Sometimes your child gets into a situation that requires them to “repair” or, even sometimes, “repent.” Often you will be the one to dole out these consequences. However, once your child is in school, there may come a time when they “get in trouble” and you get that dreaded call from the office or a teacher. What if you or your child think the consequence for their action is unfair or unwarranted? We spoke with experts about how best to navigate this challenging situation.
Check in with yourself before you react
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Before you begin asking for each person’s side of the story, check in with yourself. “First and foremost, I want every single parent of ‘that kid’ to know that they are not alone, and their child is not broken,” says Dayna Abraham, teacher, parenting expert, and author of Superkids Activity Guide to Conquering Everyday, Sensory Processing 101, and the upcoming Calm the Chaos: A Failproof Roadmap for Parenting Even the Most Challenging Kids, which is based on her popular workshop of the same name. Abraham says, “The world is still adapting and learning how to create environments where our children can thrive.”
Even though it’s hard to quell your own sense of justice, try to keep your temper in check. “Despite the desire to jump in and attack the school officials, telling them what’s what and how things should and shouldn’t be done, I encourage you to put any finger-pointing and speeches away for now,” Abraham says.
Keeping the failures of our society in mind, Abraham urges parents that, “When something happens between your child and school that feels unfair, it is important that the first thing you do before calling or talking with any school official is to ground yourself. It’s imperative to first check your own thoughts and feelings about the situation.” She says parents can journal and reflect about their feelings of shame and anger, “why the punishment feels unfair, what works at home, and what you would do differently.” From there, you can contact the school, camp, or childcare facility.
Know your rights and get the facts
It’s important to know your parental rights when it comes to discipline and your child. Laws vary based on the setting (public school, private camp, or daycare), and state, so “If you’re not sure what the rules and regulations are regarding discipline in your state, call the state department of education and ask for help,” says Paulette Selman, a school psychologist and special education advocate in Oregon and Washington. However, she says, “you typically have the right to appeal a disciplinary decision.”
Try to establish the best person to contact based on the setting and situation. In a school, that might be the principal, but at daycare, it might be your child’s teacher or the daycare director.
“Request a phone conversation so you can get all the relevant information about the incident that occurred, and express your concerns regarding the disciplinary action,” Selman suggests. “Remember that school staff cannot tell you details of another child’s behavior or discipline, so you will not be told how any other children involved were disciplined.”
Make sure to get a few perspectives. “Get information from both your child and the school before jumping to any assumptions,” Abraham says. “This might take more than one meeting, but this deep dive into all of the parts that led up to the ‘incident’ that caused the school to punish the child will allow you and the school to fully understand the scope of the situation and create plans for the future that will work better than the proposed punishment.”
Once you know the basics of the situation, you can get into your concerns or make a plan to talk about the situation once you’ve thought it through.
While you are, understandably, concerned for your child, there are some ways to talk about difficult disciplinary decisions that are more likely to foster cooperation.
“Start the conversation with what’s currently working well and what you see them trying to do,” Abraham says. “Appreciate the hard job they have and what they are attempting to do with your child.” This establishes a common ground and reminds all parties that you are here for the best interests of the child.
Let them speak first about the situation. Abraham says, “listening to their concerns, hearing their core desires and what they ultimately want for your child and finding common goals you each hold for your child,” will set you up for more success when you bring in your own point of view. When you talk about what you might disagree with regarding the situation, “Try to express your concerns clearly and respectfully, and move forward with a plan of action for if trouble should arise again,” Selman says. The future-focus is helpful to move past this incident and set your child up to avoid these types of situations in the future.
When you still don’t feel it’s fair
The school may or may not be able or willing to reverse a current decree. If the punishment feels too extreme or completely off base, make sure you know exactly what the school is allowed to do. Suspension or other forms of “exclusionary discipline” may or may not be best practice or permitted.
You need to look at your exact child’s situation. Selman says, “many states have taken action to address how schools apply discipline, and have laid out guidelines that schools must follow. If your child has a disability or you suspect they may have a disability, or if they have a special education plan or 504 accommodation plan, more rules apply that restrict disciplinary options. Students with special education or 504 plans have rights that limit how many days they can be removed for disciplinary action, especially if the behavior was related to their disability.”
Since, exclusionary discipline is applied disproportionately to students of color and students with disabilities, many schools are moving toward a “restorative justice model,” instead, which means “helping the child restore relationships that were impacted by the behavior—for example, writing an apology note to a teacher or classmate,” Selman says. The appeal of restorative justice, she says, is it “uses the ‘teachable moment’ and natural consequences to help a child learn how their behavior affects others, rather than emphasizing old-school obedience and punishment.” You can request a restorative justice consequence for your child instead of other forms of punishment.
Hopefully this is a smooth process that will, as Abraham says, “empower both you, your child, and the school with a plan that works to meet the goals everyone has for your child.” But Selman says, especially when a disability is in play, “If behavior is happening repeatedly, the team needs to address the behavior and how to prevent and respond to it.” If you still feel like your child’s needs are not being met, Selman says that is when you may want to look into contacting an advocate.