Building Parent-Teacher Relationships

by Dr Angel Adams, Dr Patricia Papciak

It’s not what is poured into a student that counts, but what is planted

-Linda Conway-

Image: Photo of green plant shoots

It’s been about a month since school started again after the summer holiday. Your child has changed teachers, or schools, and new ideas have set swirling in their minds. They have reconnected with friends and generally pass the day in a pleasant way that enriches them. For the parents of those kids who are content and settled, this makes life easier for them.

For parents of children with special needs however, life is not so easy. Going back to school is something your child often dreads. Over the summer, your child was cheerful and relaxed, but as soon as school was around the corner, there was crying, tantrums, meltdowns, and even night terrors. You know your children want to enjoy learning new things, but their classes are filled with inconsistent rules and a rigid structure that makes them anxious and unable to take in what the teacher is sharing about the subject matter.

They can’t get past the fear of being taunted in the playground, they can’t enjoy the material because they are afraid of failing the tests, and they are terrified of whole class detentions. For some kids, school makes them feel like they are walking on the edge of a precipice. Kids with ASD often hold it all in/together during the school day, but as soon as they leave school, their parents are confronted with a major melt-down the moment they get into the car or the house. Teachers and other professionals may assume that it is solely a result of poor parenting at home because the behaviours are not witnessed at school, but this is so far from the truth. Often homework is irrelevant, tedious, too much, too difficult, or too competitive leaving the child and parents with less free time and a lot more battles. Dealing with all these issues and an unhappy child on a daily basis is worrisome, time consuming and stressful for the whole family.

Many parents complain that although their child is very bright and able to explore all kinds of material, when it comes to school, there is nothing but misery and disaster. Students must follow all rules or be punished or permanently excluded. This makes school threatening and less interesting, not only for the kids who are already anxiety stricken about failing, but also for the students who are biting at the bit to learn new things so their minds can be more creatively stimulated. There seems to be so much focus on students needing to pass standardised tests, making the league tables look good, that the schools have eliminated many elective classes in order to emphasise the importance of maths and language arts. All this takes the joy of learning out of students because every child has his/her own learning style as well as unique strengths and talents. It seems that educational approaches today do not prepare kids for the 21st Century.

For kids who fidget, can’t sit still, call out answers before they forget, and are bored out of their minds, the classroom is a nightmare for them, and they are often a nightmare to the teacher. If teachers do not understand how extremely difficult it is for children to regulate their impulses, (due to the different neuro-circuitry in the brain, not because they purposely misbehave) they will continue to discipline them with reprimands, criticisms, corrections, and impossible commands. “Don’t touch that”, “Pay attention”, “Stop fiddling”, “Sit down”, “Sit still”. Deficits in sustained attention and impulse control in these pupils are often reflected in either a public display of the most negative points on the board (e.g. red cards) or the least amount of positive points (e.g. smiley faces) earned for good behaviour. Frequently, this child is the only pupil in the classroom who has not earned any rewards at all!

Teachers try hard to exert control over the pupil’s off-task and disruptive behaviours, but all that unfavourable verbal feedback in the classroom culminates into peer rejection and the child develops a negative reputation. Many children with ADHD internalise all the hostile and confrontational exchanges and as their self-esteem plummets, they react by defending themselves with angry, oppositional, and non-compliant behaviours. For adolescent students, they may even gain kudos in their defiant behaviour, and this feels better then shame. The impairment associated with ADHD can tragically lead to lifelong academic and relationship failures.

Parent-Teacher Partnerships

According to the research a positive parent-teacher relationship helps a child feel good about school and become more successful in school. Before problems begin, parents need to make contact with the teacher. Introduce yourself. Write a note to tell the teacher about your child’s diagnosis and bring a brief bit of literature to read if they are not familiar with teaching kids with neurodevelopmental disorders. Share if there is a particular skill or subject that is troublesome for your child. For kids with ASD, this is a good document to introduce your child to his/her teacher.

It’s crucial for parents to be involved in their children’s education, and recent studies show that children do better academically and socially when this occurs. Furthermore, parents who receive frequent and positive messages from teachers are more likely to be involved in their children’s education. We often hear how many parents will not go near the school because they have received so much negative feedback from the teachers and the Head Teacher. Even parents give them nasty looks. It makes them feel ashamed and helpless to change.

