Each new school year offers students the gift of a fresh start. The fact that a teacher doesn’t have preconceived notions about them offers them an opportunity to grow, but there are also challenges to a blank slate.
Sometimes, there are things a teacher does need to know, and a little communication from a parent can make a big difference.
Kellie Barragan, a kindergarten teacher in California with 12 years of experience, told HuffPost that if a student is having a rough time, the family can send a note or message with just three words: “Handle with care.” (You may have seen stories about this practice shared on social media.)
“They don’t need to elaborate, but it lets me know that this kiddo might need a little extra love and understanding that day. It’s a really easy system, and it’s another way to show families I am on their team,” Barragan said.
You don’t need to share every detail of what is happening in your family, and you and your child are entitled to your privacy. But the more a teacher knows about your child, the better they can meet their needs — academically, socially and emotionally.
If she doesn’t hear from parents or receive the survey she sends home to families, and students don’t attend a kindergarten “sneak peek” event before the start of the school year, then the only student information that Barragan might know is their name, date of birth and gender.
If parents choose to share the student’s race and/or ethnicity and any medical issues when registering their child, she’ll have those as well.
HuffPost asked several teachers what they prefer to know about the students in their class at the beginning of the year.
1. Gender, racial and ethnic identities
Gender identity is a delicate subject in certain states right now (Florida law, for example, prohibits teachers from using a child’s chosen pronouns or any name other than that listed on the roster without a parent’s permission.)
Yet, in most places, if your child identifies as a gender other than what’s listed on the class roster, you should let the teacher know before the first day.
This helps create a more welcoming environment for your child in the classroom, and teachers appreciate it when you prevent them from sticking their foot in their mouths.
The same goes for your child’s name — let the teacher know if the one they want used is anything other than what they’ll see printed on the class list.
Regarding gender and racial identity, letting the school know how your child identifies can help the school create class lists.
“Knowing a student’s gender and ethnicity and/or race helps a school create balanced classrooms so that students feel safe at school and have others with whom they identify with in their class,” Barragan said.
She added that the survey she sends home asks families about the holidays they celebrate throughout the year “so I can make sure to acknowledge all holidays celebrated by my students to make my classroom a welcoming and inclusive place”.
2. Family structure
Many teachers have gotten into the habit of referring to students’ “grown-ups” instead of the less inclusive “mums and dads”.
But old habits die hard, and it’s helpful to let a teacher know if you’re a two-mum, two-dad, grandparent-led, auntie-led or any other family.
It’s much easier to communicate positively and proactively at the beginning of the year than wait until the teacher inadvertently misspeaks and you have to tell them afterward.
3. Custody issues
If you’re in the middle of a divorce, your child’s teacher probably isn’t first on your list of people to confide in. But it’s important to make sure the teacher has an idea of what is going on.
In a more extreme example, Barragan recalled an incident where a child’s father picked him up early from school. Then, the child’s mother showed up at dismissal, asking where the child was.
“I’ll never forget the look on her face,” Barragan said. Unbeknownst to her, the parents were in the middle of a messy divorce, and mum had a restraining order out on the dad. Since he was still listed as an emergency contact in the main office, he could pick up his daughter.
“The student ended up being OK, but it was a very scary situation that could have been avoided,” Barragan continued. School paperwork may be the last thing on your mind during such times, but keeping the school up-to-date is always necessary.
Even if things aren’t quite so dire, it can be helpful to keep the teacher up to speed.
“I can help ease the transition if I know that on Mondays a kid is switching from mum’s house to dad’s house, or I can help track patterns like this student cries for hours each Monday and isn’t able to focus at school,” Barragan explained.
4. Medical concerns
Even if you’ve already filled out the forms and communicated with the school nurse, it’s helpful to ensure that a teacher knows about any medical issues that could impact the student during class.
Bryson Tarbet, a music teacher in Ohio, told HuffPost that specialist teachers who see students less frequently sometimes get left off the chain of communication about an issue (medical or other) with a specific student.
“Sometimes we kind of get left out of the conversation for a variety of reasons. But think of us — the music teachers, the librarians, the PE teachers, art teachers, whatever you have in your school — being able to be a part of that complicated conversation, even if it’s as simple as carbon copying us on an email chain that’s already happening.”
While you’re certainly under no obligation to share any details, it’s incredibly helpful for teachers to know if your child has a history of trauma and may be sensitive to certain triggers.
“Unfortunately, I teach in a school where a lot of my students have experienced a lot of trauma, and it’s really easy for me to accidentally trigger students because they don’t necessarily know what those triggers are,” Tarbet said.
This way, he said, he can avoid “accidentally making the problem worse.”
He added, “for example, I have some students that I know that if I give them any sort of confrontation in front of the class, they are going to completely shut down.”
More teachers are getting trauma-responsive training to avoid inadvertently escalating conflicts with students, but knowing specific students’ triggers and what alternative strategies have worked for them is always helpful.
Such knowledge and training, Tarbet said, has “helped me deescalate situations so that my students can be successful in my classroom.”
6. Learning differences
If your child receives special services or accommodations, your teacher should have access to that information. But it’s always helpful to hear a parent’s perspective as well.
“You, as the parent, have been around the student for a long time. We as teachers try to do our best with what we’re given and the information we have, but sometimes it just takes us a little bit of learning to understand how we can set up your students for success,” Tarbet said.
He recommended letting teachers know “if there’s certain strategies or accommodations or modifications that have been helpful in the past.”
Doing so provides another opportunity to establish communication with the teacher on a positive note, as it’s always better when your first interaction with one another isn’t regarding a problem.
7. Interests and aptitudes
Yes, teachers need to know big, serious things, like divorce, as well as medical and psychological concerns. But they also need to know the fun stuff. Is your child passionate about bugs, dinosaurs or outer space? This sort of information is equally important.
“I want to know, what makes that student tick?” Tarbet said.
Barragan encourages families to use her beginning-of-the-year survey to “brag” about their child. For any student, particularly one who may be struggling or shy, having a moment to shine as an “expert,” whether in insects or anatomy, can arm them with confidence for the rest of the year.