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Role Reversal Parent Conference

When I was a teacher, I had countless parent conferences.

Some were a breath of fresh air, as in “your child is excelling in the course material and I’d like to discuss enrichment options so your child remains challenged” or “your child is devoted to ensuring classmates understand the material” (meaning productive socializing, which I encouraged if it resulted in increased understanding amongst the class as a whole). These gems were few and far between.

Some were meh, as in “your child is doing the work, but I think there are opportunities to increase interest and engagement.” This was a fairly typical meeting. This is one of my reasons for opposing one-size-fits-all curriculums because it ties the hands of the teacher to construct engaging lessons that appeal to individualized interests and go beyond meeting test standards, but that’s a soapbox for another day.

Some were difficult conversations, as in “your child refuses to comply with simple directions, consistently disrupts class, and does not complete assignments.” How these meetings went would depend entirely on the response of the parent. If the parents’ response went something like, “oh no! My child would never [fill-in-the-blank],” usually my next move would be to invite the parent to class to shadow the child. Even if the child behaved during the shadow visit, no middle schooler wants to sit next to his mom with his or her friends in class so usually, this was enough of a deterrent for the student to get back on track moving forward, provided there were no other underlying issues.

A more interesting difficult parent conference would have a parent respond with, “oh, I know! I can’t get my kid to do anything at home either!” I found these conversations to be more interesting because the parents would be far more receptive to concerns about their child, they were not defensive, and were open to suggestions that would reinforce strategies I would propose in the classroom. When I was childless, there was a part of me that didn’t understand how that dynamic would even develop. Was there a lack of discipline or supervision? Were there other factors, like divorce, frequent moves, loss of a loved one, or something else that contributed to the child not following directions at home as well? I would never ask, believing that any answer was none of my business and I did not want parents to get on the defensive when they were already on board with prospective solutions.

Yesterday’s parent conference about Maggie went along the lines of the last scenario, except I was not sitting as a teacher. I am her parent.

“We have concerns...”

Yup, me too.

“Maggie refuses to sit still long enough to attempt to learn anything. She may match family faces because she cares about her family, but she doesn’t give a hoot about learning about colors.”

Mm-hmm. She can’t sit long enough at the table to finish a meal. She will take breaks, get out the wiggles, and we try to go back to the table. I sit with her daily to-do functional play activities like puzzles and blocks, but even with hand-over-hand, Maggie is slumped down and ready to bounce away to do anything else because she does not want to do the functional play activity.

“Potty training is not successful. She is motivated by water play but confuses water play with hand-washing. I’d like to use wipes instead of water for hand-washing if she doesn’t eliminate in the toilet and increase the frequency of potty trips to a more intensive schedule. This has improved success with other children struggling to potty train.”

Thumbs up, let’s do it.

“We also have concerns about safety behaviors. Given the slightest opportunity, Maggie will try to climb or run out of the room. She will not want to transition activities or rooms, especially if she is doing something she enjoys like playing in the gross motor room. Often, she will throw herself on the ground and fall limp if she doesn’t want to go. Even worse, she will try to kick when someone tries to pick her up, so we will behind her and lift her from under her armpits to avoid her feet.”

She does all of that at home.

“We’re trying something new to transition from one area to another. We’re putting one arm under her arm and putting our other hand over her forearm. This way, if she decides to drop down, she’s an easy catch.”

I’m on board. I like that.

“With communication, P.E.C.S. is not going so well. More often than not, she will randomly grab the cards when it’s clear that she is asking for something else. Sometimes, she’ll just grab a card because we’re offering her the P.E.C.S. board, not because the card is associated with meaning. We’d like to transition to a static board, so the pictures are always in the same place.”

Okay, sounds good.

I could go on, but the conference made me reflect so much on students I’ve had over the years, particularly the challenging ones. Maggie does these things because she’s nonverbal. She doesn’t have a constructive way of saying, “I don’t want to do this right now,” so she acts out in ways that would be construed as oppositional or defiant. If we’re doing a root cause analysis, the root cause is she knows what she wants, but she is unable to communicate it. Using pictures is going to be key for future communication, but if she doesn’t have the endurance to sit at a table or even look at something for long enough to recognize what it is, how is going to learn how to effectively use it as a communication tool?

Reflecting on the challenging students over the years, they all could talk; however, the root cause if I analyzed their refusal to do work and for oppositional behaviors, across the board, the reason was reading difficulties. I was an ELAR teacher, so of course, most of the work in my class involved reading and writing. Some barely knew how to read. I would offer them an assignment that was beyond their comprehension, oftentimes because of mandatory one-size-fits-all curriculum district requirements. For some, the words on the page would have no meaning. If I sat there and read to them, they would be disinterested because of the content, so I would lose them on engagement.

We’re going to try all of the solutions proposed in the meeting. When Maggie’s at home, I’m practicing everything with her, too. Maggie’s best chance at successful progression is consistency in all of her environments. Maggie is not on board. This is turning into a battle of wills, and she is stubborn like her mama. In two weeks, we’ll meet again to re-evaluate the progress and efficacy of these strategies.


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