The Unwritten Rules for Back to School

The rules have changed and there is a good chance you don’t know what they are.  I’m not talking about rules such as no running in the hallway, raise your hand, and wait to be called on before speaking, or even the no bullying policy.  I am talking about the unwritten rules that no one talks about.  

Rule 1.  Not all kids get treated the same by teachers and administrators.  If you are thinking that well behaved kids get treated better; you aren’t totally wrong, but if you think it stops there then you are missing the big picture. Gone are the days when school employees went out of their way to avoid doing anything that might prompt others to say their child was receiving special attention or privileges. The higher a student’s  parent is in the chain of command the more perks the child is likely to receive. Like every rule, this one has exceptions, but they are more rare than most realize or care to admit. The other kids notice it but most don’t say anything; they realize that there would be no point. What message does this send?

Special treatment is also extended to the kids that have parents that can keep the school looking good in the public eye.  Like it or not school’s are businesses and need to maintain their public image. If a child’s parent(s) works for the local newspaper or other major media source then the school will try harder to keep them happy. After all, administrators never know when they will need to play their, “don’t make this public card.”  School’s can’t avoid having their test scores published; but they can, sometimes, keep the fact that an elementary child brought a loaded gun to school at the rumor level rather than public knowledge. Yes, I’m serious.

Local policy makers, elected officials and friends of school administration are among other groups that can reasonably expect special favors. You are accustomed to this sort of thing in the business world where the most qualified person isn’t always the one hired or promoted.  It is the same type of behavior, but its kids that are getting short-changed. It is part of the learning process, reading, arithmetic and life isn’t fair.

If you doubt that this is accurate, I challenge you to think of the best teacher in your child’s school. You know the one, loves kids, loves learning, and has a real talent for teaching; the one that all the kids and their parents hope to get when the child reaches the particular level or subject taught by this professional. Take a look at who the students are in that class and the influence of their parents. Coincidence had nothing to do with the names on the roster.

Rule 2  If your child has an invisible disability they are at higher risk to be bullied by their fellow students (and staff). Frequently TV, movies and books try to show the bullied kid as being handicapped in a way that is obvious, such as the child that uses a wheelchair or having a profound learning disability.  The reality is that these kids usually fly under the bullying radar and classmates typically just leave them alone. Being left out is far from ideal, but it beats being taunted or tortured. Kids with severe illnesses, the one going through chemo and has lost all their hair, or the one one a special diet due to a chronic condition, are likewise not prime targets for bullying. In fact, their classmates may be protective of them and treat them with extra care and compassion.

  The kids at greatest risk of being bullied are the ones that look like all the rest, but are still different.  The kid with ADHD or tourettes, the one on the high end of the autism spectrum or the kid that is just socially awkward, these are the ones at greatest risk. Sometimes, they are different is a way that defies explanation to both kids and adults. Both kids and adults often fail to demonstrate empathy when they don’t understand the reasons a person acts the way they do. In some cases teachers know about the underlying reasons for a kid’s quirkiness but they can’t reveal this sensitive information to the class. Even if they could offer an explanation to the quirky kid’s peers it wouldn’t guarantee empathy on the part of the classmates. If you parent such a child know it isn’t going to be easy for them or for you.

   Consider having a teacher or counselor speak to the students or share a book that explores your child’s particular condition.  Giving classmates the facts can build empathy. If you decide to go this route I recommend an in-depth discussion with the teacher or counselor ahead of time.  The person that leads this discussion must be prepared to answer difficult questions in a non-judgmental manner. It is also important to include your child in preliminary planning and if the child doesn’t want anyone to talk with the class then their privacy should be honored.  Again, this is something that you may consider, but I am in no way saying it is appropriate in all circumstances.

Teachers are human and they will relate better to certain children than they do to others.  Most try to be fair. There will be kids that will, intentionally or not, push certain teacher’s frustration buttons.  Some of those staff members will be less patient than others. When the kid that gets picked on is also the kid that annoys the teacher on a regular basis then it fans the flames of bullying.  Yes, the teacher is the adult and should be expected to keep his/her emotions in check, but can anyone, in any job, leave their emotions at home? On going, serious effort is essential and some schools have a climate that makes it okay when effort is lacking on the part of the adults. 

