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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 12/20/2010

Willingham: When teachers speak unwelcome truths about your child

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

By Daniel Willingham
As the holidays begin students are going home with report cards. This week a friend vented some irritation to me over comments on his fourth-grade son’s report card.

The teacher said the boy was bossy on the playground and had become physically aggressive with some other kids when he got frustrated.

My friend kept saying that his son was a typical boy, and thought that the teacher was “out of line” in characterizing his son as aggressive. He claimed that she must have ridiculous ideas about what constituted “aggressive” behavior in fourth-grade boys.

In listening to my friend, I heard my own voice. I have also bristled when teachers said things about my kids I didn’t like hearing, especially those things that didn’t match my own impressions. And I too created reasons to explain why the teacher would say things that I was sure were exaggerations.

Here are three reasons I’m trying to change my attitude.

First, and most obvious, I’m hardly dispassionate in thinking about my kids. Their teachers are much more likely to be objective in summarizing how they relate to their peers, how their reading is coming along, and so forth.

Second, I ought to remember that kids can be very different at school and at home.

I first saw this when my oldest was in preschool. At a back-to-school night she proudly showed me various activities in the classroom, and matter-of-factly put each away when she was finished with it.

At home, putting something back where it belonged without being asked couldn’t even be called a noteworthy event because it simply never happened. But the norms of the class and the skill of the teacher made her behave quite differently at school.

Needless to say, the differences--the ability of kids to take on different personae at school and home--only get richer as kids get to middle school and older.

There’s a third reason for parents like me to take a deep breath when our child’s teacher says something that doesn’t sound right to us.

I think parents are biased to think that whatever our kids are like is “typical.” My quiet kid looks typical to me, whereas your active child looks a little frenetic. To you, your kid seems typical, and mine seems morose.

In judging whether or not my child is typical, teachers have a huge advantage over me. The teacher has seen scores or even hundreds of kids, all of them in this narrow age range.

So although I’m not usually interested in comparing my child to others, sometimes it’s important.

The teacher who told my friend that his son was “aggressive” was drawing on that experience.

She was telling him that this was not typical fourth-grade rambunctiousness, but something more.

In this context I often hear parents say “no one knows my child better than I do.”

Of course. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn important things about their lives at school from their teachers.


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By Valerie Strauss  | December 20, 2010; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Parents, Teachers  | Tags:  daniel willingham, parents, report cards, teachers  
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I think you make a great point, but currently I am struggling with the same issue. I am in education and I work with teachers at all levels. If an elementary teacher told me the words your friend related, I would react just as you did and hopefully reflect the same way as well. I think you are right to respect the teachers' opinions regarding behavior because they do see so many children; if they see behavior outside of the norm, then they should comment.

My frustration with comments from teachers regarding my son's performance in class take the tone of blaming the victim. When he went to the Chemistry teacher to ask for help or understanding as to why he did not do well on the test and my son says "I got the two processes confused" and the teacher's helpful response is "Well why did you do that?" nothing is solved and my son still doesn't understand what he did wrong. This tone was set at parent teacher conference earlier and I have tried to give my son strategies to deal with this teacher, but the class has now become "Teach Yourself Chemistry." When talking to other students and parents my thoughts regarding the teacher were affirmed by their level of frustration as well.

It is so easy to blame the student for not getting what they are teaching rather than try a different method of instruction so the student succeeds. Or, at least meeting the student halfway.

Posted by: mhtalbut | December 20, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

The "my child - the victim" comments of mhtalbut serve to make Mr. Willingham's point perfectly. Many teachers have stopped making meaningful comments to avoid unpleasant confrontations with irrational parents. Unfortunately, these behaviors go unaddressed are ignored until they become major obstacles to success. Then the students shake their heads and wonder why nobody wants to hire them... or grant them probation.

Posted by: buckbuck11 | December 20, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

Are issues related to aggression in a young child suitable to be conveyed as a "comment" on a report card? Maybe that's the kind of thing that needs to be discussed in person.

