When my daughter missed the kindergarten cutoff by three weeks, I made an appointment with her teacher and principal of her school. She had attended private preschool since she was 3 years old, after I realized that she was too active and curious for me to entertain her all day at home with just the two of us. (She would sit and do 48-piece puzzles on her own at age 3) At 4, she entered California’s new ‘Transitional Kindergarten” program, reinforcing what she had already learned at her excellent private preschool, and learning even more. By the time she turned 5, although she was not reading, she knew all her letters, numbers, could write them, her name, and could slowly sound out many words, and add and subtract basic numbers. When I met with her teacher and the principal, frustrated that she would have to spend yet another year “learning” her letters and numbers, I was concerned that she would be bored and lose interest in school – be a lost sheep forever, setting the tone for her entire school career. Her teacher was open to the idea of moving her into first grade after doing some testing, but the principal flat-out refused. I was sent a rejection letter a day after the meeting, with no explanation other than advancing her would not be “what is best for her.” I was an advocate for my child, who had no voice. I saw my child’s “best interests” and knew that their brief assessment (where she missed two items) was not an accurate assessment of her needs. Was I being a helicopter parent? Or was I advocating for my child? Today, the lines seem more blurred, and can often become overwhelming for teachers and administrators.
What is a helicopter parent? Over protective, pushy, overbearing, makes excuses for their child, solves their problems for them, insists you teach something specific, insist you make exceptions for their child, etc. At the high school level, I saw a lot of this, as parents would do their child’s project or paper so that they wouldn’t get a bad grade, they would hound me about their child’s grade, and would be the one to discuss a bad grade or makeup work, rather than the student himself or herself.
As a teacher and with four teachers in my immediate family, I felt I had some ground to stand on, and a little bit of knowledge and experience under my belt. Nonetheless, I was viewed as pushy and overbearing – hovering like a helicopter over my child. So, how do we as teachers deal with these helicopter parents?
First and foremost, one of the things we need to be careful and cognizant of is not taking out our feelings about the parent on the student. It is not the child’s fault. It is what it is, probably for many reasons. It is important that you don’t punish the child, nor do you give super special privilege to the child just because of the parent’s behavior. This is always difficult. Just remember that the child has no more control over that parent than he or she would have control over his living conditions. This is all the child knows, and to him or her, it’s normal. As teachers, and adults, it is difficult to understand and deal with these overbearing or overprotective parents, but usually it is not the student who is insisting on the extra credit or special concessions.
Case: A parent insists you are not giving enough homework, and that you should be giving more.
- Set boundaries. Do you have an open door policy? Are you available before school? After school? Only by appointment? Be sure to let all parents and students know. While it may be unusual for a teacher to have a business card, you are a professional after all. These will come in handy when a parent tries to derail you with an “emergency.” I suggest making even a homemade business card with your contact information and office hours. There are easy templates available in basic word processing programs for this, or a pretty cheap alternative like Zazzle or Vistaprint can get you professional looking ones for something like $10 (just don’t get out of control and order 500 of them!). Include your contact information – phone, email, etc. If you have a website or blog that teachers can access for homework or class information, include that. If you have a grade program parents can access, include that. Finally, be sure to include your availability. If you are willing to meet by appointment only after school, be sure to set your business hours as such, or you will be inundated with unwanted interruptions – inevitably when you are pressed for time to get your grades in or something like that. “Office hours: 3:10pm to 4:30pm Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays by appointment only. (Be sure to allow yourself a few minutes to go to the restroom and take a breather before you have your meeting.) With a drop-in parent, you can nicely hand them your card and let them know that you would be happy to set up a meeting during your office hours so that you can give them your full, undivided attention. If they insist, you can either let them know that you have another appointment, or you can let them know you only have a minute or two, and ask them to “walk with you” as you walk to the office and into teacher’s area to get something – anything – done. Hopefully, once you enter the office area, there will be too many distractions to continue the conversation, or if not, you can let her know that you have to go to the teacher’s lounge (no parents allowed).
- Listen and acknowledge their concern. I found that quite a few of my helicopter parents were so concerned about their child because that child would be the first one to go to college in the United States. Their parents were immigrants who did not get that opportunity. Another type of helicopter parent is one who wishes he or she took school more seriously. This parent is not happy in his or her job, and now feels that they are trapped without options. They want more for their child, and become their child’s motivation, spurred on by regret.
When confronted by a helicopter parent, as with any parent, it is best to listen, rather than argue or be defensive – even if you have dealt with this parent before. These parents want only what is best for their child, and will do nearly anything to get it. These parents have an agenda, so listen to what that is. They want to be heard, no matter how ridiculous the request (or demand.) Acknowledge their concern over their child’s well-being, and reassure them that you, too, have their child’s best interest in mind. If the parent does not have a history of “hovering,” it is crucial that they feel heard – or you may end up seeing more of that parent than you would like. The parent may have a real concern, they may actually have a good point that you didn’t see, and they may reveal something about that student you didn’t know. Give them the benefit of the doubt. To them, the concern is real.
Show the parent that you are listening by repeating their concern back to them. Acknowledge that you have heard and understand the concern: “I understand your concern that you feel Julie doesn’t have enough homework after school to keep her busy. She is a bright student, but as a parent myself, I would certainly wonder whether she is actually getting her work done.”
2. Don’t allow yourself to be bullied or stepped on - establish yourself as the expert and professional. After you have acknowledge the concern and let the parent know that you have heard him or her, let the parent know your methods. You are a professional. Act it. Say something like, “I understand that you would like Julie to have more homework, but in my training and research I have found that it is better to make more effective use of class time, and to use homework as a quick review. I prefer not to introduce new information through homework, but rather, introduce and practice new information in class and use homework time to reinforce the skills the student was introduced to that day. While I don’t want students to rush through their homework, by the time they get home, the student hopefully has a strong enough grasp on the concept or skill that I taught that they will be able to show their mastery of the topic without taking hour upon hour to prove it. Not all teachers adhere to this belief, but I can tell you that after X number of years teaching, I can see the success in my students.” You “got” this.
3. Rather than becoming an enemy, which so many parents now see teachers as, suggest you work as a strong force to work together to make the child successful. Make the suggestion that you work on the school front and the parent work on the home front to address the concern, but also, include the student in the equation. “Is there something in particular we can do together to improve this situation? I think it is important that Julie take some responsibility in this situation as well. Perhaps Julie can take the time after school to talk to you about what she learned that day. You can ask her questions, and be reassured that Julie knows what she is doing and has mastered that skill. If she has not, you two can work together to do or fix the homework.” This takes the onus off of you and reminds the parent that the child is learning responsibility and how to solve problems.
While I can acknowledge I had a “helicopter moment” trying to advance my daughter into first grade early, I would do it again. Fortunately, she attends an excellent school and had an amazingly talented kindergarten teacher, so she blossomed even more that year.
Be sure that you continue to think of yourself as a professional and an advocate for children, and set boundaries with both parents and students. Once you take back the control and reassure the parent that you know what you are doing, you should not only feel better about these situations, but keep them to a minimum.
How do you manage helicopter parents? Let us know!