Word arrives from school that the parent’s child is in trouble. Maybe it was a minor offense and the student simply faced a trip to the office. But maybe a suspension or expulsion is in the near future, leaving the parents wondering whether they could have done something before the situation became so dire.
Before parents beat themselves up too much though, they should remember that student discipline isn’t always a clear-cut thing, says Renae Azziz, founder and director of Virtuoso Education Consulting (www.virtuosoed.com), which provides professional development training to teachers and school district leaders.
“The reasons students are sent to the office are not always well defined,” says Azziz, a school psychologist. “So-called problem behaviors are often too subjective, which leads to different teachers having different perceptions and definitions of what a problem behavior is.”
The situation can be especially frustrating for the parents of these students. Numerous studies have shown that African-American students are more likely than their white peers to be severely punished for their transgressions.
Cultural misunderstandings between teachers and students often are at the core of those disproportionate punishments, Azziz says. When there is a mismatch between what the teacher sees as acceptable behavior and the student’s view, problems can surface.
Teachers can learn to account for those cultural differences through explicit and ongoing training focused on culture. But there are also steps all parents can take that will go a long way in helping their children understand the school’s expectations, Azziz says.
She offers these tips:
- Educate yourself. Parents should read the school’s discipline handbook and become familiar with the expectations for behavior in their child’s school. That way parents will have a clearer understanding of the rules and can discuss them with the child. Handbooks lay out all kinds of information, such as what constitutes bullying or how unexcused absences affect participation in extracurricular activities. “Knowing and talking about the rules can help you head off problems,” Azziz says.
- Positive reinforcement at home. Parents can set up positive ways to acknowledge their student for doing the right thing at home that connect to the behavior expectations at school. Children usually respond better to positive reinforcement than negative reinforcement, so praise at home for correct behavior can translate into good behavior in the classroom.
- Learn the rules face to face. Early in the school year, parents should meet with their child’s teacher and principal to define and clarify behavior expectations and discuss how you will communicate with each other. Often, email is a good way to communicate with teachers because they can read and respond to the correspondence after class is over for the day. But find out what the teacher prefers. Good communication can help the parent and the teacher work together to make sure behavior expectations are understood and followed.
- Championing the child. A parent should be the child’s advocate. “After all, if you aren’t in your child’s corner, who is?” she asks. But that doesn’t mean taking the attitude: My child is always right. “You will need to be fair and balanced,” Azziz says.