10 Tips for A Great Parent-Teacher Partnership

make the most of your parent teacher conference

In a typical school year, I witness the full range of parent-teacher relationships …

from strong, respectful partnerships with regular and excellent communication … to volleys of accusatory emails, bitter meetings, and rehearsal of stinging remarks. And I don’t even work in a school! Families often consult outside mental health providers for support and assistance. But it is extremely difficult to help a struggling student when parent-teacher strains are sky-high. By the time a family meets me, mutual bitterness and hostility may be ingrained on both sides.

My hopeful mind is full of wishes this week as Valley of the Sun kids return to school.

I’m wishing parents can commit to constructive engagement strategies that create resilient, respectful and prosperous parent-teacher relationships.  The suggestions below don’t replace advice from a special education advocate, who may be needed in some situations. But even when serious issues require advocacy, the following ideas may prevent a flame from becoming a blaze along the way.

Below are practices of parents who successfully navigate parent-teacher tensions … and the advice for which I am thanked most often.  By mid year, it can be very hard to implement these suggestions. So, I offer them now.


Thank your child’s teacher. Yes, even in the first days of school. Just thank him or her for playing this important role in your child’s life — and for the work you know they’ll be putting in this  year. Few among us are equipped to handle 25 or more children all day, every day, attending to each. Begin the year by expressing appreciation and gratitude. In essence, pay it forward.


Onotebook-clipart-book_clipart_2ffer to begin a parent/teacher journal. Make your entries in a positive constructive fashion. It may help your teacher very much to know that it took 90 minutes to do two pages of math, and that the 16-year-old cat is ailing and the kids were up late Sunday night with visiting cousins.


Raise concerns in a collaborative fashion. Note what you observe in a non-blaming manner. Assume you may not have all the facts. Ask how you and teacher may problem-solve this issue together. That will take you miles farther than the blame game. Remember too – you never know what a teacher is going through personally.  Last school year alone, teachers of kids in my care persevered in the classroom through breast cancer, miscarriage and family bereavement. Kindness first, kindness first …


colorful heartShare positive, tender, little known things about your child. A child who struggles with learning and behavior in the classroom may not display his or her most endearing qualities to the teacher. Share these little qualities, sayings, and drawings by your child to soften a teacher’s heart if you sense tensions.


Divorced? Communicate with your ex about school. Don’t make the school ground another battlefield. Teachers caught in the cross-fire cannot help their students. Check out creative online solutions like ModernFamilySolutions.com. They offer divorced parents a vehicle for staying in the same page about family schedules and information that’s important to share. I DO know this is easier said than done … but no less essential for your child’s school year and overall adjustment.


question mark2Ask for information rather than accusing.  “Missing factoids” are the difference between war and peace. No matter how furious you feel or how wronged you believe your child to be, approach the situation in a fact-gathering mode. A teacher is just another human… and most humans defend when they feel attacked. Try statements such as “I understand x-y-z happened… I’d like to learn more about what happened so I can help my daughter. What else can you tell me? Can we arrange a mutually convenient time to talk?”


Kindly request positive feedback if a teacher reports predominantly negative things. Be respectfully honest. You can say that problem reports are essential so you can help your child, but that it’s difficult to hear only about troubles. Say that you need to know positive things as well to keep your child encouraged. If you don’t think you can convey this calmly in person, do it in writing.


Car-Clip-art-01Wait til after pick-up time to raise sticky concerns. Complaining to the teacher in front of your child undermines your teacher’s credibility. This is the person you want teach your child tomorrow –with a happy heart –all day long. Respect goes farther than righteousness.  You may be completely in the right … but I have never heard of a productive teacher confrontation in the presence of a young student.


Offer to help in the classroom or contribute however you can.  If you are a working-at-home parent or part-time employee, consider volunteering some classroom hours. If you’re a full-time employee, ask the teacher how you might contribute during non-classroom time.


thank youThank your child’s teacher. Already did that? Do it again. And again. Thank him or her for effort, patience and listening. Even if gratitude is not the number #1 emotion you feel, it’s the most important one to express.


This advice is not so easy to apply mid-year if tensions have flourished for months. Try these tips early on! Intentionally cultivate a collaborative parent-teacher relationship. You and your child may have a much better school year.

What’s Wrong with “Wh” Questions? 5 Things and The 5-Word Fix


Your child is falling apart. Another volcanic meltdown, drowning in a tsunami of tears, siren-like screams. If you knew what specifically was wrong, you’d know what specifically could help. So you resort to the strategy that helps you the most in adult life:  specific questions.

what-why-how2What are you upset about?
What happened?
When did this happen?
Where were you?
Why are you so upset?
How did this happen?

Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?
Wh-wh-wh …

It truly is unfair that the style of inquiry that helps us function in the adult world incapacitates us when trying to help a young child.  Specific questions can even prolong and impede the process, while emotions spiral further out of control like a tornado on the plains.   Why? (oops!)

In 20 years of being a child psychologist, and the years of training before, I learned the cardinal lesson: “Wh” questions shut a child up faster then you can say ice cream sandwich.

 “Wh” questions can be unhelpful, even anti-helpful, because they:
    1. Shut down a child’s own narration and conception of the problem
    2. Block a child’s sharing of the salient details to him
    3. Pigeonhole a child’s thinking into your categories of thought
    4. Build a child’s frustration with us adults
    5. Make a child more upset from the communication gap

May I suggest an alternative ~ my 5-word Fix: “Tell me all about it.” It may sound similar to asking …  but this approach to inquiry is completely different. How so?

Consider the last time your computer displayed a cryptic, terrifying error message before going blank, toying with your life. In consultation with the  IT person, it may be very hard for you to explain the problem.  The IT person might ask you specific “wh” questions, such as: What did the error message say?  What were you doing right before this happened? What gobbledygook thingy is your thingamajig?

But you’re upset and you don’t have computer language. It may be doggone difficult to answer those “wh” questions. You might even grow more frustrated in this process. You might wish the IT person would simply say, “Tell me all about it.”  At that point, you could begin with the language you have to describe the problem at the level you are capable of.

When a child hears “Tell me all about it,”  it feels like “Just give it to me, however it’s going through your head right now, with whatever words you got … and I will just listen.”

“Tell me all about it” also opens up your child to tell you a detail you’d NEVER have asked for.  Because you couldn’t have thought of that.  Because you’re weren’t there … and you’re an adult.

Relying on “wh” questions in a meltdown is like trying to find a specific needle in your child’s haystack.  It’s like asking, repeatedly:   Is this the needle? Is this the needle?  Is THIS the needle? You would get infinitely farther, infinitely faster by just saying “Tell me about this haystack you got here.”

Naturally, you have to ask “wh” questions at some point. Probably several, to get the clarity you need. But starting out with nine “wh” questions will create more problems than progress.  “Tell me all about it” may be the most productive start.

You can add “I’m so sorry you’re so upset.”  When you’re lost, interject, “Help me understand; tell me some more about this, honey.” (Hint:  forget about solving this problem right now; her brain needs empathy too cool the limbic system down.) 

“Wh” questions are like putting your hand on a specific door knob and asking, “Is it this door?” Saying, “Tell me all about it” opens doors you didn’t even know were there.  Try it and you will see.