Parents and teachers should talk about the life-events that impact students

When it comes to talking about the major events that impact a child’s life, parents and teachers sometimes fail. And that lack of communication could hinder a student’s success.

Bestselling authors Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield say teachers don’t feel like they get told about major changes at home that can impact how a student acts at school. Parents counter that teachers don’t tell them about things that happen at school, including suspected drug use, anxiety and poor behavior.

Wednesday, Grenny’s and Maxfield’s company, VitalSmarts, issued a report, “Silence at School,” that identifies five life-event areas where failure to communicate can damage a child’s ability to learn: a death in the family, a major illness, a divorce or another family disruption, mood changes and possible drug use.

“I think it’s symbolic of a bigger breakdown, an understanding of how important teachers are in our children’s lives,” said Maxfield, vice president of research at VitalSmarts, a consulting business perhaps best known for the best-selling book “Crucial Conversations” and the related popular professional training program by that name.

Challenges “bleed over” between home and school, he noted.

Say something

In a survey, they found that 93 percent of teachers want to know about a major illness or accident in the family, but only 21 percent of parents actually share such information. Similarly, just over a fourth of parents tell a teacher about a death in the family, although nine in 10 teachers believe it’s important they know. About the same share of teachers say they should know about a child’s depression or mood change, but only 27 percent of parents share that information.

It cuts both ways. When a teacher suspected a child was using drugs, only 27 percent of parents said they were told. And just over half of parents of a child who was depressed, anxious or had a mood disorder heard from the teacher when the teacher suspected it, the research found.

Teachers did somewhat better when they detected a cognitive issue like dyslexia or attention deficit, with 65 percent contacting a parent. They did better still when it came to student absence, with 68 percent of educators making that call to a student’s home.

There’s a lack of trust between teachers and parents that needs to be overcome, Maxfield said. “If we can’t build a relationship with them and trust them, then we create failure,” he said. “It’s our fault children fail if we can’t share information we all agree (the other) needs to have. It is shocking to think that when parents get divorced over the summer, less than a quarter would bother to tell a child’s teacher.”

In the work world, it’s pretty well accepted that life-changing events impact performance. Maxfield said death of a spouse or divorce lead the reasons performance drops in the workplace.

Meanwhile, the impact on children can be as dramatic, but it often goes unaddressed.

The researchers offered several examples, like the fifth grader whose mom sent him to school after the family had been awakened by a SWAT team and the father arrested. The child had behavior issues at school, but the teacher didn’t learn a possible reason until the story of the arrest made the evening news.

A teacher’s touch

Sharlene Habermeyer has seen the impact of life events on even older students in her role as a college-level science teacher in Torrence, California. She’s seen the impact on young children in her role as a mother.

In the mid-1980s, shortly before her fourth son’s expected birth, she and her husband learned the baby’s brain had not formed properly and he could not live. She told her children in terms they could understand that they would not be getting a new little brother.

She didn’t tell teachers right away, and that turned out to be a mistake. She had confided in a friend who was not very discreet and soon hurtful, inaccurate information was being passed by one of her son’s peers at school.

“It got onto the playground in an ugly way and upset my son. It got back to the teacher in that way. I should have alerted the teacher. I went in and explained that the entire class knew an inaccurate, sordid story,” said Habermeyer, who recently moved to Layton, Utah. “She was great.”

The grade-school teacher talked to the child who was passing rumors. She told all the kids Habermeyer’s son needed extra kindness. And she gave him that herself, Habermeyer said, which made a difference.

Joan Bigelow, principal at Jefferson Elementary School in Boise, Idaho, thinks communication is essential for parents and teachers. “I think we are educating human beings, so besides reading, writing and math, there’s a whole other component to education, where you educate the heart,” she said.

Bigelow said personal events affect how well kids learn. She knows a lot about the struggles some families in her school community face. And some she never finds out about, or learns about accidentally. She’s seen how problems and worries play out in the classroom.

“I think sometimes kids can come to school angry, so there may be fighting,” Bigelow said. “Or they may not be focused on what’s happening in the classroom because they’re worried about what’s happening at home.”

Often, teachers learn of a distressing event in a child’s life from that child who is “open and honest,” Bigelow said. Such trust tends to build up over the school year as the teacher and child see each other every day, she said.

Besides having some resources that may help a family, including access to a social worker or a counselor, teachers can help the child directly in other ways, like being more attentive or encouraging. “It can be subtle, but intervene for a kid,” she said.

Fix it

Grenny and Maxfield offer a number of tips for both parents and teachers to bridge the gap. They say parents should update teachers on changes that might be relevant to school life, including death, a parent’s arrest, even a significant change in a child’s social status or friendships.

It’s important, Maxfield told the Deseret News, that parents know how to reach a teacher and that teachers know how to reach parents by phone or email.

The researchers also tell parents not to wait for teachers to spot concerns on their own, but to raise them if they’re relevant.

“The word would be ‘over-communicate,'” said Maxfield, “rather than ‘assume.'” While a teacher can’t save the failing marriage of a student’s parents, “there’s a lot a teacher can do to help the child through the day.”

He noted that parents sometimes treat teachers like they’d treat a plumber, someone with whom they have a “transaction.” The goal should be a “relationship,” given how teachers can impact a child’s life, he said.

Jennifer Watkins, a fourth grade teacher at Deerfield Elementary in Cedar Hills, Utah, can’t recall any big event that a parent didn’t tell her. She said she makes sure parents know how to reach her and that they’re welcome to do that.

“If parents feel open to come talk to you, they’ll come,” she said.

Grenny and Maxfield found parents don’t share because they don’t have a relationship with the teacher, they’re worried about privacy or embarrassment. It can also be inconvenient — Should I text or call? And when?

The final reason they cite is a sense of hopelessness: What’s a teacher going to do anyway? But teachers can and do reach out to help children, Maxfield said.

Advice for teachers includes being approachable and inviting parents to share critical information. Parents can be asked to fill out a family survey, for instance, that encourages them to share information regarding student and family. Parents can also be invited to other events besides report-card conference.

Parents and teachers are also more likely to communicate if a teacher regularly shares bits of information like praise or updates. Teachers, they note, should “always keep an open mind about family situations and intentions.”

“We can never over-communicate with each other,” said Bigelow. “Sometimes, I think on both ends, people have misconceptions … but both of us want what’s best for the kid. Teachers want it in a different way, but they want that, too.”

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