Friday, October 2, 2009

Behavior Modification (for Parents, Teachers and Students)

I received the following two e-mails from teachers recently:

I'm a 16-year teaching veteran in the Los Angeles USD. The below essay I wrote for Huffington Post describes a recent classroom experience.

The results of this student's off-the-chart behavior was nothing. The administration took no action against a 14 year old who was seriously disturbed and potentially dangerous to himself and others. I spoke with the mom, I met with the mom, she didn't really accept that her son was troubled, though he earned all Fs and ditched almost all of his classes two to three times a week. Most of the time he was stoned and he didn't bathe often. It was apparent. Despite calls home and a conference, the parent never followed up; the student's actions never changed.


I'm a teacher in a wealthy area and we have some doozies for parents (and kids sometimes). In an atmosphere of entitlement and with an administration that is often intimidated by the clientele, our parents often get their way. They have learned that the louder they yell, the more likely it is for the situation to go their way. I have had some successes (and some failures) working with this population and getting them to work with the school/teachers/admin rather than against it.


These stories illustrate two common problems teachers face: (1) demanding parents and (2) uninvolved parents.

While teachers are often frustrated by the behavior of parents, parents are just as frequently distressed by the actions of teachers—which leads to more negative behavior.

Listening Is the Key to Resolving a Parent-Teacher Conflict

I recently spoke with Mary Ann Lowry, a parenting coach, school consultant, and former teacher for twenty-one years ( She advises parents who are displeased with a teacher’s actions to “listen; don’t rush to judgment.” It’s important to consider the teacher’s version of events and explanation.

Lowry advises teachers who are confronting an irate parent to avoid becoming defensive, listen to the parent’s concerns and ask questions. Asking questions prompts the parent to think about whether their demands are rational and to consider other perspectives.

When Lowry was acting as a consultant to a private school in California, she witnessed a child’s parents disparage a teacher and the school in front of the child. “That’s sending the message to the child that, basically, you don’t have to have respect for authority. I don’t think that’s the message parents want to send,” she says.

The parents were upset with the teacher and school administration for suspending their child for hitting a schoolmate and refusing to listen to their child’s explanation. The parents claimed the child was provoked, but the school has a zero tolerance policy for hitting.

Lowry invited the parents into her office to discuss the situation. They wanted to complain about the teacher, but she shifted the discussion to more productive territory by asking questions. She asked the parents if they were certain their perspective of the situation was accurate; they acknowledged they were not. She asked how they would want the school to handle the situation if their child was the one hurt. She asked what they want their child to learn from the experience.

“I always tell parents anytime there’s a discipline issue, we’re imposing a consequence because if there’s not a life lesson involved, we’re not doing our job,” she says. “I advise them to think about: what’s your goal for your child? Do you want them to get an education or learn a theme of anti-authority or authority figures are out to get them.”

The child’s parents understood, and began working with Lowry to develop a behavior management system for their child. The teacher later joined the discussion. “They were calmer and apologized to her,” Lowry said.

Lowry says if a parent continues to be hostile, the teacher should end the conversation. “I’ve had parents start cursing. When they start attacking me verbally, I say, 'Unfortunately, I’m going to have to end this meeting; we’re going to have to meet in front of an administrator because I don’t feel comfortable talking to you.'”

Ask Questions When a Child Misbehaves; Don’t Lecture

Asking questions is also an effective approach with children, Lowry says. “I tell parents to ask questions because the odds of kids processing everything you say in a lecture is pretty nil,” she says. “Every time you ask questions, it’s much more likely to take because by answering the child is actually forming new neural connections, and that’s how learning happens.” The key question that promotes learning is “What could you do differently next time?” she says.

Parents want to protect their children from negative experiences, but facing consequences prepares children for the outside world, Lowry says. Some children “walk away from childhood with the belief that anyone who challenges them is a real jerk.” They grow accustomed to having their parents bail them out of every problem. “Once a child hits a university setting, there’s very little the parent can do,” Lowry says. A child who learns to disrespect authority is also likely to face difficulty maintaining a job.

Lowry urges parents to read the school's student handbook at the beginning of the year and call the school if they have any questions or concerns. “Be acquainted with school’s discipline policy. They are there for the benefit of all children. If schools look the other way, they’re setting themselves up for liability,” she says. “Our first role is doing what’s in the best interest of their child and in the best interest of all the children in the school.”

Develop Innovative Solutions if Parental Support Is Lacking

On the other end of the spectrum, some parents fail to take an active role in their child’s education. Typically, they’re too overwhelmed with other responsibilities.

To encourage support from uninvolved parents, Lowry advises teachers to try to find some contribution the parent can make—however small. “I ask them 'What’s your schedule like? What would be the easiest thing to do at home,' even if it’s just to take a notebook out of the backpack.” She urges teachers to “try to understand rather than blame” parents.

If a student is struggling with a problem, and the parent is clearly unavailable to help, then the teacher has to find another way to handle it. “I’ve started telling teachers, I think we’re going to have to get off the bandwagon of saying it’s the parent’s fault.”

When Lowry was teaching, she struck a deal with a colleague: “If someone was being a clown in my class, they could go sit in her room,” she says. “I’ve had students beg me not to send them into the other class.”

She also offered her class five minutes of free time if they ignored a student who was engaging in distracting behavior. “There’s nothing worse than being in class when no one will engage with you. Pretty soon, the behavior goes away because it’s not working.”

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