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Make the grade with your child’s teacher

The best way to get off to a good start this school year is to ensure great communication with the head of the class. Dr. Ruth Peters provides tips to help you, the parent, become teacher's pet.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Probably the best way to get off to a good start this school year is to ensure great communication with the teacher. The goal is to be involved, not overbearing, and to get accurate information daily about school events, homework and when the next test will occur.

It can be quite difficult to find out what the teacher has really assigned for homework each day — some less-than-motivated youngsters may feign with “I don’t know,” and the more manipulative kid may explain that it’s already been done in school when in fact the math paper is still lurking in the book bag! Some kids are superorganized and responsible when it comes to filling out a daily planner, but many others rely on memory or their friends to keep track of assignments and test dates. Usually, by the time they get home, they’ve forgotten what has to be done or, if they remember, they may not be in the mood to actually accomplish the work. And writing down and planning for a test three days away is not even on the radar — too much organization and effort required for that! So what’s a concerned parent to do? Well, here are some tried-and-true tips that just may make this year a more organized, less chaotic experience for you and all of your kids!

What you can expect from the school
Most schools (elementary, middle and high) employ online Web sites for this very purpose. K-12 Parent and Parent Connect are just two of the sites commonly used by schools. Theoretically, every teacher is to log on daily, posting the new homework assignment and any tests, quizzes, book reports or projects announced. Mom and Dad can secure a pass code from the school and check the work daily, as well as their child’s grades to date. Notice that I said “theoretically.” This system is only as good as the individual teacher’s effort to keep the daily information accurate. If the teachers do their job with the site, parents can stay on top of work assigned and grades to date. Makes life much easier! Check with your school to see what Web site they are using, and be sure to sign up for your pass code immediately.

If your school does not offer a Web site, I would suggest that you discuss this need with the administration and stay on the problem until a system is begun. Some schools have instituted a “two sets of books” system wherein every child has a book for each class that is left at home, and the teacher keeps a class set. This keeps down the wear and tear on the books and is actually less expensive for the school in the long run. And, there’s no excuse for getting out of completing homework or studying if all of the books are at home and not left in the locker at school! Check with your school to see if this program is available. Many private schools have instituted this system and public schools appear to be going in this direction.

All schools have parent/teacher/student conferences, usually in the second month after school begins. Be sure to attend so that you’ll have a face-to-face meeting with the teacher to discuss any academic issues with your child as well as potential social or emotional ones. Of course, if there’s an orientation at the school before classes begin, please do attend — it’s a great way to secure the parent handbook of rules and regulations (those pesky dress codes are clearly spelled out!) so that your youngster gets off to a great start at the beginning of the year. Check to see if your child’s teacher offers a personal e-mail address for concerns and comments. Be judicious in using this — remember the teacher has a lot on his or her plate and doesn’t need to receive daily questions from 14 moms!

Ascertain whether your school has a phone list available for your child’s classmates. This comes in handy when the daily assignments are unclear and you’ll need your child to double-check on an item. Some schools, due to privacy issues, do not have a phone list available, but you may, through the mom grapevine, be able to develop one of your own.

What to expect from your child
Whether or not your child’s school offers an online homework Web site, I highly suggest that you initiate a daily assignment sheet with your kid. The child should write down in his or her planner every piece of written work assigned, as well as all book reports, projects, tests or quizzes announced. They should check the planner each day before leaving school — either at their cubby, desk or locker — to make sure that all folders, books and materials that they will need for homework completion are packed in the book bag. It’s great if there’s a home set of books and they only have to bring home their folders. The bottom line is that all necessary materials are brought home, or are already at home, so that task completion moves smoothly.

Have your child use a homework organizer so that the book bag or locker does not become a black hole of wadded-up paper, parent permission slips and homework that was completed but never turned in! Have a pocket for the daily assignment sheet to be kept in the organizer folder, a pocket for all paperwork handed back to the child that day, and a clear pocket in the center of the folder to store work to be handed in the next day at school. This system works like a charm when used appropriately.

Set up a consistent study time, and stick with it! It's your personal decision whether you let your kids go and play for an hour after school before hitting the homework tasks, or they get a quick snack after school, do the homework and then chill out. Make a plan and stick with it — kids do much better with clear expectations and structure.

Use a monthly calendar system to post book reports, tests, quizzes and project due dates, and check the calendar daily so that nothing slips through the cracks. This teaches your kids good study skills and organization. Expect a decent effort each night when it comes to homework completion. Kids need to know that you’ll be staying on top of the daily planner as well as accuracy of work completed. Accountability, accountability, accountability!

What to expect from yourself
Be sure to communicate with the teachers daily — hopefully through a homework Web site, by e-mail occasionally or by checking your child’s daily planner. Try to get a Friday report (grades for the week, any incomplete or missing assignments) so that you can rectify the situation with your child immediately. You are a team with the teacher — please don’t expect him or her to assign the work and also make your kid complete it at home. That’s your job!

Use a motivational system with your kids. Children who use a daily planner accurately, complete work cooperatively and ready their book bag for the next day may be rewarded with privileges such as TV or other electronics that evening, shooting hoops outside or even a daily allowance. Kids who do not comply should lose these and perhaps other privileges accordingly. If you have a concern, please let the teacher know. He or she is not a mind reader and won’t know that you’re concerned about your son’s lack of friends or your daughter’s anxiety about speaking out in class. Schedule a conference with the teacher if the issues cannot be resolved via a phone call or e-mail. Generally I’ve found that e-mails are much more convenient for teachers — phone calls can take too much time or need to be scheduled during inconvenient personal time with their own families. Know the school rules — read the parent handbook and discuss any concerns with the school’s administration. Make sure that your student understands behavioral, dress and homework-completion rules as well as what to do if he or she is having a personal problem at school. Bullying is not acceptable, and the guidance counselor will want to know about the situation. Engage the administration when necessary. Help out at the school when you can. Consider being a room mother or father, or donate materials, treats or other necessities as you can. Monitor at field trips, attend all school functions and let the teacher know that you can be counted upon to help out as well as being open to discussion about your child’s academics or behavior. Be sure to keep a “family calendar” for school days off, holidays and other school-related dates. The fridge is a great place to display it, so that everyone can stay informed as to important dates in the near future.

Sound a bit overwhelming? Perhaps, but I’ve found that communication with the school is key to a good year. Secondly, organizing your child and holding him or her accountable is mandatory for acquisition and display of good study skills.

Dr. Ruth Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to TODAY. For more information you can visit her Web site at . Copyright © 2008 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.