By Marysa Enis and Amy Shatila
“People are people so why should it be? You and I should get along so awfully.” -Depeche Mode 1984
From time to time, something troubling starts to fester between families and schools. When it happens, it’s the opposite of synergy. It’s embittered and unsettling. We usually aren’t there when it starts, but we can feel it a mile away. After all, tapping into emotions is what school psychologists do.
Outwardly, the emotion looks like anger mixed with distrust, but as any psychologist will tell you, anger is a secondary emotion. Buried beneath is something else. It could be fear or sadness. Or embarrassment. Or a deeply frustrating loss of control. When it comes to parenting, it is undoubtedly rooted in love.
And all of that gets lost when anger enters the room. Whether it takes the form of passive-aggressive comments, a condescending tone, or threats, the message quickly dissipates and power struggles ensue. We know. We’ve seen it happen more times than we care to recall.
Why We Care
The thing is, school psychologists can’t stand unresolved conflict, especially when it comes to kids. Our entire reason for being is to help kids. We work to achieve harmony among families, educators, and administrators, but at the end of the day, children are our clients, and we have to prioritize their well-being above all else.
By nature of our chosen professions, we know:
- Anger, distrust, and endless disagreements are terrible for kids.
- Resiliency, problem-solving, perspective-taking, and empathy are great for kids.
- There are no perfect people. There is no perfect system. If you look for flaws, you will always find them.
Methods that Work
We know what doesn’t work, and we know that in order to help kids, we have to find what does. One of the reasons we chose to work in public schools is that we get to serve people from every walk of life. We see every need imaginable, and we see the strategies and systems employed to meet them. We also see the common denominator that connects these people: advocating for a child’s success.
Have you heard the adage, “Do not listen with the intent to reply, but with the intent to understand”? It’s Communication 101. It’s simple, yet incredibly challenging. It’s easy to listen when all is going well, but when emotions run high and failure appears to be the next stop on the horizon, listening to understand becomes a monumental task.
Here are some go-to communication strategies we’ve seen work wonders:
1. Find the common ground. Voice early and often that you are excited to have a forum in which everyone has come together to advocate for your child. Listen for feedback you can relate to and acknowledge and add to it.
2. Don’t jump to conclusions. When you hear about concerns, ask clarifying questions that encourage objective responses. For example, “When you say he has a meltdown, can you tell me what that looks like?” Perhaps it is something you can relate to, but would describe differently than the person involved.
3. Avoid projecting your own feelings onto your child. Parents and educators naturally see different sides of a child, and adults are quick to assume that one or the other must be wrong. In reality, children are multifaceted and complex. They may think and feel something in one setting, but not in another. Or tell us what we want to hear. Or tell us different things depending on their mood. It is natural for parents to interpret a child’s development through the lens of what they have experienced, which can make it hard to hear feedback that is counter to that. Try to stay objective and listen for what works for your child, which may be different than what worked for you.
4. If unsure, seek a second opinion. When information and feedback is inconsistent or conflicting (which will likely happen), use the other “experts” in the room to share additional information. Each team member has only one piece of the puzzle, and it often takes a neutral third party (the school psychologist!) to put the pieces together and help everyone see the picture. If a team simply cannot agree, ask your local education agency about using an IEP facilitator to host the next meeting.
5. Every school has at least one person who will advocate for your child. Find them. Trust them.
Of course, there are times when communication has truly broken down and trust is simply not an option, but in our very lengthy experience, those times are few and far between. In most cases, people are more in agreement than they realize. If you aren’t sure, ask us! School psychologists know the law and we know people. Above all else, we know kids, and we are here to serve and support them.