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The digital world has changed almost everything we do, and parent-teacher communication is no exception. You probably have more access to your child’s teacher than you ever did—and certainly more than our parents did. More access and more communication can be a great thing, but it comes with some hazards too. New modes of communication means new etiquette and new expectations.
For instance, a common issue is expected response time. You reach out to the teacher, and you don’t hear back right away. But how long is “right away,” exactly? People’s communication habits vary. So you send another message. Now it has potentially escalated into an issue—when it really didn’t have to.
Some teachers communicate their preferences and state an expected response time. But every teacher is different and many won’t state explicit preferences. I often recommend that schools protect teachers from this by having an expected response time as a part of their policy.
Everyone has a responsibility to one another in learning the new rules: Parents, teachers, and school administrators too! But let’s focus on what we as parents can do to set a positive tone and foster a good parent-teacher relationship.
- Start with empathy. Your child’s teacher has a difficult job—one that is often underestimated and under-appreciated. There’s new educational technology, new standards, new testing—all of which take time for your child’s teacher to learn and integrate.
- Let the teacher choose mode of communication if possible. Communication will be much more free-flowing it you make it as easy as possible for the teacher. Respect her communication preferences. If she prefers e-mail to phone, then e-mail it is! Of course, there are times when only face-to-face will do, but try not to pressure your child’s teacher about the way things “should” be done.
- Help if you can. Teachers are often under-resourced and overburdened. Are you super tech-savvy? Maybe you can support the class web page or blog. Your support is not only a nice gesture—it can help the whole class!
- Teach boundaries to your child. If your child is old enough to e-mail the teacher herself, then the child should also be aware and respectful of these boundaries and expectations. Just because you and your child can e-mail the teacher, doesn’t always mean it is a good idea. Before you (or your child) e-mails the teacher, check that the question can’t be resolved another way. If your child didn’t write down the homework assignment, is it available from a classmate or the learning management system? Your child should not make a habit of e-mailing the teacher instead of writing things down or knowing how to look things up. For more on how boundaries can help all of us in the digital world, check out my book: Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in Their Digital World.
- Have patience. The learning process can be difficult and time-consuming. Sometimes your child will breeze through a subject with great ease, and other times it will seem like a never-ending slog. Don’t blame the teacher…If possible, dig into the homework assignments with your child. Then, if you can see things are taking far longer than homework policies state, do communicate the specifics with the teacher so you can collaborate on a solution.
- Know the teacher’s tools. Is there a digital version of the textbook? Does the textbook—or the homework—require Internet access? If so, how much time? These are great questions to ask the teacher, so that you can mitigate distraction during homework time. If you know this, you can set up unplugged time for homework, or partially-plugged time (computer or tablet not connected to wifi).
- Adhere to school rules. Don’t make life difficult by sending your kid to school with devices when they are prohibited by the school. Despite good intentions, it will likely create a classroom issue. You may have a good reason, such as an urgent family matter or a particular health issue. If you need an exception, ask the school first.
- Too much access to communication is not always the best thing. Lots of schools now let you check your child’s grades on quizzes and tests as they are posted. Unless you are managing a particular struggle, this much access to information may cause more stress than it is worth! Same thing for texting your kiddo during the day to “check in.” If they aren’t supposed to be on their phones, don’t make it hard for them.
- Don’t assume the worst. Unless there is strong evidence to the contrary, you can trust that teacher’s intentions are good. If they are not responsive by email they may be dealing with their own family crisis, a grading tsunami, etc. A completely unresponsive teacher does present a challenge that you may need to address with the school, but someone who doesn’t answer an email right away may be in the middle of reading your child’s essay, attending a professional development workshop, or eating dinner. Assume the best about your child’s teacher, not the worst. It goes a long way.
New technology and new methods can have an amazingly positive effect—if we handle them the right way. It’s all a great opportunity for us as parents to get more involved in our kids’ education. To be generous, to offer support to our teachers, and to do so with a light touch. It’s easier for the teacher to collaborate with you to solve problems when you approach communication thoughtfully, and with empathy.
Please share your most positive experiences and any challenges in the comments! How did you fix it? Do you have any best practices to share?
Devorah Heitner, PhD is the author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in Their Digital World and the founder of Raising Digital Natives a resource for schools and families wishing to cultivate a climate of digital citizenship.
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Last night I gave a talk about “building a media ecology in your home” to parents of 3-9 year olds. I had a number of wonderful conversations with parents afterwards–but one in particular really made me think. First of all, I am happy to say, this conversation happened with a dad. At many parent talks I’ve offered, the audience has been about 80% moms, so I am always delighted to see a more even split, as I did at this talk. This father started out by thanking me for not making him feel like a “bad parent” in my talk. This is so important to me, I think judging other parents prevents us from building strong communities where we all watch out for everyone’s kids…
Anyway, this dad wanted to know about eating in front of the TV. Remembering how I had just asked parents not to judge other parents, I wanted to respond appropriately! Specifically, he wondered whether it would harm his children’s minds or their social skills if they ate some of their meals while watching a show? In their house, children are sometimes allowed to eat while watching TV as a treat, or at times when the adults want a little adult time over dinner. This is a hard question to answer definitively, as my goal is to help families do what works for them…But I do believe that ideally, family meals can be important for teaching kids social skills, hearing about their week, and for them to see us adults in our relationship.
Yet the desire to sit down with your partner for a quiet meal sometime before your kids leave for college is understandable… What I suggested was that he focus on having unplugged family meals all together at certain times. Maybe some meals that involve the siblings watching a show while parents eat and catch up would give this family the energy for some unplugged meals where they all sit down together. Another alternative is to feed kids first a sit down meal that is not in front of a screen (but where you talk with them, and they sit for whatever time is developmentally reasonable) and then you can “release them” for a show or game while you eat. This used to be traditional in some families, and is still the norm in families that have parents that get home from work too late for the childrens’ schedules.
Fans of “mindful eating” would probably prefer the two shift approach to dinners, because it involves postponing media time until after a meal. Eating while you are distracted can be associated with obesity, etc. I think the most important thing to do is to create some unplugged ritual meal time that you stick to so kids can get used to it and look forward to it! It is far better to have an attainable goal than to throw up your hands.