As parents of troubled children, we already know that our child’s disorder or behavior will not work in most classrooms. No one needs to tell us this or explain why our child needs to change in order to learn–we already stay up at night worrying how our child or teen will make it in the world. Most parents have tried everything: we’ve looked for other educational options (which almost never exist or we don’t qualify), we’ve asked or pleaded for help, we’ve read books and scoured the internet for advice… When nothing works, some parents and caregivers just give up and try to muddle through.
When it comes to working with schools, it feels like you can’t win for losing
Those parents who’ve tried everything become deeply frustrated and take it out on school staff. This reaction makes sense when you’ve been there like I have. I probably looked bad at meetings, angry, stressed, anxious, and confused—and that’s how I was treated. I could sense staff assumed I was this way all the time and thus the cause of my child’s disorder.
Those parents who give up don’t show up. They can’t face another school meeting to listen to the litany of their child’s problems, feeling nagged with advice given in a tone of impatience, never getting help, hope, or heard. Not showing up also makes perfect sense. Who wants another downer? It’s best to stay home and conserve precious emotional energy. These parents look apathetic and neglectful at best–I personally know a couple like this. I’ve heard school staff wondering aloud if the parents were using drugs, abusive, or criminally neglectful. They weren’t.
Teachers have the same paradoxical attitudes held by the public at large when it comes to troubled children. They may try to be neutral when they work with parents, but underlying attitudes and feelings still come out:
- We sympathize but you’re still to blame;
- You can change things if you want to, but you don’t really care;
- We know what your child needs, you don’t.
I truly believe teachers care about children and teens which is why they are teachers. Their professional education centers on children’s development and learning, but not on the intricacies and psychology of family relationships or children’s mental health! Their qualifications and license are for giving their students a quality education, not for doing social work with families. Even if teachers recognize that families struggle with their child, there is still a sense that the cause of a student’s lack of achievement “sits squarely on the shoulders of parents” who simply “don’t care.” *
* Taliaferro, JD; DeCuir-Gunby, J; Allen-Eckard, K (2009). ‘I can see parents being reluctant’: Perceptions of parental involvement using child and family teams in schools. Child & Family Social Work, 14, 278-288
> Find out more about this research at the Research and Training Center http://www.rtc.pdx.edu/ – “School Staff Perceptions of Parental Involvement,” August 2009, Issue #164 <
Mixed messages from schools
Teachers and schools give mixed signals to families, on the one hand encouraging parents to work with their child’s teacher, and on the other hand becoming “offended when… parents would take the side of their children or question a teacher’s assessment.” * When it comes to mental health, teachers simply aren’t trained to recognize or diagnose disorders.
Parents with troubled kids in school have additional responsibilities, but their energy and time reserves are the lowest: there are Child and Family Team (CFT) meetings, Individual Education Plan (IEP) meetings, waivers, Releases of Information (ROIs), and many communication attempts to follow through on these.
Teachers need to believe in the ability of parents to contribute to their child’s well being and understand parents’ need for support when children have mental or emotional disorders. And “…schools must change practices so that information can be shared with a socially just approach. Schools must meet families where they are rather than embracing misperceptions and stereotypes…” *
If you are a teacher, parent, or other education advocate, there’s a program available from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to develop understanding and partnership between schools and parents with troubled children. It’s called Parents and Teachers as Allies.
This is an in-service mental health education program designed for teachers, administrators, school health professionals, families, and others in the school community. The curriculum focuses on helping everyone better understand the early warning signs of mental illnesses in children and adolescents and how best to intervene, and how best schools can communicate with families about mental health-related concerns.
The program is also designed to target schools in urban, suburban, rural, and culturally-diverse communities. The toolkit is being developed to be culturally sensitive and will include a Spanish language version.
For more information about this program, please contact: Bianca Ruffin, Program Assistant, Child & Adolescent Action Center, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Phone: 703.516.0698