School  Problems

School problems are touchy issues. Often, parents are more concerned than children and it’s hard to get involved without taking over or exerting too much control, either of which can backfire.


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Homework is a child’s responsibility—we need to be careful how much we help. We need to be aware of what our children are doing and be involved in helpful ways, but not help too much. Keep the ball in the child’s court. Avoid the word “we”—it implies that school issues are partly our responsibility. Say, “When are you going to do your   homework?” If they require assistance, say “I am willing to look at what you are doing.” If they are having problems with their homework, use listening skills to figure out why. We don’t want to assume the child is lazy or incompetent.

  • If children have a time management problem, have them schedule their time, instead of telling children when to do homework. Ask questions such as, “How much time do you need for homework each night? Would you like to play after school and study after dinner? Or study after school and play until dark? How can you remember when it is time to stop playing and do your homework?”

A Personal Story. One of Amber’s teachers required the children in her class to use a homework journal that was so complicated it took me three weeks to learn! Amber and I did some problem solving and found a way to use the school’s basic system with symbols Amber chose and could more easily follow.

  • If children don’t understand the homework, ask questions that help them figure out the answer. “What are you supposed to do here? How can you find the answer? Where in the book does it talk about this? What does it say?” If the information is there, but children don’t understand it, we can try to explain it. We do not have to understand what children are learning to be helpful. All we really need to know are the skills for helping our children figure it out for themselves. If children seem to need daily help, they may benefit more from a tutor than from our taking so much responsibility for helping them. It’s a delicate balance to help, without fostering dependency, rescuing, or helping too much.
A Personal Story. In high school, my husband took honors calculus. When he was stuck on a problem, he’d ask his mom for help. She didn’t have the slightest clue about calculus, so she’d say, “Show me what you are working on.” As he explained the problem, the answer would suddenly come to him. He’d say “Thanks Mom!”

Instead of taking on children’s responsibilities . . .            . . . guide them to their own solution.


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Children who have given up on school are experiencing a deeper problem. Use the Child Problem Toolbox to find out the real issue. This is the issue that needs to be resolved. You may want to enlist professional guidance, if indicated. The “real issue” and improving poor school performance will take longer to improve than other school problems.

If children forget a book, lunch, or homework, teach skills (Chapter 6, “Independence Toolset.”) and use problem solving to have children chose self-reminders. Children are responsible for getting themselves off to school, so avoid being their reminder or rescuer. If the problem occurs often, it usually affects parents, so we cover these issues in more detail in Chapter 13, “Discipline Toolset.”


When children have a problem with a teacher or principal, it is a Child/Teacher problem. We can offer support to either party and do problem solving with children to see if they can resolve the problem directly with the teacher. Brainstorm ideas and help children practice what to say to the teacher. Try to anticipate the various responses the teacher might have, positive or negative, and how children can respond. Emphasize that it is their problem and we want them to give it their best shot before we get involved.

A Personal Story. When Chris was in fourth grade, his teacher outlined the rules for turning in schoolwork. She said they had until recess to finish their work. If it was not done by then, they had to stay inside for recess. Recess was a top priority to Chris.

One day, he waited to turn in a paper until right before recess. The teacher told him it was late and he’d have to stay inside for recess, even though the work was already done. She said the paper was due an hour before recess and this had always been the rule. Chris thought the teacher had changed the rules without telling him. He didn’t see the logic of staying inside to work on a paper that was finished.

When he told me about the situation after school, I acknowledged his feelings. I could see how the teacher’s actions would seem unfair if the rules had actually changed. I encouraged him to double-check the rule with the teacher, but he didn’t want to talk to her directly. I told him it wasn’t my place to step in, if he hadn’t talked to her first. He was afraid of how she might react, so we role-played the possibilities. He agreed to follow whatever rule the teacher set, even if it wasn’t what he thought it should be.

