hello excuse me, can you tell me where I am? (introducing yourself or your child)
It’s the start of the school year, and we’re all agonizing over it… how to introduce our kids (or ourselves!) to the new teachers, professors, administrators, supervisors, managers, you name it. And it feels deeply uncomfortable at some level… we don’t really know where we stand and already we’re trying to change something about it.
I have the same problem. I have been staring at the “Parent/Guardian Information Sheet” for my younger child, Laughing Boy, for six days now, and I know I really need to finish filling out the part where his teacher asks what my “hopes and dreams” are for my child this year in first grade. Last year I felt like we successfully pulled off “Operation Do No Harm” with half-day kindergarten, but this year is for real. Laughing Boy is a great kid with tons of little boy energy and little boy sweetness (if I do say so myself), but I’m worried about whether he’ll be understood, challenged, mislabeled, ignored, suppressed, or something else. I’m guardedly optimistic (the teacher has three male children of her own, plus a dog, and a good reputation from older sister Little Bird’s male friends’ parents), but it’s just hard for me to answer, “What are your hopes and dreams?” with something other than, “I hope the dream doesn’t turn into a nightmare!”
And I’m lucky — my kids aren’t markedly twice-exceptional, just gifted and intense. When there’s some actual, “Um, I really need you to know about this,” aspect to the situation, as with many of the folks I work with (and even with myself as an employee or supervisee!), it’s even trickier. “Maybe if I say something, then it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy — perhaps I should just say nothing and hope the teacher doesn’t notice, maybe the kid will be okay this year.” “Maybe they’ll think I’m one of Those Moms.” “Maybe I should give them a few weeks to get to know each other before trying to have ‘the Talk.'” But of course, that trick never works. Some time soon, usually before Thanksgiving, but the longer it takes the worse you know it’s going to be, they call you, and then you know it’s going to be bad. By that point, they’ll have already noticed, they’ll have already been suffering in silence thinking that you didn’t think there was a problem or that you’re going to freak out or get them in trouble with their boss if they don’t handle you correctly, and building in up in their minds just as much as you’ve been building it up in yours. We all do this.
Okay, enough denial. So what do we say and when and how?
“When” is easy. Not at Back to School Night — teachers are very stressed out and trying to manage all of the logistics. The only thing you want to do there is introduce yourself warmly (so they know you showed up!) and say something positive. If what you need to talk about is something that can wait a few weeks, you can let it wait a few weeks and see what they do. If it’s something that’s going to need immediate understanding, then I would advise asking the teacher when you could have “just a few minutes, nothing formal, I just wanted to tip you off about some stuff before we get too far into the school year.”
Now on to “what and how.” Here’s a basic outline of a proactive introduction to someone’s, er, quirks. Replace quirk descriptions to fit your situation. (I’m going to alternate genders, sorry all you English teachers.)
0. Fredwina is really excited about RitzySchool, and so are you. You want to make sure that this is going to be a positive experience for her. In the past, she has had some problems, and you want to make sure we’re all on the same page so that there are no misunderstandings, so that we can all work together, and so that we can head off any issues before they get big. (Hear all that nice friendly collaborative language?)
1. When he does the stuff he’s been doing that has been creating problems in other situations… Give a couple of short examples, such as, “She wants to make friends with other kids but isn’t sure how to approach them, so sometimes in the past she has gotten too much in their faces,” or, “He’s really excited about learning something new and gets so into it that he forgets that he needs to let other people talk,” or, “She has a lot of ideas but struggles to get them out in writing and really gets stuck on classwork or homework,” or, “He has finished his work and his hands are so eager to be busy that he tends to stick peas up his nose,” or whatever. Frame them positively in terms of what the child’s motivation typically is, and realistically in terms of what the behavior is. The goal here is not to give the worst-case scenarios, but to give the person some sense of what they might observe and misinterpret and to let them know that you’re not in denial.
2. … it’s not because he’s a bad or wilful or nasty or lazy or dumb kid. Neither is it because you’re a rotten or clueless parent.
3. She’s doing those things because she is well-intentioned, but really does struggle, really is confused, really does have a hard time remembering what the rules are, etc.
3a. If the kid has a diagnosed or strongly suspected disability, say so. Most professionals (especially in schools, perhaps less so in camps and various paracurriculars) will have heard of many of the major players (Asperger’s, ADHD, anxiety, etc) that are often in the news. I know, you worry about the label. But without the label, the kid gets different labels — “obnoxious,” “willful,” “disrespectful,” and worse. Remember that helping professionals tend to do best when we evoke their compassion and their desire to be good at helping.
3b. If the kid presents differently from the way most kids with that label present, say so, in a way that respects the teacher’s experience. “A lot of times, people don’t realize what’s going on because he has put a lot of work into learning how to compensate. But it’s still very much a work-in-progress for him.”
