Teacher Trouble

How to resolve child-teacher conflict.
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"I hate school. My teacher is mean!" At one time or another, nearly every parent of a school-age youngster has heard their child express their displeasure with the entire educational establishment during a frustrating homework session or after a rough day. 

While you may initially brush off their dramatic declarations, what do you do if your child seems to be growing increasingly distressed with school and her teacher? 

Why the Grumbling?

An elementary school child's disdain for her teacher may grow out of a variety of factors, such as adjusting from a beloved former teacher's management style to a new teacher's approach. Other influences on a child's attitude toward his teacher include class size, peer competition, increased homework, more demanding, independent school work, as well as, differences between home and school environments. 

Allow your child time to adjust to his teacher's expectations and rules. If his complaints persist, ask objective questions, like: "How is the work for you? How are you getting along with the other kids?"

"By doing that you can get a flavor of the environment rather than the situation," says Dr. Stephanie Mihalas, a child psychologist and a nationally certified school psychologist, who frequently helps students and parents manage and resolve school conflicts. "You may get an idea that something else is happening that's triggering the 'meanness' and then at that point, you have more information to call or email the teacher."

Connect the Dots

Notice patterns like red marks and notes from the teacher on classwork. If your student struggles and seems afraid to ask questions, discuss appropriate times for her to talk to her teacher about the work and what types of questions she should ask.

A child may grow disenchanted with school and her teacher if she doesn't understand how the subject matter relates to real life. Due to increased pressure to focus on testing and assessments, teachers devote less classroom time for experiential learning opportunities or class projects. That's where a parent can help.

"Engaging in the learning piece is key," says Ashley Norris, assistant dean at University of Phoenix College of Education. 

On the weekends, integrate classwork into your daily errands. For example, if your child is learning about the soil and the climate in science, take him to the Saturday morning farmer's market. Practice multiplication skills to tally up the tip at a restaurant. 

"Parents (then) become a partner with the teacher. Once that engagement starts to happen, the perception of the student-teacher relationship changes," Norris says. 

Signs of Conflict

"The single biggest factor is a change in grades. If grades are starting to slip, that's a huge indicator," Norris says. 

Behavior changes, including disengagement at school, forgetting homework and lack of effort, can also indicate a problem. 

Rather than getting angry or defensive with the teacher, take a calm, diplomatic approach when conferencing with the teacher.

"The last thing you want to do is instigate more conflict between the teacher and your child and if you start to pit sides, that's what ends up happening," Norris says. 

Ask if you can sit in during class one day. "Your presence might change the nature of how your child acts, but it will give you a flavor of how the teacher teaches," Mihalas says. 

Go over a teacher's head only as a last resort. "One of the only times to bring in administration is if your child is covered by special education law and the teacher isn't following special (education) law," Mihalas says. 

Other times you might seek help from administration:

  • The teacher agreed on a set of interventions, but isn't following those strategies.
  • Your child comes home crying every day.
  • You talk with the teacher, but you're unable to resolve the issue.

Personality Clashes

Sometimes a child's personality and a teacher's personality simply clash. Unless the teacher is abusive, help your child understand that she's not always going to like everyone, stressing the importance of remaining respectful and learning how to manage personality differences. 

"In my humble opinion, I don't think it's a good idea to show children that because there's a problem then they need to move from that classroom," Mihalas says. 

Instead teach flexibility by creating a link between friendships and getting along with others. For a younger child, you might say: "Everyone is different. Just as mommy and daddy do things differently, this is how your teacher is. It's really good to learn how to work with all different kinds of people." 

Seek professional help. If interventions at school are unsuccessful, seek help from a child psychologist to rule out learning disabilities and anxiety.