Why Parents Have a Hard Time Talking to Teachers About Their Children’s Needs

1024px-Pink_Pearl_eraserThe girl’s violence struck the library like a bolt of lightning, drawing a gasp from the teacher and the librarian alike. Awkwardness soon followed the initial shock, and then the two adults exchanged a glance for a shrug. It was over. The teacher continued shuttling the children out into the hallway, back to the kindergarten classroom. The girl joined sullenly, her dark features receding as thoughts quickly turned to the remainder of the day ahead.

Just a moment ago, the girl had asked to see a book – the book the librarian had just finished reading to the class. The book made her angry. Some character, a silly anthropomorphism, had been wronged in some manner. The plot had concluded without the wrong being righted. It made her furious. On the way out of the library, as Mrs. Kelland’s kindergarten class fidgeted and bobbed along in their straight little line, she took the opportunity to break away and ask to see the book. The request was granted, and the girl smacked the book hard and fast with an open palm, more than once, and yelled the worst admonishment she knew at the age of five: BAD!!!

It would later sink in, much to my horror, that what made the outburst so disturbing was not the anger that arose in the heat of the moment, but the premeditation involved in that incident. I had allowed the anger, the outrage at justice left unserved, to fester in me so strongly, that the passage of time did not relieve me in the way it should have for the ordinary kindergarten student. I waited patiently until the moment I could use my body and voice to effect physically what I could not express with the dignified dispassion reserved for adulthood. Maybe I was like other five-year-olds, but I was so, so very sensitive, and so awkward, and so oblivious to social conventions that I got all the way to college before noticing something being a bit … off. But I will never forget that day in the Kelley School library, and looking back with a mother’s eyes, I cringe at that glance and shrug. I don’t know if either of them said anything later, but I doubt that they did. And even if they had, what would my poor parents have done? Back then, school guidance counselors were somewhat of a new thing, and it wasn’t routine to have school psychologists or social workers. Kids with emotional problems were just problem children. And if you were like me, and a good girl most of the time who was sensitive or angry or hurt only some of the time, it was very easy to ignore the symptoms of a larger problem in favor of focusing on the bad kids, the ones who really made life hell for the school and their families alike. And it’s still like that, although the special education system has grown a web around things, a sticky landing place that feels like a net for a moment, but makes it quite difficult to move and feels more like a trap the more you try.

The occasional violent outburst put aside, there was the larger issue of performance anxiety, which I had to wait 30 years after kindergarten to diagnose and understand. I could not bear to make a mistake, even for a moment, even with gentle guidance toward the correct answer. I erased, and wiped away the eraser fragments, and despaired at the evidence left on the paper. I strategically placed my hand. It was futile. “Don’t cover your mistakes,” said a smiling, sweet teacher. I was one of the smartest kids in that class. I don’t say that to brag; it’s what I was told, by the teachers, by my parents, by classmates, basically by everyone for the rest of my lower elementary years, until math became difficult and I started getting that shrug again. I was horrified that the teacher knew – she knew! – that I hadn’t formed my letters perfectly.

It should be different now. Certified public school staff understand a lot more about learning differences, behavioral needs, emotional issues, and a whole host of other concerns that impact children in the school setting as well as at home. But I feel like now, instead of the shrug, which signifies the teacher not understanding what she’s seeing and not knowing what to do about it, we get the shop talk, the doublespeak, the backtracking, the inconclusive conclusion. It’s not all teachers, but from what I have seen in the public schools, there is a tendency to say enough of the right things to ease a parent’s initial fears, but hold back from saying the things that perhaps need to be said.

When you get diagnosed with depression and anxiety, some OCD thrown in for fun, and the whopper of “adult ADHD” which is not really a thing because it’s present from birth and oh by the way highly hereditary, you look at your school-aged kids differently. And when you flash back to the times when you were a kindergartner who needed to hit inanimate objects to express anger, and cover up your mistakes to mask fear of failure, you worry about your kid.

And when your kid demonstrates performance anxiety in a preschool classroom of four-year-olds when taking a curriculum-based assessment in a one-to-one setting with her teacher, so that she shuts down and refuses to take several sections of the test, yeah, you worry.

All I want is a roadmap from here. I don’t want an IEP, I don’t want to go to a child therapist, I don’t want to make my child into a nail just because I’m a hammer. I do this for a living. I just want to talk to the teacher.

Instead of a shrug, I get the shop talk, the doublespeak, the backtracking, the inconclusive conclusion. “Is this normal for her age?” The answer is, simply, no. The teacher has moved on. I circle back: “well, I have had anxiety my whole life. Never knew what it was. In kindergarten I would cover up my mistakes while the teacher walked around the room, because I was embarrassed.” I get the non-response, and the subject changes again. We are having two different conversations.

I make eye contact with the CDA, standing in the background, just listening. “Well, I can go back to our home district and ask for a PPT meeting I guess … if I need one.” I get a vigorous nod and a widening of the eyes that says, yes mom, I’m agreeing and demonstrating my understanding of how difficult this is. Please don’t ask me to do anything though, her expression pleads. We chat for a few minutes. I leave.

I am not a hammer, and my child is not a nail. But she’s my DNA walking around. She’s a sensitive, sweet, passionate, emotional kid. She’s smart and shy, and shakes her head when I try to test her decoding skills. I know she can read all the sight words on the page. She looks down and grunts her disapproval of this activity. It’s past her bedtime. I put the book down and turn off the light.

I just want my child to have all the benefits and supports I wasn’t able to access at her age. That is, if she needs them. Perhaps she is just fine and history need not repeat itself. After all, I learned, slowly, to not fear the mistakes, and to channel my anger at the world toward positive action. But it was so hard, and more than ever, I understand why parents who “spoil” their children just want them to be happy and have a good life. Because who wouldn’t want that for their child?

image via wikimedia commons

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