The next day, he asked the teacher to clarify the rule. She said the deadline was one hour before recess. He wasn’t happy, but at least he knew which rule to follow. He had also taken a giant step forward by having the courage to talk to the teacher directly. He never missed the deadline again.

When we meet with teachers to discuss problems and children are present, don’t talk about them like they aren’t there. Involve the children and serve as a mediator between them and the teacher. Use problem solving to address the teacher and child’s feelings, ideas, and needs. Only make commitments to be responsible for tasks that are truly a parent’s responsibility. We can agree to teach the child skills or use problem solving to develop plans. We need to maintain a balance; we want to be responsible, supportive parents, without overstepping boundaries and solving the problem for children or teachers.



In most situations, we use the same skills with our children’s peers and friends that we would if the other children were their siblings. If other children do not have the skills our children have, we can coach them through the problem-solving process.


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When children are young, through early elementary school, we have more influence over their choice of friends. If we don’t like a friend’s influence, we can invite the friend to play at our house, where our rules apply, and keep an eye on their interactions. If the friend’s behavior is unintentional, for example not sharing or being bossy, we can redirect the behavior by offering helpful suggestions for positive behavior. When conflicts arise, we can handle the problem as we would any other parenting problem. If we use a balanced, respectful approach, other parents will not object to anything we do. If the friend’s behavior is detrimental to our children, either physically or by exposing them to values and behaviors we cannot tolerate, we need to set more firm limits. The friend can choose to abide by the rules in our house or choose not to play there.
As children get older, junior high through teens, parents have less influence over their decisions. If we don’t like a teen’s friends, we can first try the approach described above. Usually, though, teens socialize away from home. If we forbid our teens from seeing particular friends, they will usually rebel. They may defend the friend more strongly and make an extra effort to keep the friend, just to prove we can’t control them and our opinions about their friends are wrong.

A Parenting Class Experience. Toni, age 15, and her father were angry when they arrived at the Teen and Parents—Together class. They had gotten in a huge argument because Toni knew her father had to meet her friends before she could go out with them and intentionally defied this rule.

Toni told the group that she was willing to bring her friends to the house but her father was always rude to them. He criticized the way they dressed and “gave them the third degree.” She was so embarrassed and angry she decided she’d rather be disciplined for breaking the rule than put herself and her friends through that humiliation.

All Toni’s father could hear was “I am willing to do it but won’t.” The group helped the father focus on what Toni meant. I mediated, helping them listen to each other, state their needs, and negotiate an agreement. They agreed that if Toni brought her friend’s home, her father would treat them with respect. Because the father had broken this promise in the past, they agreed to practice specific questions he could ask to address his concerns respectfully. It was a temporary role reversal, but Toni had a better grasp of respectful communication and her father was willing to improve his skills by listening to her suggestions.

Instead of lecturing, accusing, and restricting children from seeing their friends, use F-A-X communication. The goal is to help children see for themselves that this friend might not be a good influence. We can ask questions now and then, not all at once like an interrogation. For example, “Have you noticed John sometimes ___? Has he ever done this to you? How did you feel? What did you do?” After one of these discussions, back off for a bit and give children time to think about the points they realized through our questions. Often, if we express our concerns respectfully, listen to their concerns, and express trust in their judgment, children realize on their own that this friend may not be a good influence. This process may not be quick. While we wait, we need to trust our child’s judgment and pray—for guidance, patience, and for our child’s protection.

If our children’s friends are involved in dangerous or extremely inappropriate behavior, we need to take a stand and risk a power struggle—but we must carefully plan our strategy. Our concerns are Parent problems, while peer relationships are Child problems. We can use the Clear Communication Toolset to describe what we’ve seen, instead of judging or labeling their friends. Instead of singling out one friend, we set bottom-line limits with general rules, “You can only go to someone’s house if a parent is there and I have met the friend.” Once we set limits, we need to listen to and acknowledge our child’s feelings of frustration, resentment or anger toward us. If we use F-A-X communication, we can usually get agreements that address our concerns and teach teens the skills they need to handle more


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freedom responsibly. We discuss this type of parent/child problem solving in Chapter 10, “Clear Communication Toolset” and appropriate disciplines for breaking agreements in Chapter 13, “Discipline Toolset.”