On the other side of the coin, teachers are more likely to take more interest in their students when they feel supported by parents. Even though a parent may feel hurt, scared and incensed about their child’s injustices, a barrage of angry communication towards the teacher only creates alienation. Some parents walk into a meeting with so much pent up anger that they are like a time bomb ready to go off. They need to write down a list of their concerns but also a list of ideas they can brainstorm with the teacher to find solutions to the problems. Invite a level-headed professional or advocate with you to the meeting to keep things in perspective and on track.

Trust needs to develop, thus by all means do not talk negatively about the teacher or school in front of your child. Think about what damage that can cause for your child who is with the teacher in the school for a good portion of the day 5 days a week. How can your child be receptive to learning if you don’t respect his teacher, and how can a teacher feel motivated to teach a child if he feels the parents have no respect for him/her? If a teacher is really struggling with controlling the behaviour in a classroom, he/she needs to be supported by their fellow teachers and by the Head teacher! The goal is to work collaboratively with parents and with school to get these problems sorted for all concerned.

Both parents and teachers really need to listen to one another and take a no-blame approach, and strive to improve the best fit between the child’s characteristics and the environments at school and at home. A behavioural or ASD consultant, EP, or clinician with expertise in behaviour modification for ADHD can help mediate these problems by providing information regarding the nature of these two conditions and establish effective behaviour management programmes within that teacher’s classroom. If there are problems that just can’t seem to be resolved, then seek a higher authority such as a counsellor, school governor, parent partnership, or an administrator. The last resort is to plan thoughtfully to remove your child from the school, and when there is the right match between a school and your child, it can make all the difference in the world.

Parent-Teacher Communication

As a parent it is important to share with your child’s teacher any positive feedback, such as interesting lessons or school trips that your child has shared with you. Equally, a thank you note or email to the teacher describing any special efforts that the teacher has made on your child’s behalf is helpful. Since children with ASD and/or ADD have difficulty understanding different rules for different places, parents and teachers benefit from working together to develop a consistent set of rules and a similar management system. When teachers and parents communicate with each other about the child, they increase the likelihood that the student will be able to learn more effectively. Parents need to use positive reinforcement liberally along side their teachers.

The bottom line is that parents and teachers need to communicate. Use email, phone, write notes and have Home-School communication books. Although both teachers and parents are the busiest people on earth, they must make time for one another at conferences, sports day, games, via mobiles or texts, before and after school. They need to see each other as allies, not enemies. In addition, parents need to keep the teacher informed if there are difficulties at home which the whole family may be struggling with (e.g. A sibling’s illness, a difficult divorce, the death of a beloved pet). Good news is also important to share, thus, a home-school communication book is invaluable. Both teachers and parents need to share about the positive, not just the negative! Teachers need to be advocates for their students, so parents feel heard.

Image: A butterfly

Parents can be Teachers

With the current financial climate, parents have to spend more time working and being away from home, resulting in the stressful juggling of demands from their families and their jobs. Parents have to remember it is more important to have the quality time, than the quantity of time (even though both would be the ideal)! Although it might seem like a plan that has catastrophic effects, we encourage you to keep trying to include your child in the every day events that you may do on your own such as cooking, chores, reading, playing games, and watching educational TV programmes and or DVDs together. When things go wrong, don’t get into reprimanding, just thank your child for doing as much as they could and transition gracefully into a new activity at that point.

Allow your child, to the extent that you can, to create his/her own environment in his room, in a corner of the house, in the garden, wherever possible. This will help him to feel that his ideas are respected, and it will help him to feel comfortable in the same way we nest in our homes to make ourselves feel comfortable. A little camping tent in the living room can be peaceful place for the child to find refuge in.

We believe that the best thing you can do for your child is to expose them to a variety of events, ideas and healthy stimuli so that they can make decisions about what they are interested in for their futures based on these experiences. This does not necessarily involve time and money. Some children are open to all kinds of new experiences, in the same way they are open to whatever school has to offer, but some kids resist the kind of change involved in a new experience. This is where it is necessary for you as a parent to persist. You must insist that your child make an attempt at each new experience. If they are gravely unhappy for whatever reasons, it is important to continue to attempt new things until you find a common ground.

