Parent-Teacher Conferences: Hearing News about Difficult Behaviors

Like many of you, I anxiously await my son’s parent-teacher conference on Wednesday, and I purposely chose the word anxiously versus eagerly.

Seth can be as delicious and intoxicating as a bowl of Lucky Charms for dinner, but like many 4-year-old boys, he can also overwhelm like a hyperactive fire alarm. How will Seth’s teachers perceive him? How will I receive their perceptions?

As a psychologist trained to embrace incoming information, I worry that I will reject his teachers’ comments like an expired credit card. Below are my ideas for how I can best stamp “accepted” on their feedback, rather than “denied.”

1. Remember that Seth’s teachers care about him.

Early childhood educators endure the free-flowing bodily fluids, meager salary, and back-breaking physicality inherent in their role because they care about children.

Whatever worrisome news I hear stems from a concern about how Seth’s behavior impacts his academic, emotional, and social health. When Seth tells Jason that his rocket garage is “more better” than his, Jason resists building with him in the future. When he refuses to write his name on the daily newsletter, he heightens his anxiety of performing imperfectly.

To ease my fear that perhaps his teachers simply do not like him, I can ask about his strengths and will hopefully hear how he is an enthusiastic caterpillar in music class and how he takes great care in straightening the carpet squares as carpet captain.

2. Ask Seth’s teachers for specific examples.

I know from my work with couples that any judgments including the words always, never, lazy, obstinate, stupid, mean or humorless, instantaneously provoke dismissal.

Though I do not expect Seth’s teachers to use such absolute wording (or else we have more to worry about than simply Seth’s behavior), I do not want to hear conclusions, labels or diagnoses. I want to hear exactly what they see that concerns them; i.e., what behaviors cause worry?

Likely I will hear that Seth responds to corrections by snorting “how rude!” or justifies his jumping on another child’s head by describing how the other child hurt his feelings. These behaviors are disheartening, for sure, but not as overwhelming or paralyzing as the pronouncement that Seth is a “problem child.”

3. Plan the next steps for Seth.

I want to leave the parent-teacher conference with feelings of reassurance and hope, so hearing how Seth pursues doggie play with the intensity of a pit bull cannot be the finale. Teachers need to detail their recommended strategies, such as giving Seth the choice to return the other child’s toy himself or have the teacher “help” him to return the toy.

Seth considers himself a big boy and does not welcome “help.” Further suggestions may include tweaking home operations or consulting a specialist, such as a child psychologist or social worker. Luckily, I have great referrals!

I think Seth’s role in my life—in addition to reminding me that each child is unique and each child requires creativity, empathy and persistence (regardless if only dribbles of these remain)—is to create for me the experience of parenting a perfectly imperfect child. His parent-teacher conference will challenge me to reconcile the existence of his behavioral difficulties with his whole as a loveable child. Yet with the guidance of his teachers—the messengers and my teammates—I anticipate achieving exactly that.

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