Asking your child about his school day often elicits “School’s okay” followed by a hasty exit, especially if it has been difficult for them. Don’t wait until the final school report to know if your child is struggling at school.
Research shows that children do better in school when parents are involved. A wise parent will get on board with the school and present a united front that says to the child, “Your teacher and I are on the same team”.
Modern parents need no longer rely on scouring the bottom of their child’s school bag for a note from the teacher to know what is happening at school. Schools are using increasingly sophisticated and varied means to promote ongoing communication with parents and engage them as partners in their child’s education.
Be an active partner in your child’s education
The Queensland Department of Education advocates an active partnership between parents and their child’s school stating, “As your child’s first teacher and the person who arguably knows your child best, it is important to talk positively and constructively with the school about your child’s needs, interests, goals and progress.”
Start the new school year on a positive note
Establishing contact with your child’s teacher early in the year and maintaining regular open, honest and respectful communication is the key to avoiding the stress that can affect the whole family when a child is struggling to cope in class.
Make early contact with the teacher and set up the best means of ensuring ongoing communication. Most teachers organise a ‘meet and greet’ session for all parents early in the year to share what your child will be learning (subjects, topics, content) and how they will be learning (classroom activities, processes, technologies). Make a follow-up appointment to discuss any individual concerns or to seek further information.
Use the communication channels set up by the school
These may include parent–teacher interviews requested by the school or by you, emails, text messages, telephone calls, newsletters, the school website, the school Facebook page, parent workshops, school assemblies, school diaries or ‘keep in touch’ books that promote everyday communication. In some schools, students now have their own laptop and teachers email homework to the student.
Support your child, his teacher and the school
Indicate to the teacher that you are willing to help in whatever capacity you can; perhaps give a classroom talk on an area of expertise, share skills you have, help with school trips or a school fete, or do something at home.
Work with the teacher to help your child meet expectations
By working with the teacher, you can help ensure your child meets expectations around homework, behaviour, attendance and a positive attitude towards learning, other students and staff. Parents can help a child with organisational and time management skills as well as talking through school matters at home in a constructive, positive way. You will be helping your child to gradually take on more responsibility and function more independently as he progresses through school, while still giving him the support he needs.
Listen to your child on school matters but keep an open mind
Ask questions and encourage your child to suggest possible courses of action. Can he resolve the problem himself? Keep in mind that many day-to-day upsets resolve themselves, however if a problem is serious and ongoing, you may need to contact the teacher to discuss a plan of action. Remember to get both sides of the story before you leap to your child’s defence. Ask, discuss, negotiate and problem solve in a spirit of mutual cooperation.
Planning for success
Parent–school communication was a priority for local parents Nicky and Jay when their son Wallace started at his new school, as Wallace found adapting to change difficult when he was younger. Nicky says that moving interstate to live their dream on the Sunshine Coast was a stressful process in itself but on top of that they had to make an important choice – finding the best school for Wallace, then aged eight and going into grade three.
“My husband and I chose a number of schools to look at, both public and private. We made appointments with the principals to discuss any questions we had. We made it a point to discuss the type of boy Wallace was as I wanted the schools to tell me what they could offer our son when it came to education, sport and general support in not only school matters but any personal issues that may arise. Each child is different, as is each school you look at. We just needed to find the school that best fitted Wallace’s needs.”
Nicky and Jay asked Wallace to help them make the final choice because they felt it was important for him have a say. Fortunately, all were in favour of the same school.
“We went with the private school as it was a lot smaller,” says Nicky. “The school asked a lot of questions about Wallace’s previous years and we had to supply a copy of his school reports as well as letters from previous teachers on Wallace’s attitude and behaviour. Some parents would find this a bit intrusive, but I personally loved the fact that the school took the behaviour of its students very seriously.”
Close communication between school and home helped Wallace enjoy a successful first year.
“I was a full-time working mum so had to rely on emails and phone calls to keep in touch with how Wallace was going at school. I was made aware of excursions, homework and exams that were coming up via email. If the teacher had any concerns she would email me straight away and then follow up with a phone call if I had not responded quickly enough. The communication between us was great.”
Wallace’s school also has a website, which parents can access for school policies, up-to-date news and events, as well as to contact staff. They also use student homework diaries to encourage parent–teacher communication.
Tracking progress as your child moves through primary school
There is a world of difference between being involved, supportive and aware of how your child is faring at school and being the dreaded ‘helicopter parent’, always hovering and not allowing a child to develop as an independent and responsible person.
Lily is in Year 7 at Woombye State School on the Sunshine Coast. Lily’s mother Terry says:
“The way I track Lily’s progress has changed over the years as she’s advanced through primary school. In the early years, I was in the classroom a lot and so had plenty of opportunity to discuss things with the teachers. Helping out in the classroom also meant that I was able to get a really good indication of how she was progressing. I used to attend parade every week, so found out a lot of the general school information, like upcoming events, that way as well as from the newsletters and notes sent home.