Rule 3  Many of us grew up in a time when if you got in trouble at school then you got in more trouble at home. It is still ideal when school and home communicate and work as as team. Time is a big part of the communication break down. Use caution in letting the school handle more substantial issues in regards to your child’s discipline and education.  If you aren’t willing to step up to the plate for your child then you might as well send the school an affidavit stating they can treat your child in any manner they choose. The staff knows who they must coddle, and who they can disregard. That said, remember that no child is perfect, not even yours. Don’t choose to fight every battle as you will get frustrated and your child will be labeled, “that kid with the crazy parent,” but know when to step in.

Prevention will go a long way is such matters, and your best defense is to be a familiar face to school employees. If your career or community status doesn’t make you well known within your community, then be sure to show your face at school both during school hours and at school sponsored events. Chat with staff and schmooze away. Personally, I despise schmoozing and I didn’t go that route, but fair or unfair, love it or hate it, it makes a difference.

When your child has a complaint your first job as parent or guardian is to listen to them.  Pay attention and ask questions for clarification as needed. There may not be a way for them to prove their claim, but you should still ask things such as, who witnessed the event, where did it happen, and what action the teacher or administrator has already taken.

If the school reaches out to you about an infraction committed by your child it is a mistake to automatically believe everything you are told.  The same questions of who witnessed the action and how things are being handled are still appropriate. After getting information from the school, talk with your child about what happened. I recall a time I chewed out my son after receiving an email from his  middle school team leader that said he had been in a fight and that another student’s shirt had been ripped from their body. The real story was that my son and his friend were play fighting, not a single punch thrown by either of them. When I finally got to the bottom of it, I learned that my son’s version was the truth. The other student put my kid in a headlock and in doing so his shirt was raised high enough to expose his abdomen.  The boys picked a poor location to play in this manner but it was the teacher, followed by the team leader that exaggerated what happened and made it sound violent. There had been no fight, no one had their shirt torn, much less torn from their body. Teachers gripe about drama in the middle school but in this case they created it.

Remember, write down what happened according to your child and others. Name names, date it and let it be known you have it. Don’t threaten anyone, that won’t help, simply referring to your notes as you talk to the admin will get the point across in an efficient manner. Hang onto your notes and anything in writing from the school. If the school employees continue to treat your child unfairly; you may need that documentation.

Rule 3  Talk to the Boss. When there is a significant problem you need to jump line and head straight to the administration. They would prefer you talk first to the teacher but that isn’t in your child’s best interest. The principal should be your first contact, unless it is a very severe event, in which case you may want to start with the superintendent. Engage in a non-threatening conversation and expect the same in return.  When they say they can’t name other kids names or tell you about another kids consequences, they really can’t. It’s frustrating, but true. They also have to honor the same in regards to your child; be sure they do.

Before anything happens to prompt you to have to request an audience with the principal, and hopefully you will never need to do that, listen to your child. When/if your child or grandchild talks to you about things that aren’t fair at school your first job is to listen without judging or asking too many questions.  Remember that kids sometimes embellish the story. Usually they do this because they fear that just the truth won’t be strong enough on it’s own to grab your attention. After they share their concern talk about their feelings. What do they think should happen? How do they feel about it? Who saw it, other kids, other staff? Many times the child just wants to be heard.

I wanted to close this entry by saying that most students enjoy school but I didn’t find enough evidence to support such a claim.  According to Web MD, “75% off students express negative emotions about school.” Forbes magazine reports, “Upwards of 40% of all high school students are chronically disengaged.”  Student’s report through questions on the NAEP, National Assessment of Educational Progress, that only 49% of fourth graders enjoy school and by eighth grade it falls to 26% .

Ready or not it’s time for school. Give your babies a hug and tell them you love them. Really listen when they talk to you, and in the words of song-writer Cat Stevens remember, “Oh baby, baby, it’s a wild world.”

Thanks to the following that allowed the use of their photographs: Josh Applegate, Nicole Honeywill, Chinh Le Duc, and Element 5.

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