Have you subtly compared your child to others and wondered if your child could be doing better? It happens easily.  Maybe you run into another parent at the store and catch wind that their kid is reading several grade levels ahead.  Maybe you overhear praise for a student who has just excelled at the science fair and is moving on to regional competitions. Maybe a relative has hinted that your child seems behind compared to what you accomplished as a child.  Whatever the source, the question is nagging at you. Is my child behind? 

First, relax. This is a common parenting experience. Keep perspective when you hear about other children and whatever way their “genius” is expressing itself at the moment. While I’m not suggesting that these adults are lying to you, most likely they’re very excited about one specific area that has them bursting with pride. And if you’re feeling badly about how your child compares to theirs, let’s begin to adjust your perspective instead.

Comparing your child to other children you know is not a reliable data set.  So let’s figure out how to better understand where your child is doing just fine, and areas where they can improve.

As a parent, when I have a concern, I try to educate myself on the particular topic or issue at hand.  

How? For starters, stop comparing your child to their friends, the neighbors, and especially yourself. Instead, begin by comparing them to the established state/province educational standards. This means you’ll have to do some digging, make thoughtful observations, and write down what you notice about how your child measures up to the standards. Be balanced about this endeavor and write down both positives you see and the areas of concern.

The American Common Core standards are organized by subject area and also grade. They are accessible here: http://www.corestandards.org

In this process, take time to review prior grade cards or assessments from school.  Do you see progress in areas since these materials were sent home? What about the graded daily work, or any homework you’ve observed them doing in the evenings?

Now that you’ve developed a vague understanding of your child’s abilities, reach out to the teacher to set up a meeting without your child present.  Be specific about the concern you wish to discuss.  Make sure you speak directly (by phone or in person) with their teacher, don’t let it go to an “email” discussion. 

Before the meeting, commit to yourself that you will keep focused on moving your child’s best interests forward. Remind yourself:

1) My goal is to help my child reach their educational or learning goals.

2) I am willing to put in the time required to support  my child outside of school.

3) I will set aside any complaints to remain focused on supporting my child. No matter what.

When you get to the meeting, LISTEN to the teacher. Take notes. Next, ask questions if you sense that you need to go deeper or get clarification.  As Stephen Covey urged, make sure you “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” 

Some sample questions that might help:

– What are the teachers/staff seeing at school? (Note: this is when you’re not around) 

– Does anything need to be addressed to help your child meet educational standards?

– Are there behavioral challenges that could be affecting their grasp of important material?

– What support services (at school or home) do they recommend for your child?

– Should your child be evaluated for disabilities?

Keep in mind that by asking questions you may also learn something you hadn’t realized was an issue. One of the most difficult challenges in a parent-teacher discussion is when you both have concerns, but for totally different reasons. It can be easy to maintain tunnel vision, but don’t fall prey to this temptation.  For example, you might have set up the meeting over concerns about mathematics only to find out that the teacher is noticing some behavioral issues that need to be addressed more urgently. Do your best to trust the teacher on the order in which you prioritize what needs should be tackled first.

Be willing to listen to what the teacher is telling you. Accept that you might not need to worry as much, or that you need to shift your focus. Sometimes it may seem impossible to believe what you’re hearing because you don’t witness the same behaviors at home. But trust us – children really can act differently when they are at school. For better or worse!

If your child’s teacher insists they’re doing fine academically, but you’re still nervous, try asking your student what they like about particular subjects.  

You may find that they actually LOVE a particular subject and want to learn more and could do so through joining subject-based clubs.  Maybe they don’t like anything they’re learning in school at the moment and need a little “jolt” to their current understanding.  In that case, expose them to new (related) material in ways that will be fun. Take advantage of your local library, educational programs (tv/dvd/streaming), nearby museums, or other monthly subscriptions to pique interest.  And if the area where they need more support is around reading, well, you know what I’ll suggest…HOOT Reading!

Now, if you’ve done all this and can’t shake your worries, or if you suspect there might be an undiagnosed disability, you need to take new action. Depending on the laws that govern schools where you live, you have the right to ask the school to do an evaluation.  If you aren’t getting an adequate response from the teacher, describe your concerns about your child’s educational performance to the Principal or Director of Special Education.  Request that the school conduct an evaluation to determine if disabilities may be affecting their academic performance. If you are denied an evaluation, don’t give up.  Instead, get to know more about your rights and next steps by visiting The Center for Parent Information & Resources at https://www.parentcenterhub.org.

About Elizabeth Hawkins Lincoln

Elizabeth is a former elementary school teacher who loves to make learning and fun collide. She earned her Bachelor of Education from the University of Montana (Go Griz!) and her Master of Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education. She taught Gr. 3 and 5, and when she left the classroom, she worked in educational software and online teacher professional development. Elizabeth spends her free time exploring art museums, riding bikes with her family, camping, writing stories, and traveling to new places.

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