“Now that she’s in her final year of primary school I really only go into the school when something special is on, but I still feel that I’m kept in the loop. The school holds a ‘meet and greet’ at the beginning of each year, as well as parent–teacher interviews throughout the year. It’s lucky that the school has a Facebook page and electronic newsletters to keep me informed about upcoming events because the notes often don’t get retrieved from her school bag until it’s too late!
“Apart from formal report cards, which are issued twice a year, I can usually judge how Lily is going at school simply by asking her, or by looking through her homework book at the previous week’s marks. There have been times when I’ve noticed she’s been having trouble with a particular area so I’ve either just worked with her at home or else approached the teacher for some guidance on how I can help.”
How will I know if my child is struggling?
Naplan (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) assesses the skills of all state and non-state school students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 in reading, writing, language conventions (spelling, grammar and punctuation) and numeracy. The tests measure how well your child is performing against national standards.
School reports from your child’s teacher usually arrive in June and December. These are probably more useful to parents as they give a rounded assessment of how your child is performing over a longer period, and not only academically.
The problem with relying on formal assessments alone to gauge how your child is progressing is that by the time you receive them, your child may have been struggling for a long time and the original difficulty made worse by loss of confidence and motivation.
Professor Frank Oberklaid is the Founding Director of the Centre for Community Child Health at The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne and a Professor of Paediatrics at the University of Melbourne. In his April 2014 article Struggling at school, Professor Oberklaid says that up to one in five children struggle at school.
“Sometimes it is the parent who first becomes concerned about academic progress or behaviour at school, or because of the child’s social isolation – for example, not being invited to classmates’ birthday parties. Parents may notice that the child is slower or different when compared with an older sibling at the same age. Often it is the class teacher who has indicated to the parent that the child is struggling and this leads to a visit to the GP. In other instances it is suggested to parents that their child should be assessed.
“The nature of difficulties the child experiences varies greatly. There can be concerns about learning, behaviour, socialisation or a combination of these. The issues may be straightforward; for example, a child of average or above average intelligence might have trouble with reading. On the other hand, a child may present with a complex constellation of difficulties – not keeping up academically, problems focusing and sustaining attention, disruptive classroom behaviour, low self-esteem and poor motivation. School difficulties can be associated with a range of symptoms including headache, recurrent abdominal pain, mood swings and manifestations of anxiety or depression. A small number of children have a chronic medical condition that affects their learning, whereas others have a history of developmental delay and/or challenging behaviour that can be traced back to the toddler years.”
Signs your child may be falling behind
Fruition Tuition Maroochydore owner Viv Ronlund, who previously worked for Education Queensland for 23 years in varied roles including classroom teacher, learning support teacher and school principal, says:
“As a private tuition provider, most of the parents who contact us are concerned that their children are not coping well at school. The overwhelming concern is that their children are lacking in, or have lost confidence with, their academic ability. This may become evident at report card time, but there are also indicators that parents can pick up on much earlier in the school year. If your child often portrays their ability in a poor light, compares themselves negatively to their peers or is reluctant to do their homework (or even attend school in extreme cases), then these self-esteem issues may stem from their inability to grasp vital concepts at school.
“Other indicators that your child is not doing well at school can be more subtle such as not wishing to join in with family activities like board games and in-car games such as I Spy or gradually becoming socially distant from their peers. Not wishing to engage in a subject area that they have always appeared strong in may be another. For example, a child who has a strong understanding of mathematical concepts may be struggling with reading comprehension, which in turn creates difficulty with worded maths problems and turns them off their favourite subject.
“If your child is falling behind due to lack of confidence, then an external tuition program can be of great benefit. Apart from the obvious academic rewards that an individually tailored program can provide, the child is placed into an environment that removes emotional pressures and attachments. Away from the peer judgement of the classroom and the pressure of pleasing their parents, children can attain the success that they have been lacking … and success is the only way to develop confidence! From this success will come the motivation children require to achieve more success, and so the cycle continues. The end result – a more independent, confident and motivated learner, with no tears come homework and report card time.”
Questions to ask the teacher
“How is my child managing socially?”
This is the most important question to ask a teacher before you ask about grades, as slow school achievement is often associated with not fitting in or being bullied. An unhappy, fearful child will not be motivated to learn. If you discover the unpalatable truth that your child is bullying other children, work with the teacher to form an action plan to improve your child’s behaviour.
“What are my child’s strengths and weaknesses, and how can I help?”
Knowing the answer to this question means that you can encourage your child to pursue interests that give satisfaction and success while being alert to opportunities to strengthen any weaknesses.
“Does my child need any extra help beyond the classroom?”
It is not easy for teachers to tell a parent that a child is well below grade level in any area, but you need the full picture in order to help your child.
By Maxine Arthur