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Before You Send Your Child to School Wearing a Wire

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Recent news stories tell of parents resorting to secretly recording their child's school day to get to the root of behavioral changes. What they hear is shocking, and strikes at our fear of what happens when we send our precious and vulnerable child out the door each day. If you're not ready to go to quite such drastic measures, there are less invasive ways of following up when you fear problems in your child's classroom. These five suggestions require some groundwork-preparing, but can create a more ongoing and flexible solution.

Be an active presence at your child's school.

The more you can volunteer in the building and in the classroom, the better. This gives you lots of informal contact with the teacher, which can help head off little problems before they become big. It also allows you to quietly observe things like teacher personality, teacher-paraprofessional interaction, and the way teachers and aides interact with students. Finally, it makes you available for intelligence-gathering from sources who might not make formal contact to let you know something's amiss, but will grab you in the hallway and whisper it to you. In return, it gives you informal ways to ask questions, make suggestions, and intervene when needed. Knowing that Mom or Dad might be in the building at any time will also put a damper on outrageous statements or actions. For ideas on how to get involved at school, read:

Eavesdrop on your child's playtime.

Many kids in these stories of teacher abuse are nonverbal, and that makes it hard for parents to get any sort of report other than a hard-to-read behavioral change. Other kids, though, may not be able to give a straightforward account of abuse, but will reflect it in their playtime or their echolalia. Listen in when your child berates imaginary friends, or says nasty things while playing with dolls or toy cars. If your child enjoys playing school, let her be the teacher and listen to the things she says and the way she treats you, the student. Kids will often model the behavior they see at school, and this can clue you in on both the style of teachers and the actions of peers. While the testimony of a teddy bear isn't as instantly incriminating as a conversation caught on tape, it can lead you toward the right questions to ask and situations to be suspicious of. For ideas on playtime and other opportunities to tap into your child's anxieties, read:

Check with other parents.

If you've become friendly with other children and parents in your child's class -- and that includes not just the main classroom, but also classes that may be combined with it for things like music, art, gym, or lunch -- call on that network of eyes and ears to find out if anyone's reported a problem. While your child may not be able to tell you what's up, another child may have told a parent about upsetting things happening in the classroom, either involving your child or attesting to a general atmosphere of chaos and cruelty. Some parents will contact you right away with such information, whether you want to know or not, but others will be unsure of their place to do so, and may be waiting for you to make a call or a comment. For more ideas on meeting and networking with other parents and school personnel, read:

Request a behavior analysis.

Often, a teacher will contact a parent about behavior problems in the classroom and expect the parent to solve the problem -- despite the fact that our kids benefit from consequences delivered on the spot, or better still, a change in the environment to prevent the problem from happening at all. Particularly if the behavior being described does not sound like your child, or sounds like your child under extreme stress, ask the school to do a Functional Behavioral Assessment, which is actually something the school should be suggesting itself when a child with special needs acts up. A shortage of personnel to do those assessments may lead to a dumping of problems on parents; dump the problem right back. If your child's behavior problem is real, he needs a Behavior Intervention Plan that is well thought out and personalized to his specific needs. If your child's behavior problem is just a sign of a classroom out of control, a behaviorist should be able to see that and suggest a remedy as well. If necessary, consider writing a behavior plan of your own and giving it to the teacher for reference. Read more about these tools:

Call a team meeting.

Most parents meet with their IEP team at IEP time, and are happy that's only a once-a-year occurrence. But the team is on duty all year through, and can be called on to consider weaknesses in the IEP and things that need to be added or changed. If you can be in constant friendly contact with the team throughout the year, perhaps by volunteering at the school and popping in now and again to say hi, it's easy to bring up the topic of behavior or classroom problems, ask for advice, and suggest strategies. If the problem is really out of control, you can request a meeting and get everybody in the room to discuss it. If a change needs to be made in classroom placement, IEP accommodations, or personnel, that's the place to talk it out. It's also a place where you can bring that tape recorder and put it to good use. To prepare for your meeting, read:
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