Many children like outdoor experiences. You can take them on interesting walks, camping trips, hiking trips, fishing trips, etc. If your child resists walking, you can have destination walks where you end up somewhere that your child might enjoy such as a place to eat, a place to play, a place to see something he’s never seen before. If a parent gets a negative reaction from their a child about a suggested destination, the parent can always suggest that the child bring a book that he likes in case he finds that he is irritated or has to wait through something he doesn’t enjoy. If possible, suggest that the child bring a friend to make the experience more fun. Invite another parent who can support you in these outings, take some responsibility for sharing the activities and thus lessen the pressure you might feel to educate your child.

Pets are always useful. Children relate to animals. Even a turtle that a child can observe and learn to feed can enhance a child’s spirit.

Image: A photo of two tortoises eating lunch

A Lunch date: Photo by Brendan Papciak

For young children there is a wonderful children’s version of National Geographic that has beautiful animal pictures and information about exotic animals. It’s further fun for a child because it comes once a month in the post, always making that day special.

Children should be exposed to different kinds of music, different theatre presentations, different foods, different the forms of classes. They may like sport leagues, dance classes or creative classes where they work with their hands. This contributes to self-esteem building and helps them to discover where their true interests lie. They also help with the socialisation process. A few trips to the library every month is excellent so that your child is surrounded by books that interest him. Select some books that present the child’s current curriculum in a different light. After your child has chosen her books, pick out a couple of extra ones and leave them lying around as your child may become curious and even fascinated with new ideas. Read with your children and let them see you and older children read. When adult family members read to their children or listen to them read on a regular basis, achievement improves. Get a library card and help them find books to suit their interests and hobbies.

Moving children out of their environment so that they experience different kinds of things will help them at school. They will feel more successful because they already know something about many different things. Teach your child that whereas school might present them with a basic education, it is your responsibility as a parent and your child’s responsibility as a developing human being to enhance this education process.

It is crucial to reduce a child’s screen time and open them up to social interaction as much as possible. Make sure that no computers or TVs are used at least one hour before bedtime. These fast changing over-stimulating images seem to have a negative effect on a child’s brain later in the evening, making it more difficult for children to get to sleep. Instead of feeling relaxed and winding down by allowing their body’s natural melatonin to kick in, they are become hyped up and in high gear. See our article Are You Good At Counting Sheep? to read more about helping your child to sleep. Reading is far better for the brain’s neurons at night-time then computer games or TV.

Teachers as Facilitators

A recent article by Leo Babauta states “ Schools fail not because they don’t impart knowledge or skills, but because they kill curiosity, smother excitement for learning, club down with a furious brutality our desires to be independent, to think for ourselves, to learn about things that actually interest us”. Many schools need more:

  1. Education for teachers about neurodevelopmental disorders to make them aware of the nature, course, outcome, and causes of ASD and ADHD, so there are less misperceptions and stereotypes about appropriate intervention.
  2. Training for their teachers in the application of evidence based classroom behaviour and learning strategies to help pupils with adhd dyslexia, and/or ASD in the classroom.
  3. Strengths’ based approaches to children’s learning problems and diagnosis.
  4. Classrooms rich in dialogue.
  5. Social skills groups run by trained facilitators.
  6. More classroom buddies.
  7. Abundant literacy activities with the appropriate provisions for kids with reading disorders/dyslexia.
  8. Hands-on multi-sensory activities.
  9. More time out of the classroom for extended projects in the real world such as trips to the museums and exposure to different ethic and cultural history and events.
  10. More problem solving tasks that interest that particular child’s passions, and encouragement to figure out how to solve them.
  11. Less homework and homework that is interesting to the child so they are motivated to want to revise, research, and read.
  12. Less memorisation and spitting it out on tests and more self-directed fun and creative learning.
  13. Classrooms that have no chairs. Topics taught on the move, walking through the parks.

In today’s fast moving world, where the future is uncertain in terms of employment and the kinds of jobs that will be available, we wholeheartedly encourage parents and teachers to support their child’s/student’s unique interests to the best of your ability because the more knowledge children are introduced to from an early age, the better prepared they will be to pursue their dreams and goals.


Thanks for taking the time to read this Monday’s Motivational article.

Please feel free to send me any comments or your own stories you wish to share, or post them on this site by leaving a new comment below.

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