3c. If the “disability” is that the kid is gifted and you’re concerned that she may be frustrated (never say “bored” — it tends to be viewed as if you’d said, “I think you’re a rotten teacher with a stupid curriculum”), it’s a bit tricky. I don’t think it’s productive to frame high intelligence as a disability, unless you happen to be in a public school in one of the few states that treats giftedness as part of the larger special education umbrella. This conversation is not one in which political theory is appropriate. But you can say things like, “He is a curious and eager learner, and it’s sometimes hard for him to manage his frustration when he’s not able to feed that.”
3d. If you aren’t comfortable with your own ability to explain the issues, try bringing one, maybe two at the most, short articles written for a general audience. But my experience has been that this is not the moment to give them paperwork, much less homework. Your goal is to establish a relationship with this helping professional. (If people have particular articles they like, feel free to suggest them in comments below… I will put up a few I have suggested in the past to clients with various issues.)
4. He is bright and highly motivated. When he isn’t sure what to do, he tries to do something that makes sense to him — it’s just sometimes the wrong thing. Wry gently-self-deprecating laughter helps a lot here, because you want to communicate that…
5. You are aware of the issues and you have been working on them on an ongoing basis. If you had a formal evaluation done, say so. If there has been any professional intervention, say so. You don’t need to give details, just, “He’s been working with a therapist for the last year or so, and we’ve found it very helpful,” or, “We had a comprehensive evaluation done about two years ago.” (And be prepared to share the report or sign a release to have them chat briefly with the therapist, even if you don’t think they’re going to follow through.) It shows that you’re serious about dealing with the issues you’re talking about and that you’re not expecting the person you’re speaking with to create miracles or to tolerate everything forever. I often find myself saying, “She didn’t get this way overnight, and it’s not going to all be fixed overnight either.”
6. But, of course, all professionals who work with kids this age have seen plenty who aren’t perfect in their ability to avoid nasal pea-stuffage or whatever, and you know that experienced professionals like them probably see lots of other kids who need a little extra guidance to make sure that the day runs smoothly. This should not sound sarcastic and you should not think of it as sarcastic.
7. You absolutely would like to be informed if there are any concerns or bumps in the road. You want to present clear and consistent messages to him about what is okay and what is not okay, and you want to be supportive of the professionals. This is key. You. are. their. partner. You’re not going to get all defensive if they call you and say, “Fredwina had a rough day.” You’re going to talk with them and problem-solve. What you don’t want is something I’ve seen way too many times: “We have been having problems with this all year and now we’re completely fed up, and by the way your child is not welcome back in our school / has failed the entire course / etc.”
8. If there are strategies which are particularly effective or ineffective, share them. In particular, I’ve found that school folk tend to react to most stressful situations by trying to control them, telling the kid what to do in a louder and more directive way and brooking less and less delay before expecting immediate compliance. (Bad combination with most kids I know, especially the gifted kids — they tend to respond to these attacks on their autonomy by trying to, er, reassert their autonomy.) Instead, say what does work: “Recognize that he’s not trying to be oppositional, so if you can remind him gently to stop and think things through, that often works. He responds best to a warm coaching style.” “She sometimes forgets what the rules are, but if you ask her a question that reminds her of the rules, even better if you let her use a cue card we can send in with her, that really helps, and we’ve found that she learns better if we get her to be the one who remembers.”
9. Invite them to preview their own concerns — how they could imagine the issues you described playing out in their own environment, and what approaches they have found helpful in the past in similar situations with similar kids. Validate each other’s concerns and each other’s experience — you know a lot about your kid, but they also know a lot about kids in general and may in fact have quite a lot to bring to the table. If they don’t, let them save face anyhow. Don’t worry about proving anything to them or being right. Your goal is to evoke the helpful problem-solving response and to validate that effort, regardless of how effective you think it’s going to be. They may seem not concerned enough right now — don’t worry about it. If the call in a few weeks is, “Wow, Mom, I thought you were overexaggerating, but you really meant it!” you and the professional can share a laugh and then get on to problem-solving together.
The entire conversation should be no more than five minutes — ten at the absolute maximum — and should be warm and friendly on both sides.
If you get a nasty, intolerant, push-back, maybe-he-shouldn’t-be-here response, which I certainly have seen happen in some instances (but honestly, is much rarer than most of you are probably assuming!), recognize that a professional who cannot tolerate having the above conversation with you in a calm and productive way probably could not tolerate having any conversation about this topic in any calm and productive way. If they cannot cope with that conversation, then chances are good that nothing you or I or anyone else could have done would have improved the situation. And that is not useless — you have now learned something important which you’re going to take into account in your planning.
Do your best, let the professionals do their best, and recognize that none of these relationships will last forever. If some of these experiences are going to be more about helping your kid learn to tolerate people who aren’t themselves very good at their jobs, then fine, that’s still an important learning experience.
And now I’m going to finish filling out that paperwork for Laughing Boy.