.
And that is what I mean with saying that if you have a child who hasn’t experienced childhood trauma, or doesn’t have a learning disability, then the job of a parent is just to keep them moving and make sure they hit their milestones. And if you make some mistakes along the way, or go into cruise control with one child while another child is in crisis or you go through a divorce, your child will most likely be okay.
But when the child has some extra needs, that is where teachers and parents have to be good (or above average), implement best practices, be organized, set clear expectations, or follow through with setting limits. They can’t just sit back and relax.
Their game has to be tight…
…or in other words, you have to be an exceptional parent when you have a student with unique needs.
And to add a level of complexity to this need to “be good or better than good” is the reality that many of the unique needs of the students I have worked with over the years are either genetic or somewhat genetic (i.e., they say ADHD is a mix of genetic and environmental).
If I have a student who is impulsive and has difficulties in some areas of executive functioning, I often find that one of the parents has similar struggles. This makes it hard for them to develop and stick with behavior plans that I create with them, be consistent, react reasonably (i.e., not ground the student for the rest of the year and throw their phone away and then have to backtrack and lose credibility).
Special Education Teachers are Sometimes the Only People Willing to Give Parenting Advice
Parents need help learning tools to help their child, or else their child will continue to struggle behaviorally, socially, or academically. I have found over the years that the friends and family of these parents usually don’t want to sully the relationship by providing these parents with parenting advice. The general education teachers are not the student’s case managers and are just focused on content, and the administration at the school are too busy (or fears push back).
So from my standpoint, that leaves the special educator to help provide a sort of wrap-around service in effect. Supporting the family in developing their best practices so that the child/student can be the most successful.
Good Teachers Are Not Usually Born, and Neither Are Good Parents
When I first started teaching, I had a mentor teacher who taught me a lot about the field of Special Education and shared a trove of anecdotes.
She told me that back when she started back in the 1970s, part of her job as a special educator was actually to give parenting classes periodically. Once a week or once a month. When she told me this in my pre-pubescent teaching stage, I didn’t think much of it. But after years of working with parents who displayed behaviors that were antithetical to what could help their child, I felt that I understood where Sandy and her generation was coming from when they felt the need to teach these classes.
People sometimes argue that teaching is an innate ability; that many good teachers are naturals. However, I don’t subscribe to that belief. I feel that people with a “natural ability” can be great teachers, and do it more easily, but I also feel that you need to be taught the best practices. It’s like an artist who doesn’t study the masters. Or a musician who doesn’t know where all of this music came from. You need to go to that art school and get those foundations before you set off and get known. You need to spend that time in Julliard and learn about “metric modulation and serialism” before you go on and try to tackle the world of music and do your own thing.
In that same vein, if you want to be a good parent, you can hope that your natural abilities will take you there, but for the majority, you have to learn! You have to be made aware of the best practices. You need to test them out. You need someone to help guide you. If not, the best case scenario may be that you are going to get to your second child or third before it clicks and you hit your parenting stride.
I feel that if you are already trying to be a good parent, you are a step ahead. If you are out there reading blogs, and books, and reaching out for help, you are the one that is going to have success more likely. But I understand that so many things can get in the way. You are working full time, dealing with outside of work issues, trying to have some fun, and trying to keep your marriage alive. We don’t always have time to pick up Dr. Lipshits new book on the latest fad in parenting, speaking metaphorically.
Things come up with your child, you deal with it, and if it doesn’t pan out, you try better next time. But sometimes years pass like that, and one day, if you are lucky to realize it, you find that things aren’t going as planned. You have enabled your child to do a lot of things that have led to ways of being that aren’t the most desirable.
This is to say that 10 or 12 years have passed and you find yourself with a child that is a bully or smoking weed, or in juvenile hall, or is often dishonest. And unfortunately, a lot of times the people closest to you aren’t comfortable letting you know what’s up. Or maybe they do, and you get reactive and defensive, or you just think they don’t understand. That’s where I argue the special educator can help (if the child has a case manager or is working with Multi-Tiered Systems of Support or Response to Intervention).
What Special Educators Can do to Support Parents
Here is a list some of the things I subscribe to as a special educator as it relates to helping guide parents to best practices:
I work with the idea that we should have a sort of wraparound service going on…everyone involved. We work with all types of services and supports and expectations to help the whole child move forward.
If the following things are occurring at home, I as the case manager can help out and support the parent in developing some best practices:
Parent hasn’t checked the grades of the student who is failing current classes and will be kicked out in a few months due to academic probation. They have access to the online system called PowerSchool, so they can check grades (and attendance) but has no idea what the child’s grades are when we have a meeting about how the things we are asking the family and child to do aren’t happening.
The child knows that parent will buy new smartphone no matter what grades or behavior at school… and the parent does.
The parent tells me that I am setting the kid up for failure by insisting he uses an agenda because he won’t use a schedule.
The parent tells me that what I am doing to support their child’s behavior is only for my own job security.
No consequences for anything. Or inconsistent.
This is a situation where after I have had those 6pm meetings at Starbucks with a parent after they got off work, for example, I found that they have guilt. Usually, it’s guilt because they have experienced divorce, or sometimes the spouse has passed away, and the single parent almost feels incapable of saying ‘no’ because they don’t want to make their child feel bad. That’s where I can step in and help them set up some systems at home. I usually tell the parents to put it on the school and me. “Mr. Haight and (new school) said we have to do this until X . . . I hate to do it, but if you don’t do it the school is going to have an issue”. I find that that can work in many cases and fortunately after 3, 4, 6 weeks the students are making gains, seeing how easy it is, and is starting to build the intrinsic.
I can help parents and students set long-term goals, build in smaller objectives, and action steps, track these and help develop consequences (both positive and negative) that correspond with this goal attainment journey. Then wean them off the extrinsic as they build the motivation from within.
