Guide for Parents: Working With Schools

Mark was a very bright tenth grader, age fifteen. He had been underachieving for years, had been taken to several doctors, and had undergone evaluative testing. He had been labeled as having Attention Deficit Disorder, which was later ruled out, and had been on medication for several years. He had spent three and a half years going to different therapists, and there was no progress during twelve years of various types of treatment.

Through the collaboration program at Mark's high school, the significant adults in his life were brought together. They found that Mark was angry at his father for insisting on having his way, and that Mom disagreed with Dad's approach and agreed with Mark. Mom and Dad began to work out their differences, while Mark and his teachers worked out ways that he would succeed. Through continued work in family therapy, Mark's father began to understand him better and become more nurturing. Mark responded by becoming more productive and decided to transfer to technical school to follow his interests in art and electronics.

Who's to Blame?

The family and the school are widely regarded as the two most important influences in the development of a teenager's values and attitudes. Yet, they often end up fighting each other. Families blame schools; schools blame families for teenagers' problems and failures. Both blame satanic music, MTV, peer pressure, learning disabilities, and the Colombian drug lords.

When so many of our kids are dropping out of high school and a fair number are graduating illiterate, it is understandable that society wants to find someone to blame. But it is not MTV or dozens of other pseudocauses. Nor is it the family or the school alone. Rather, it is the inability of the family and the school to cooperate in raising happy, responsible children.

Parent/School Collaboration

Working together concerning the children can significantly improve this situation. Parent involvement in schools generally is limited to bake sales, fund raising, and often uninformative parent teacher conferences. Efforts by parents or school personnel to increase parent involvement usually falls short of the collaborative level in which parents, teachers, and other school personnel talk candidly about children and about themselves.

Since educational and behavioral problems are often influenced by what is learned at home and at school, parents and school personnel must be willing to look in the mirror and talk about these things if teenagers are to shed their problems and improve.

Although some adolescents might have neurological or biological problems, when adolescents are underachieving, not paying attention, or disrupting the class, the cause is usually not something inside the teenager, but rather the child's reaction to the way adults treat him/her or each other.

Time For a Change

It is time for a change in the way we are raising our children. Parents must learn a balanced method of parenting in which they avoid the extremes of over- and undercontrol. Schools and other agencies must learn the same. Teenagers need to be more involved in decisions and setting goals for themselves. Poor child-rearing results in "motivational deficit disorder," a condition of apathy and confusion, where the teenager has few goals or self-regulation. But the answer to adolescent problems is not more parenting classes or motivational techniques by teachers. Neither is it medication, special education, or psychiatric hospitalization. Rather, it is greater and more open cooperation between parents and school personnel.



1. Look at the home and school environment for causes of educational and behavioral problems before you try to solve them. Poor relationships are the most likely cause of adolescent problems.

2. Talk to your child about problem behavior. Ask questions. Don't lecture, yell, or threaten. When parents are reasonable and caring, kids generally are too.

3. Trust your teenager. Most of the time they deserve it. When they don't, be calm. They'll usually be willing to change.

4. Be a good role model. This is the most powerful influence on children. Be happy, productive adults, and your kids will be happy and productive, too.

5. Whether married or divorced, work together cooperatively with your child's other parent. Kids do best when they have two active, loving parents, married or divorced.


1. When home or school problems are not getting resolved, talk with your child's teacher, school psychologist, social worker, guidance counselor, or administrator. They are sometimes reluctant to tell you everything they are thinking about your child's problems. Remember, they are human beings, are usually married, and have children, too. They often are having similar problems, and will openly share their ideas and observations about your child if you aren't defensive and clearly want to hear what they've observed.

2. When possible, make sure that both biological parents (even it divorced) and all stepparents participate in discussions between home and school. One extra person can sometimes be the difference between success and failure.

3. Solutions to adolescent problems are much more likely to occur if family-school collaboration is supervised by a trained family therapist or consultant. The family therapist can suggest the use of specific tools that might not be used by your school, for example, a daily report card which provides feedback to parents on their child's classroom performance, homework, attitude, and behavior.

5. Discuss the collaboration model with school personnel. Encourage them to work more with parents. Don't take 'no' for an answer. School systems are sometimes reluctant to open up to new ways of doing things. Be persistent.

Reprinted from Today's Family, a publication of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy

For appointments and scheduled consultations, please contact Dr. J. Brien O'Callaghan at or write to him at J. Brien O'Callaghan, Ph.D., 246 Federal Road, C-32, Brookfield, CT 06804