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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 09/01/2011

8 back-to-school worries

Are you nervous about the new school year? I am. My grandson Ben Mathews, age 2 years and 9 months, is starting nursery school.

Our worry is: Will we blow it? Will some flaw in our approach to school condemn our children and grandchildren to a life of ignorance and penury?

It might not be that bad, but we all want to do it right. Parents who are new to a school or whose child is starting pre-kindergarten or kindergarten might have no idea what to expect. Here are answers to eight typical questions from those of us who wonder how to make it a good school year.

1: How can we get our child into the class of that great teacher?

This is tricky. Parents aren’t supposed to pick their children’s teachers. John Porter, who was principal of T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria for 22 years, said parents should avoid deifying someone they “heard about at work or at a cocktail party.” But if your child has a crucial need, and you plan months ahead, you can sometimes arrange the placement you want.

Get to know an administrator or counselor at the school well, Porter said. As the school year ends, he said, drop the hint that Ms. X “is an excellent teacher who might work well with my son” next year. A callback or e-mail in July won’t hurt, either.

2: What should we expect from the principal?

“Parents should expect to be able to contact the principal via telephone or e-mail to discuss a concern after they have shared the concern with the classroom teacher,” said Eric A. Davis, director of the Department of Family and Community Partnerships for Montgomery County schools. “Generally, most schools have a process in place that calls and e-mails are responded to within 24 hours.”

Carolyn Custard, director of student services in Prince William County, said a key facet of the principal’s job is to establish “a school culture that is positive and welcoming.” That means even if you have no complaints and just want the principal’s input on child-rearing, for example, you should feel free to make an appointment.

3: How do we get the most out of back-to-school night?

Just show up, listen carefully and take notes, several local educators said. “This is a great opportunity to build a relationship with the school community,” said Gregory C. Hutchings Jr., director of the pre-K through 12th-grade programs in Alexandria. “You will be able to better understand your child’s teachers’ expectations for the school year.” If you’re new to the school or the teacher, there are no stupid questions on back-to-school night. Curriculum? Grading? Whatever it is, don’t be afraid to ask.

4: What can we do if our child is turned off by school?

Foster a love of learning outside the classroom with summer reading the student enjoys and visits to exhibits and events that fit his interests, said Ron Fairchild, former chief of the National Summer Learning Association. Debra Bishop, professional development and program specialist for the Prince William County public schools, said it is particularly important to “make sure your child knows one adult at the school who can provide them support, if needed.” This might be his teacher, but if that doesn’t work, an assistant principal, a secretary or a coach might fill that role.

A year of home schooling or a transfer to a different school could create for him more choices of how and when to learn — and improve his attitude.

5: What should we talk about, or not talk about, with our child’s teacher?

“Help the teacher make a connection with your child,” said Barbara P. Nichols, director of middle school education for Loudoun County public schools. “The way that many teachers reach children is by forming a positive relationship with them. Share information about your child’s interests outside the school, how they learn best and what might have been a barrier to learning in the past.”

6: What should we do about school friends we think are bad for our child?

Behavorial therapist James Lehman, writing for the Empowering Parents Web site, said parents should recognize that they can’t pick their children’s friends and should avoid saying they don’t like them. Focus instead on their specific behavior. Lehman offers this as an example: “I don’t like that Jackie got arrested for shoplifting. I don’t want you to get arrested for it, too.” You can also set rules that limit contact, such as no going out on school nights and earning the right to go out on Friday and Saturday nights.

7: What are the boundaries in helping with homework?

Davis of Montgomery County said it is okay to be involved with your children’s assignments “as long as they are actively engaged” in the work and you are “helping them understand the concepts.” A former elementary school principal, Davis offered an insight I had not heard before: If a parent helps too much with homework, the child gets the damaging message that “this work is too hard for me.”

Parents may “help explain the directions and give examples of how to complete the assignment, as well as seek clarification from the teacher when the assignment is confusing,” said Nichols of Loudoun County. “Remember that homework is practice . . . and is used to provide feedback to inform instruction. Homework should not be used to determine mastery of the content.” If they get it wrong, that has almost no effect on their grade, so relax.

8: What do we do if we think that our child’s teacher is not up to the job?

Veteran teacher Jacquie McTaggart, writing for Education.com, said no matter what you have heard, you shouldn’t judge a teacher until your child has been in that class for a while. Some teachers’ bad reputations are not deserved. In other cases, they might do fine with your child even if they don’t do well with others. If the problem persists, a chat with the teacher might clear the air. If not, you should speak to the principal.

Porter, the former T.C. Williams principal, recommended that with high school students, the parent should let the child take the lead. “Have her speak with the teacher at a convenient time for both about her concerns,” he said. “I believe that children, particularly older students, need to learn to work with a variety of personalities.”

By  |  05:00 AM ET, 09/01/2011

 
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