First Day of School: What the Teacher Needs to Know About Your Child
It's back-to-school time, when everything is shiny and fresh: New clothes, new notebooks, new backpacks, new teachers and, for many, new schools. The scrubbed-clean classrooms and empty desks are filled with promise.
To realize all that potential, though, schools need a little help from parents. For children to have their best chance at success, parents must make sure their kids' teachers and school administrators have all the information they need to give each student the best instruction possible.
"We have a partnership with parents and that partnership is to make sure that their children can be as successful in school as possible," Barbara Chester, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, tells ParentDish. "We need, as principals and teachers, the most accurate information we can get so we can best work together with the parents for their child's success."
Teachers and administrators say there are three key areas in which they'd like parents to be as transparent as possible: Issues of health, family dynamics and learning challenges. A good general guideline is that if something is likely to affect your child's ability to learn or participate socially, pass it along.
Family: At the preschool level, schools need to know a lot about their students, and the bulk of the sharing of information should happen before the child ever enters the classroom. Many schools ask parents to fill out questionnaires, while others make home visits. Treat these as opportunities to convey information seriously; while the questions may sometimes seem irrelevant, the more information your child's teacher has, the more comfortable he or she can make him in school.
Key pieces of information for the school include:
- How your family approaches discipline
- What your child's interests are
- What she likes and dislikes
- What she's afraid of
- What her strengths are
- What you'd like to see her learn or improve
Then there are the personal matters. If you're divorced from the child's other parent, the school should know, even if the separation wasn't recent. Inform the school about any custody-sharing arrangements. If you're a same-sex couple, the school ought to know, Pizzolongo advises. Adoption is a judgment call, he says.
That changes a bit as the child gets older. If you split up from your spouse when your child was an infant, it doesn't need to be the first thing you tell your kid's third grade teacher. If it's a new development, though, the school should be informed no matter what your child's age.
"We need to know, not because we want to have private information about their world, but that affects the child," Chester says.
But just the fact of separation is enough -- there's no need to share the gory details of why you're getting divorced and what a louse your spouse is, Chester cautions.
Let the teacher know if a close friend or family member dies, even if your child seems OK. Grieving happens in stages for children, too, and kids can feel angry about death and start behaving differently in school.
"Those pieces of information help us understand why that child is acting the way they're acting," Chester says. "It allows us to make modifications, maybe talk to the counselor."
By high school, many kids are able to disclose family problems themselves, but they don't always want to talk about it. What to share becomes a tougher calculation as kids get older, and parents of teenagers can be too involved.
"You have to be careful that you don't err on that side, too," Patti Kinney, associate director for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, tells ParentDish. "You want them to be independent; don't always be hovering."
But there are things that are too difficult for kids to bring up that are important for teachers to know, such as a parent going to jail or a student being the victim of a crime.
"I can think of instances of child molestation where it was in the paper without names," Kinney says.
Schools also should be told if a military parent is being deployed, or any change in family dynamics.
Health: If your preschool-aged child was born premature and has no developmental delays, there's no need to share that with teachers up front -- you can bring it up if it becomes relevant later on, Pizzolongo says. Food allergies? They must be disclosed. HIV status, on the other hand, need not be disclosed. If a child's health issue won't affect his performance in school, you can keep it to yourself -- until it does.
Communication remains important in primary school. Teachers still need to know about food allergies and other health issues. Chester says she once had a student start struggling for breath during gym class; it turned out the family was new and hadn't informed the school that the child had had a heart transplant and wasn't supposed to participate in gym.
That's an extreme case, but teachers and administrators need to be told about any ailments that could manifest, such as epilepsy or diabetes, so that they can look for the warning signs and are prepared to act. At this age, Chester also wants to know if a child was born prematurely, as sometimes learning or developmental problems can crop up in a child who is otherwise healthy.
By the time children reach middle school or high school, mental illnesses may emerge, and schools need to be informed about those, as well.
"I can think of, as a principal, parents coming in to say their child had been diagnosed as bipolar so they were on specific medication," Kinney says.
Similarly, she says she once had a child who was diabetic, and she knew certain behaviors indicated that he needed to check his blood sugar.
Academics: Tell your preschool about any developmental challenges or delays your child may have. If she is receiving services such as speech therapy, occupational therapy or physical therapy, her teachers should be aware of that.
By the time your child is in primary school, most services will be provided by the district, so the school will be participating on some level. If your child goes to a new school, or if she is getting those services privately, tell the teacher. Even better, bring the paperwork with you.
The same applies if your child was getting special classroom assistance or was placed in a special learning environment or behavioral program in a previous school.
"We've had parents move in and they don't give us that information and then suddenly you're having behavioral issues with that kid," Chester says. "Our job isn't to judge; our job is to help kids open up to a world of just fascinating learning and help them be as successful as they can in that."
Students may have been mainstreamed by high school, but teachers still want to know about social and emotional conditions such as Asperger's syndrome or any autism.
"It's going to impact how that student interacts with other students," Kinney says.
Disclosing academic challenges your child may have is particularly important in early primary school when the stakes are quite high.
"We know if kids aren't reading fluently and comprehending by the time they get to third grade, they will struggle forever," Chester tells ParentDish. "You work on putting interventions from an academic standpoint in as early as possible."
Related: Make the Most of Parent-Teacher Conferences
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.