A Personal Story. I’ve never had a serious concern about any of Chris’ friends, but Amber has had problems with other girls’ being bossy, rejecting, lying and trying to take advantage of her since she entered preschool. (Imagine trying to explain cliqués to a four-year-old!)

When problems arise with Amber’s friends, I first do problem solving to see if there is anything Amber can do to resolve the problem herself. I teach her the language skills she needs to stand up for herself respectfully and to offer win/win choices to the other child. Sometimes, the problem continues. If Amber has tried every reasonable option, I ask her whether playing with this friend is worth being mistreated. Amber usually has enough self-respect that she says she would rather not play with the child. I back up her decision and we brainstorm other options for playmates.

There have been only two friends that I have had to restrict her from seeing. One girl was a chronic liar and Amber was picking up the habit. The girl also engaged in sexually inappropriate activities that made Amber feel uncomfortable and shameful. Another girl repeatedly teased, criticized, and humiliated Amber. I also had intuitive gut feelings that Amber might not be safe at this girl’s house. Only in these two cases have I felt strongly enough about the emotional, physical, moral risks to my daughter to put my foot down and forbid Amber from being friends. In one case, Amber agrees and is grateful I’ve given her an “easy out” for not playing with the girl. The other girl, however, lives close by and Amber wishes she could still play with her. She disagrees that there is a continued risk. At these times, we have another discussion, in which I acknowledge her feelings of disappointment and disagreement. I ask questions instead of lecturing, to help Amber see why I still have concerns and what her other options are.

The most extreme case of choosing bad friends is joining a gang. The most common reasons teens join gangs are to gain acceptance, have a sense of identity, feel secure (protected), and have more power and control. These are all age-appropriate teen issues, but gang membership is a very negative way to meet these needs. Because gangs require a strong commitment, their members develop intense loyalty; the gang then becomes their new “family.” When we look at the gang member’s real family, we often find it lacks many of the qualities the teen is seeking. When the teen’s only obvious choices are to have the needs go unfulfilled or to meet the needs in negative ways, some teens will choose the latter.

If you live in a gang-infested community, prevention is the key. Give children love and acceptance, emotional support, loving protection (setting reasonable limits in respectful ways), and offer appropriate ways to develop independence and a positive identity. Develop healthy listening and communication skills. If children grow up in a healthy, loving family, there is less chance they will seek a substitute “family”—a gang.

If your teen is already in a gang or deeply involved with extremely negative friends, you’ll need to work even harder to develop the personal skills and family qualities that will encourage the teen to “come home.” Trying to separate teens and their friends is always difficult, no matter what you try, but there are several options. Involve the teen in meaningful activities (youth groups, sports teams, volunteer work, summer camps). When teens are involved in purposeful activities, they have less time, desire, and opportunity to get into trouble. Have the teen spend the summer with relatives. The change can offer the break the teen needs to make a fresh start. Change schools. This option may not be financially feasible, but don’t automatically rule it out. It may be worth the financial sacrifice to give your teen the chance to see that there are teens who enjoy life without engaging in antisocial behavior. If all the above fail, don’t give up. Be firm and keep open lines of communication. If we alienate teens in the process of protecting them, we may win a few battles but lose the “war,” which is our desire to reach our healthy long-term parenting goals.


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It’s hard to trust teens who are exposed to negative influences (they all are). Things are so different and more dangerous than when we were teens. Parents have to do what is best for their children and their family. Most teens can be trusted more than their parents think they can. If teens respect themselves and have the courage, determination, and skills to resist peer pressure, other teens will not necessarily influence them. If parents express unconditional love, show trust and keep the lines of communication open, their teens are more likely to conduct themselves in trustworthy ways. As teens mature and come into their own identity, negative friends usually have less influence on them.