By contributor
updated 9/6/2007 6:24:09 AM ET 2007-09-06T10:24:09

When Marianne Peters’ daughter started sixth grade, she was stunned when the girl’s teacher wouldn’t let anyone leave the classroom to use the bathroom.

“I mean, can you imagine thinking it’s better for a student to stay in the room trying to hold it in?” says Peters, a Rockport, Mass., office manager. “I called the guidance counselor and said, ‘I’m going to empower my child to raise her hand and tell the teacher she’s leaving the room to use the bathroom whenever she needs to.’”

That little bit of advocacy worked for Peters and her daughter, even though this was one of the few times that she actually encouraged her child to break a teacher’s rule. The teacher agreed to let students use the bathroom when they asked and, in the end, both Peters and her daughter ended up really liking and respecting him.

As the school year begins, parents like Peters may find themselves needing to help their kids smooth out situations at school. But the trick is to know how to advocate effectively — and without driving yourself and the teacher, not to mention your kid, nuts. A few simple tips can go a long way in helping parents and teachers work together to find solutions.

Rein in your emotions
“Parents get very anxious about their kids’ issues,” says Elissa Gross, a child psychologist in Cresskill, N.J. “They feel a lack of control about what goes on in their kid’s school and that adds to their anxiety, which sometimes makes them unable to communicate effectively.”

That anxiety may come across to teachers as criticism, she says, so parents need to be careful to convey that they’re concerned about their child, not that they're upset with the teacher.

Last year, Chrisi Young’s son suddenly stopped wanting to go to school. The Voorheesville, N.Y., second-grader told his mom he was unhappy because his teacher never smiled and he thought she didn't like him because she'd hung up another child's drawing but not his. “When I met with her, she said my son was ‘pretty intense and never smiled.’” Young says. “Before I could stop myself I said, ‘Gee that's funny because he says that you never smile.’ "

Young was surprised to realize the teacher was equally eager to learn how she could connect with the boy and pointed out that he was the hardest worker she'd ever had. "She took over the situation and said I will absolutely stand by your son and greet him and smile at him and let him know I am very pleased to see him," said Young, adding that the results were "phenomenal." Soon her son was pointing out to her how nice his teacher was.

Gross suggests doing just what Young and the teacher did to clear up the misunderstanding: have a calm conversation, keep your emotions out of the exchange and focus on working together to a find solution.

Peters says she tried to develop relationships with the teachers before any conflicts arise. And if they do, she tries to “say everything I need to say nicely.”

Too much advocating?
These days, parents are more involved than ever in their children’s lives, even inspiring the unflattering name “helicopter parents” due to excessive hovering. But while sometimes it’s necessary for parents to jump in to aid a child, other times it’s best to let them learn to work out conflicts on their own, points out Rick McKenna, a high-school social studies teacher in Wakefield, Mass.

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McKenna discovered one parent was doing her child’s homework. Another blamed him for keeping his child off the honor roll, even though the child hadn’t done her assignments and was disruptive in class. Making excuses for your children, rather than letting them experience realistic consequences for their behavior is one of the top mistakes a parent can make, he says.

This is why when McKenna’s own child felt she deserved a place on the honor roll, he didn’t go to bat for her but encouraged her to work it out on her own.

“My wife and I believe that the best lesson we can teach our children is how to advocate for themselves,” McKenna explains. “My seventh-grader felt she should have received a higher grade from one of her teachers, so we told her to go to the teacher and ask why she had gotten the grade she had. It turned out the teacher had miscalculated and her grade was raised.”

When parents step in before their children try to resolve the situation on their own, they’re not doing their kid any favors, says Gross. McKenna and Gross say teachers see through bad behavior from parents just like they do with their students. Remember, teachers spend their days with kids, so they’ve heard it all before, including brown nosing, bribery, lame lies and other variations on “It’s not my fault.”

Get your kid’s permission
If you do think it’s time to step in, talk with your child first to be sure you know exactly what’s going on, McKenna says. And never take action without getting your child’s permission and letting them know what you’re going to do. Parents can inadvertently make a situation worse for a student, even with the best intentions.

Then, Peters says, it is key to remember that while you know your child better than anyone, you also need to be respectful of the teacher’s knowledge and expertise.

Kids don’t act the same way at home as they do in school, so listen to what the teacher says with an open mind, says Gross. And if something the teacher says doesn’t jive with what you know about your child, talk about it with the teacher.

If you find out your kid is the one causing the problem, you might try taking the extreme tack that one parent did, says Gross. “She told her kid she would come to school and sit next to him to make sure he behaved. That’s enough of a threat to get most kids to stay in line and work out their own problems.”

Donna Raskin is a freelance writer and seventh-grade English teacher at Dwight-Englewood School in Englewood, N.J. She is also the mother of a second-grader.

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