This is to say that sometimes parents have their child earning failing grades (50 to 60 percent) and say that they need to get 90 percent on everything…or else! That’s where I step in and talk about baseline data, set reasonable goals, and tweak things as we go.
I also help parents with consistency. I have worked with many students who will wiggle out of anything if they see an opening a centimeter wide. That’s why a systematic approach to behavior support can really help keep the student and parent moving forward and growing.
I build in a progression of consequences that are clearly outlined. I wrote more about this HERE.
And to be clear, there should always be some types of consequences, at least at the beginning of a new plan or goal, but maybe not in the way you are thinking. I’ve written about this paradigm shift I do with parents HERE.
What Do Other People Think About This Teacher Involvement?
I know that many people may feel that the government and schools are already overstepping their bounds too much. People want to feed their kids what they want to, teach them what they want to (i.e., evolution vs. creationism), not teach them about sex education if they don’t want to, etc. And to a certain extent, I agree at times. Having parents get their children taken away by the government for letting them play freely at the park is a far cry from the days when we were out on bikes and buses the whole day until we had to come home. And as I have been reading in The Coddling of the American Mind, our kids and society are going to have long term impacts, and persecuting parents throughout this time can be a horrible overreach. But as someone who learns from history, I know that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for example is needed because left to their own devices, businesses will ruin the environment, and even do it when there are policies in place. And in that same vein, if we didn’t have the government telling parents what they can do with their kids would we still have child labor, kids getting beaten at the whim of their parents?
While this ‘anti-nanny state’ sentiment can be seen in push back in such articles as the Toronto Sun’s that decry politicians for proposing mandatory parenting classes, I think it stands to reason that there is a reason that politicians feel this need to help guide parents towards best practices.
People may not want their kids to have specific diets prescribed by the government or certain PE programs with subsequent fitness goals, but the population in the US isn’t obese because parents are feeding their kids well, teaching them what goes into the food, and how to be physically healthy (i.e., letting your child play Fortnite for 7 hours on a Saturday might not be the best parenting practice). And majority numbers of people aren’t obese because parents are teaching them how to eat mindfully, to chew their food, to know when they are full…to eat for nutrition, not because the food has salt, fat or sugar.
The US prisons aren’t packed because parents are raising their kids with best practices all the time. Not getting too detailed, as a biracial man who has had his fair share of interactions with the justice system and have family who has also been involved, I know firsthand about the inadequacies and racial biases in the courts, with the police, etc. However, I also know firsthand about the countless kids running the streets that don’t have the support at home and in their community that could help keep them going in the right direction.
I get that parents may not want the government telling them how to raise their kids. But, when you let your kid eat a Peppermint Pattie candy as a substitute for brushing their teeth, when you dress your kid up with gang attire and think it’s cute, when you film them saying bad words and put it on YouTube, make your elementary aged kid pack their own lunch but not check if they do it or not, when you are smoking and drinking while pregnant, telling your kid to beat up other kids, not setting boundaries, not being consistent, hitting your kid instead of working with them to help build that growth mindset, when you are doing these things that are antithetical to children’s developing into people that are going to know what’s up, what’s right, it may be needed that the government come in and say, “We are offering some classes, and we would like you to attend.”
The Toronto Sun article posits that offering classes that parents can voluntary attend are okay, but having it a mandatory situation is not okay. But if what I contended earlier is true, that parents that are seeking out supports are often the ones who are going to be parents who are equipped, then it may be seen that these voluntary classes could be possibly preaching to the choir.
This is to say that perhaps the parents that need the classes the most would choose not to attend, or maybe didn’t even read the school newsletter in the first place, and them subsequently not attending needed classes is problematic.
I have worked with other professionals who have contended that working with families and really helping them become better at certain aspects of their parenting is out of our sphere of influence.
But I feel that if we don’t do it, who will?
And in the meantime, the student continues to struggle, and we as educators can only do so much between 8:00 AM and 3:00 PM (between Monday and Friday).
Parents who enable their children in destructive or unhealthy behavior does not set up them for future success. Parents must stay consistent, accept the support that the case manager, the school, or whomever else is attempting to help their child.
ASCD is a great resource to help educators to, what they call supporting the “whole child.”
Some of their big vision statements for helping support the whole child are:
“shared the responsibility of students, families, schools, and communities.”
“a whole child approach to education requires the engagement of the entire community to ensure that each child is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.”
“our school collaborates with parents and the local community to promote the health and well-being of each student.”
This is mostly just corroborating the old adage that states that it takes a village to raise a child. For educators to help support the well-being of their children it doesn’t stop at 3:15, or on Friday. It extends to after school. We shouldn’t just kick kids out the doors and let them fend for themselves as many schools do. It extends to mental health. We need to work with social workers, therapists and others to help make sure we are keeping it moving. And no matter how much some people may not like it, it extends to the family. We need students that come to school ready to display healthy adaptive behaviors, work in groups, and study. We can’t just cross our fingers and hope that the parents know what’s up and are sending the students to us fully equipped. It’s our job as educators to do our best to help support the parents in their parenting. If we don’t do it, who will?
The following are resources shared to me by fellow special educators on the CEC member forum when asked how they have in the past, or do support parents:
Dreikurs’ Children: The Challenge
Fay’s Parenting with Love and Logic
STEP (Systematic Training for Effective Parenting)
Beckett Haight is a former student who received special education services for needs that stemmed from my ADHD and ODD. This led to a volunteer job in a classroom for students who were developmentally delayed, which led to being a teacher assistant for four years, which led to the last 12 years of a teaching career that I feel lucky to have. Check out my website called Collections of a Special Educator that has Special Ed resources I have developed over the years and didn’t want just sitting on my computer. You can also find me on Twitter.