By Kathryn Rea Smith, PH.D.
When my children were small, they depended on me to solve their problems. I had to “act” for them and be their advocate and voice. Now that they are older, I expect them to be “active” in handling some of their problems themselves. For parents, facilitating the journey from dependence to independence requires ongoing assessment of the child’s developmental level and skill. Parents need to determine when children are developmentally ready to take on more responsibility, and then ensure they have the skills to be successful. One important responsibility children need to assume when ready is to be active in talking to teachers on their own.
Children need several skills to be successful at talking to teachers. They must be able to define the problem or issue. They need to feel it is acceptable to ask for help. They require oral and written communication skills. They must realize they may not achieve the outcome they desire and have the skills to cope with disappointing results. The acquisition of these skills over the course of childhood is gradual and cumulative, much like learning math. Just as one does not take on Algebra before mastering the multiplication tables, one does not approach a teacher autonomously to discuss a failing grade before having learned basic social skills, like good manners, and basic communication skills, like making eye contact during conversation.
“The child who learns how to talk directly to a teacher will hopefully become the adult who can speak assertively to an employer about a performance review, promotion, or pay raise.”
In their enthusiasm for promoting independence, parents can make the mistake of assuming their children have the needed skills for a new responsibility when in fact they do not. This misperception can result in a too abrupt transition from dependence to autonomy. Thus, when parents say “I want you to talk to your teacher about your grades” parents should ensure their children know how to approach this task. If not, parents can assist with skill development in several ways. For instance, parents can ask the child for his or her ideas about talking to the teacher, to which parents can offer feedback. If a child feels anxious or intimidated about approaching the teacher, parents can provide support and reassurance. Rehearsing and role-playing an imagined conversation with the teacher can give the child confidence for initiating the actual conversation. Sometimes parents can “grease the skids” by alerting the teacher of the impending conversation.
About one month ago, I received a note from my younger son’s teacher about an issue with his Accelerated Reader (AR) grade. I could tell from the note that the teacher hoped he would address the issue directly with her. I showed him the note and told him I expected him to talk with his teacher about the matter. Since this would be his first time talking to a teacher about a grade by himself, I helped him prepare. He needed an opening line: “I’d like to talk to you about the problem with my AR test grade.” He also needed to consider potential resolutions to the problem and to prepare himself for the possibility of undesirable outcomes. We rehearsed until he was comfortable with the plan. Finally, I sent the teacher an email giving her a heads up that my son would be talking with her the next day. When he came home from school, I asked how it went—it went well–and congratulated him for talking to his teacher on his own. The next time he has a problem with a teacher, he will be ready to handle even more by himself.
Although taking care of children when they are small is often quite gratifying, parenting becomes more rewarding as children grow more active and independent. The child who learns how to talk directly to a teacher will hopefully become the adult who can speak assertively to an employer about a performance review, promotion, or pay raise. Although we will never stop being their parent, we serve our children well when we prepare them to be self-sufficient, efficacious adults.