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What to do if your child doesn't get along with their teacher

Sometimes temporary feelings of frustration can turn into a permanent negative outlook on school.

As any parent knows, it’s not unusual for children to come home from school with a complaint, whether it’s about an unfair pop quiz, a challenging group project, or a homework assignment that’s just plain “stupid” (their words – not ours). However, sometimes these temporary feelings of frustration can turn into a permanent negative outlook on school – and their teacher. While we all want our children to have a positive relationship with their teacher, sometimes that’s just not the reality. What is your role in nurturing this relationship? And how can you know when to step in, or when to let your student figure it out for themselves? We asked our experts for you. Here’s what they say.

Establish a relationship with your child’s teacher. Research from the National Education Association shows, establishing a relationship with your child’s teacher is one of the most important factors to their academic success, but sincere parent involvement goes beyond a simple introduction; it’s first and foremost built on trust. From the get-go, parents and teachers should assume they both want what is best for the student.

Parent Toolkit expert and former teacher Amber Coleman-Mortley encourages parents to find common ground with their child’s teacher by acknowledging how they both contribute to their student’s growth, development and academic progress. “The key is to understand what our role is, what the role of the other person is, and how we can connect those roles for the well-being of everyone in the room, not just our child,” Coleman-Mortley says. In addition, parents need to understand that while their child may be the center of their universe, they are only a part of the teacher’s. “After all, teachers are often working to balance the needs of 20 to 30 other students in class,” Coleman-Mortley continues.

It’s not just on the parent to communicate; teachers also need to establish themselves as an ally, according to New Jersey teacher and education activist, Nicholas Ferroni. “From the beginning, teachers should emphasize that they’re on the same team as their students’ parents and show them that they’re working to reinforce those same values the parents stress at home, in the classroom,” Ferroni says. Whether the lesson stems from a messy bedroom or a missing homework assignment, parents and teachers both want children to succeed in school – and beyond. However, school life and home life aren’t always separate, so Ferroni says teachers should also encourage parents to talk to them in those moments when personal problems might begin seeping into schoolwork.

Break down your child’s complaint. Still, there’s a clear and defined difference between having a relationship with your child’s teacher and constantly stepping in when there’s a problem. After all, what can our children really learn when we solve their issues for them? If your child comes to you upset about their teacher, Parent Toolkit expert and founder of Cultures of Dignity Rosalind Wiseman recommends having them describe in two to three sentences what exactly is happening that is making them not want to be in the classroom. (Pro tip: Wiseman says if they’re too young to write it, have them draw it!) “If they’re saying, ‘I’m bored,’ ask what this means. This could mean the classroom material is too much, or not enough. Or, your child could just be embarrassed,” Wiseman notes.

Then, Wiseman advises parents to figure out if this is a pattern. “Find out whether this is happening to just your child, or other students in class,” Wiseman says. This won’t only give you a clearer idea of the problem, but a better plan for the solution. Coleman-Mortley suggests asking another parent in class what their child’s experience has been with this teacher to gauge whether it aligns with what your child has felt.

Finally, Wiseman recommends having your child define what a positive relationship with their teacher looks like, including having them specifically identify one to three changes that could make the relationship better. This will help clarify what exactly your child needs from their teacher, and how they can work with realistic expectations to make this possible.

Empower your child to take charge. It’s not just about what the teacher can change. “Students need to be accountable for their actions,” Ferroni says. By encouraging children to take ownership of their role in the relationship, parents can then empower their children to speak directly with their teacher. “Encourage your kids to self-evaluate and self-advocate. Challenge them to figure out how they can be better,” Coleman-Mortley says.

Still, sometimes problems are too big for a child to handle on their own. So when is it time for a parent to step in? “If a teacher is humiliating a child or questioning their intelligence or capacity, that is when you meet,” Wiseman says. But who should parents contact first? “Start by talking directly to the teacher,” Coleman-Mortley suggests. “If you’re uncomfortable with the teacher, see if there’s a teacher’s aide you can contact. Meeting with the principal should be the worst case scenario,” she continues. Additionally, since the child is the midpoint between you and their teacher, they should be included in the meeting.

Whether you’re meeting with the teacher, the aide, or the principal, it’s important to come prepared. “Keep a record of what the teacher has done or said to upset your child, and bring it to the meeting with you,” Coleman-Mortley advises. This, too, could be an opportunity for your child to advocate for themselves. “If your child is older, have them prepare a written recollection of what has happened and allow them to lead the conversation during the meeting,” Wiseman says.

Above all, Wiseman stresses the importance of keeping everyone’s perspective – not just your child’s – in mind. “Ask yourself how you know what you know,” Wiseman says. “Your child has a really important perspective but there are a lot of other moving parts around their experience,” she continues. After all, is your child really the best listener? Do they always do what you say? “It’s a delicate balance,” Wiseman says. “As a mother, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a child tell me about some horribly unfair thing that happened to them, when in reality, they knew about that quiz, or that homework assignment, all along,” Wiseman concludes.

Teachers spend around seven hours a day on their feet, teaching a group of twenty-plus students difficult lessons, all while ensuring they’re staying on-task and organized. In other words? It’s not the easiest career choice, but they do it for a reason. “We all need to realize that working with children takes emotional, psychological, physical work. As a teacher, you are giving a huge chunk of yourself to helping children be their best selves, which can be both incredibly stressful and extremely rewarding,” Coleman-Mortley emphasizes.

It’s hard to believe it, but one day, your child will be out of your house and in the real world. And in order to be successful, they’ll need to learn how to respect authority, work through problems, and advocate for themselves. By equipping them with opportunities to take on these challenges, you’re not just helping them now, but in the future.