Posted by: ontarget1 | December 20, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

My kids are grown. I went through this with them and guess what! The teacher was usually right on their behavior and abilities. I'm not sure I can recall ever finding the teacher out of bounds.

While I was a student I can recall only one time a teacher being incorrect. If parents teach and expect honesty they will find the kids will be honest. If you make excuses for the child, the child will just learn to hush and let Mom/Dad take over.

Posted by: educ8er | December 20, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

Think ontaget1 has a good point about worrisome behavior just being commented on in a report card; if the behavior is that worrisome, it needs to happen in the context of a phone conversation or face-to-face meeting.

Having said that, and taking into account everything reasonable that Valerie pointed out vis-a-vis how students can be very different at home vs. at school, any unusual/extreme/changed behavior needs to be communicated as quickly as may be indicative of all kinds of things: bullying, learning differences, parents divorcing, emergence of mental health issues, medications, etc.

It's difficult to not get defensive in the above situations, but it's worth it to all parties concerned to keep communication lines open.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | December 20, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

Sorry! It was Daniel Willingham's article!

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | December 20, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

Agreed. . .I do know he was supposed to contact the teacher, but I don't really know the backstory (whether this had come up before, how concerning the behavior really was, etc.)

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | December 20, 2010 1:05 PM | Report abuse

I agree with ontarget1 that the teacher should discuss this issue with the parent in person or over the phone. Comments like that can be very difficult for parents to hear, especially if they do not see the same behaviors at home. Parents have the right to be defensive and advocate for their child, and the teacher should give the parent as much information as possible in order to properly address the concern.

While teachers are the experts at figuring out how a child looks in relation to "typical peers," the parent is still the expert on their own child. This situation would be a great time for the teacher and parent to partner with each other on figuring out what is going on with the child. They both have important pieces of information that need to be shared with each other.

I liked this piece and would be interested in reading more pieces about Parent/School interactions.

Posted by: ssmith1113 | December 20, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Great article, Dan. As a teacher, I do wish parents would realize that often times, their child is much different at school than at home, but as you point out, that information sometimes hit against a brick wall. It really isn't that the teacher is saying your child is not 'worthy' because of the traits we are pointing out, we just want you to be aware of our observations. Even more critical than that awareness, we need you to acknowledge how those traits we see in your child may impact his educational success.
Only by working together, can parents and teachers meet the needs of all students - be they rambunctious or morose!

Posted by: cossondra | December 20, 2010 2:04 PM | Report abuse

As a kindergarten teacher, I was often the first bearer of bad news to parents--that somehow their child was outside the norm, either academically or behaviorally. Many parents listened and got further help (audiologist, speech pathologist, behavior expert, etc.) Other parents reacted defensively and refused to believe me. This was fine with me--sometimes parents want several opinions, or they don't trust the teacher, or they think their child will outgrow whatever (rarely happens). I assumed the parents would hear the same refrain from teachers down the line, and eventually understand that their child needed some extra help, either academically, physically, or with their behavior.

When I switched to high school, I had many of those same children. Those whose parents heeded my advice in kindergarten were well adjusted and successful academically. A small majority of the deniers had finally been convinced by about 3rd grade that their child needed help, and those children were also well adjusted and successful. Then there were the parents who were still in denial mode. The parents were either enablers ("no one understands my child"), or they were blamers ("the teachers all hate my child"). Every single child had serious problems.

Yes, there are teachers who have unreasonable expectations (some teachers just don't like active boys), or those who communicate poorly with parents. But if two teachers mention that your child has a problem, you should immediately go into problem-solving mode--audiologist, psychologist, whatever. If a teacher noted that your child had ring-worm or pink eye, you wouldn't get defensive and say you have a clean home so your child couldn't possibly be ill--you'd get your child to a doctor. You are doing your child a serious disservice if you become defensive when a teacher notes "abnormalities" about your child, and you refuse to believe the teacher or get help.

Posted by: pattipeg1 | December 21, 2010 8:59 AM | Report abuse

If I were your friend, I would talk to the teachers and find out about specific instances of his/her son's misbehavior.

Posted by: jlp19 | December 21, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

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