Five Tips for Teachers Working with Underparenting Families

The flip side of overparenting is the family who underparents their children when it comes to school work. Often it means they’re not checking homework or helping kids study for tests. Some will not respond to your attempts at communication.

While these parents are the exception, not the rule, you need to take concrete steps to address their lack of attention. But it has to be done carefully — supporting the family, strengthening parenting choices and setting their children on the road to academic and social success — or you risk making a bad situation worse.

Don’t shrug

Far too many times I’ve seen teachers lament a struggling child’s challenges, mention the long history of parental inattentiveness, shrug their shoulders and move on to the next child.

That shrug is a deadly thing.

By admitting powerlessness, teachers wash their hands of the situation and give up their stake in the child’s success. Don’t let a child’s challenges seem so great that you feel you can’t do anything to help them improve.

And, on that note, don’t tie your success to an immediate turnaround in child or family behaviors. Often the seeds of attention and caring you plant today will bear fruit years down the road (and away from your knowledge and sight).

Build relationships

While some families, shockingly enough, don’t care about their children’s success, far more have had difficult school experiences, and they are transferring that lack of faith and enjoyment in school to their child’s current situation.

The best, and sometimes only, way to overcome this is to build a strong relationship with the parent. When you establish that you care deeply and believe in both their parenting and their child’s success, they’ll begin to see you as an ally. By helping them, you help the child.

Now it’s far easier to write that than it is to bring it to life. Perseverance, patience and a kind smile go a long way in helping to break down walls between school and home.

Be prepared to parent

In the meanwhile, be ready to be a de facto parent to the child. Invite them to complete homework in your room during lunch, encourage them to study during their free periods and don’t let them leave before you check their backpack.

Use your role in the child’s life to offer advice and correct choices when necessary. Obviously you shouldn’t subvert the parent’s authority, but your presence will be necessary as home begins to catch up.

Remember the safety net

All schools have a coterie of people — counselors, administrators, nurses, etc. — who expect to be involved. Speak to your principal to see who else can assist the child.

The school counselor can offer some formal meeting times to help the child process their academic and social needs out loud. The school nurse can offer a warm place to visit if the child isn’t feeling well, and an administrator can offer a warm smile and words of support.

Remember that you’re not in this alone, and that other caring adults are ready to offer assistance.

Point to the data

Parents who struggle may interpret your involvement and guidance as a personal attack. That’s not surprising, as you appear to be questioning the very foundation of what it means to be a parent.

Rather than letting it become personal, show them the data that demonstrates the superior results that come from being an engaged student. Being objective and sharing results is a powerful way to show the parent just how important it is that they work with you to offer more assistance to the child.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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