Helping Parents Be Less Helpful

I was doing a virtual walkthrough in a Kindergarten teacher’s Zoom classroom. The lesson was on high frequency words. The teacher led the class through her lesson with an energy unique to Kindergarten teachers.  She had them working. They began to “karate chop” the words. I watched a whole class of adorably eager faces shout out each letter of a word as their arms chopped across their bodies.  The class was perfectly engaged in the learning.  After this incredible display of teaching acumen, the teacher began calling on students to read the words they just learned. After seeing the level of enthusiasm the class displayed during the lesson I was certain each would read the words effortlessly. She called on the first student and held up a flashcard. The student took a brief pause and then I heard in a not-so-kindergarten voice, “It’s the, the word is the, say the.”  The child looked at her dad, then her teacher, and quietly said “the.”

Why are parents helping so much, even when they shouldn’t?

It’s important to understand this might be the first time parents have really seen the productive struggle side of school. Typically, parental involvement in school revolves around school events, parent/teacher conferences, volunteering, etc.  Parents are generally not present to see the nitty-gritty of the learning process.

Now, they are front row audience members to the process. Added to this, school looks much different now than it did a few decades ago. As one teacher explained: when we were younger, school focused on the memorization of facts. Now we prioritize critical thinking and problem solving and that’s more ambiguous and messy. Parents aren’t used to seeing that and it can cause discomfort.

Combine these two phenomena with a pandemic induced virtual learning model and we have some worried parents who understandably feel the need to offer some overzealous support to their kids. But, as educators we know that isn’t always in the best interest of our students.

As teachers, how can we support parents in letting their children struggle a bit? How can we help parents be less helpful?

Make connections to traditional school

During remote learning, there has been a lot of discussion about the importance of maintaining familiar routines, even as teachers and students are performing their responsibilities from home.  In traditional school, parents drop their children at school in the morning and trust their teachers to guide their educational development throughout the day.  Remote learning does not have to be much different. Granted, young students may need assistance getting their technology established and logging into class properly. However, once that is accomplished, let parents know it’s okay to “drop” their child off at school by stepping away and leaving the room. Some parents may believe we want or need them to stay the whole class period. It’s our responsibility to communicate to them that it’s okay to leave for a while. We’ve got well-planned lessons and their kids will be okay.

Be organized and over communicate

Some of the parents’ urge to hover over their children is related to the very real and understandable stress parents are feeling with having their children in remote learning. They’re worried about the progress their children are making and the sense of disorder that accompanies the unknown.  As educators, we can help alleviate some of the stress by over-communicating with families. We can restore some order to a very disorderly situation. For example, Fisher, Fry, and Hattie in Distance Learning Playbook recommend a simple weekly planner be sent home to families. This could go a long way in making the unknown more visible. The weekly planner should contain virtual meeting links and an outline of each day to include: meeting times, learning goals and success criteria, links to needed materials/videos, and what products the student must submit.  Providing this type of resource to families would help alleviate some of their stress. It would also demonstrate our preparedness and build trust in our daily routines.

Explain the why

When asked to change a behavior or practice, most of us want to know the why behind the request. Parents are no different. If we want them to allow their children to be more independent during remote learning, we need to tell them why. We need to explain that mistakes are an important part of children’s learning and development. The absence of mistakes means we are failing in our responsibility to challenge students appropriately.

Further, we need to educate parents about the importance of academic feedback. As teachers we need to see our students’ thought processes and the products of their learning. This allows us to provide essential feedback to students that will further their progress. If parents are over-assisting their children, teachers are left unable to deliver accurate feedback, which hinders student growth. If we explain this to parents, I’m confident they will allow their children more academic independence.

Don’t be afraid to have an honest conversation

Despite our best efforts, there may come a time when we need to be more direct. Well-intentioned parents may continue to provide too much support to their children even after we’ve employed strategies to encourage less parental intervention in the classroom.  At this point you need an honest conversation.  Be kind and empathetic, knowing the parent is trying their best.  Explain why their child needs more academic autonomy and then promptly offer some concrete suggestions. For example, establish a routine in which the parent helps their child get into class, stays for the class greeting and then leaves the room for 20 minutes. This is a good place to start and can be slowly improved over time.

During these unprecedented times, it’s important we build and maintain connected partnerships with our students’ families.  For those partnerships to be as effective as possible, we need to establish the roles each partner plays in the development and support of students. Helping parents know when to help and when to be less helpful will result in less stress for families and greater academic gains for our students.


Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels


Nicole Wolff

I’m a California native. However, I’ve spent my entire career teaching in Arizona public schools, as well as instructing at the university level. My passion for teacher advocacy and support led me to become an Instructional Coach in 2013. I am currently a coach at a K-8 school in Goodyear and love the students and teachers I get to work with every day. I have spent my career actively involved in instructional improvement, chairing many committees including Response to Intervention, Academic Accountability, and Professional Development Committees. I was named Dysart Hero (teacher of the year) in 2012. I was honored to serve as a 2017-18 Arizona Hope Street Teacher Fellow. I earned a Bachelor’s in Elementary Education and a Master’s in Education/ESL from Ottawa University. I am a National Board Certified Teacher. I’m also endorsed as an Early Childhood Specialist, Reading Specialist, and Gifted Specialist. In my free time, I enjoy reading, camping, and spending time with my family.

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