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The single best way to help your kid succeed at school
It's all about communication
 
Checking in with your child's teacher makes a big difference.
Checking in with your child's teacher makes a big difference. (iStock)

The school year is about to begin for just about every school and district in the country. Are you a prepared parent?

I'm not referring just to an ample supply of juice boxes and the right iPad cover for your second-grader. Education has been undergoing a sort of revolution of late, and this school year is going to see some tremendous changes for many schools, including (for many) the introduction of new technologies and implementation of the much-vaunted — and sometimes reviled — Common Core Standards.

How can parents best help their child succeed in this changing educational landscape? I asked educators in both public and independent schools from across the country to offer their advice. Their responses were varied and interesting, but to a one, they all had the same suggestion at the top of their lists: Communicate.

"Reach out to your child's teachers early in the year via email or phone," says high school history teacher and department chair Suzanne Acord, who boasts 17 years of experience, both in the U.S and abroad. "Often, parents contact teachers only during a crisis. Early and consistent communication can often prevent crises from ever taking place."

Teachers from prekindergarten through high school agree. Far from being an intrusion, parent outreach is a welcome source of information that gives your children's teachers important insight. Is your child an introvert? Her teacher will appreciate being able to approach her in a way she won't find overwhelming. The same goes for any personality traits, learning differences, or family circumstances such as a divorce or death in the family that, while not immediately obvious, will definitely affect the way your child learns in the classroom.

"If you disclose important information up front, it helps me design a learning program for your student that will be successful," says an elementary school teacher from Massachusetts who asked to go unnamed because of her district's public relations policies. "I am always available to listen to concerns and find ways that we can work together, and I expect the same in return."

This underscores another important point. Teachers need the communication to run both ways. When they send emails or leave phone messages, you should respond as quickly as you can.

"When teachers reach out, they are attempting to keep you in the loop to ensure your child's success," says Acord. It also helps to stay positive, even if the conversation is a difficult one. Most teachers emphasized the fact that parents must understand that good teachers have good intentions and want your child to succeed as much as you do.

But what about the not-so-good teachers? The teaching profession, like any other, has its share of mediocre and even bad apples, and your child might occasionally find himself in a classroom with someone who just doesn't seem to be working well with him.

Once again, communication is key. But don't just go straight to the principal or dean with complaints. Do your best to address concerns with the teacher himself; often, issues are the result of misunderstanding or miscommunication among students, parents, and their teachers. Education is a complex process, and sometimes a lesson or project that seems irrational actually has a purpose.

"Respectfully express an expectation for at least as much work on the teacher's part planning as the students are investing in execution of an assignment or project," suggests Charles Sachs, a veteran administrator who serves as headmaster of a large private school. Parents can and should serve as advocates for their children — but don't leave those children out of the loop, especially if they are older.

"A child's understanding that the responsibility for education is ultimately his or her own pays huge lifetime benefits," says Sachs.

Involved parents who take the time to ask questions and get clarifications can usually resolve problems in the classroom without needing to take additional steps. If you feel your concerns are not addressed even after speaking with the teacher, then you might consider approaching administration. Just try to keep that communication clear, concise, and reasonable. It's easy to become emotional where your child is concerned, but anger, crying, or sending an email in ALL CAPS is less likely to get you heard than a calm, focused description of a specific problem.

Tempered, reasonable advocacy sets a terrific model for your child to learn how to cope with difficult situations. Sachs recommends going one step further and turning tough times into an opportunity.

"Read Blessing of a Skinned Knee," he suggests, referring to the best-seller by psychologist Wendy Mogel. "Smart families can use the experience to emphasize student initiative and resilience."

This is excellent advice. Resilience, determination, and grit will serve your child well in the real world in which he or she will be living once he or she graduates.

The need for communication also extends to the hot-button issue facing students, parents, and teachers as 2014-2015 begins: the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

"Parents should educate themselves" about CCSS, says California-based national literacy consultant Tina Pelletier. She recommends the CCSS website as a good place to start. "You can also go to your child's teachers and say something along these lines: 'I know you will be working hard to implement new ideas and concepts in your curriculum this year to get kids ready for new testing processes and skills they need in this millennium. What can I do at home to support you in these efforts? What do you think is going to be the biggest challenge for my child this year? What resources could I seek that can help me understand the new curriculum you will be implementing?'"

Pelletier acknowledges that this may prove challenging for some students and teachers. How can parents help? By being both supportive and positive.

"Some kids may complain that the Common Core math or diving deep into complex texts is too hard," she says. "But a child really grows in self-satisfaction when he or she perseveres through something that is hard. Teachers and parents can together brainstorm strategies to develop perseverance, such as offering an analogy about a new video game. When a child gets a new game, is it hard when they play it? Yes. Do they give up and quit? Generally, no. A child will keep playing and playing until he or she figures it out. Challenge your child to take the same approach to schoolwork."

Pelletier explains, "Parents and teachers need to work together to help the kids navigate all the information that's available to them without getting mired in inaccuracies. The ability to comprehend and think critically will be essential to this generation as it grows to adulthood, as will independence, cultural awareness, and the ability to use technology strategically and capably. The world is bigger and more accessible than it has ever been!"

So help ensure your child's success in this world — and this school year — by partnering with his or her teachers, modeling good communication skills, staying positive, and rewarding hard work.

 
Leslie Turnbull
Leslie Turnbull is a Harvard-educated anthropologist with over 20 years' experience as a development officer and consultant. She cares for three children, two dogs, and one husband. When not sticking her nose into other peoples' business, she enjoys surfing, cooking, and writing (often bad) poetry.

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