William M. Ferriter

William M. Ferriter is a sixth-grade science teacher in a professional learning community near Raleigh, North Carolina. A National Board Certified Teacher, he has designed professional development courses for educators nationwide.

Leaning on Parents is NOT an 'Intervention'

The joy of my life is my 10-year-old daughter, Reece. She’s beautiful and funny and smart and curious—and I’d do anything to help her succeed.

That’s why her third-grade year was so darn frustrating to me.

You see, Reece had a terrible year academically, socially and behaviorally.

She had conflicts with her classmates and her teacher, she struggled with her assignments, and she found herself on the radar of every administrator and counselor in the building.

I’d get regular email updates every time something went wrong for Reece in class—and I’d do what all good parents do: I’d sit down with her, talk through the situation that had gotten her in trouble, remind her of my expectations for her at school, and give her a consequence for not following her teacher’s directions.

I even called her every single morning on the way to school to encourage her to have her best day, figuring that a reminder first thing in the morning from Dad might help her to be successful.

After yet another tough week, though, her classroom teacher requested a parent conference.

The meeting was ugly from the beginning. Reece’s teacher spent the first 10 minutes listing all the things that she didn’t like about my kid. Her concerns addressed academic outcomes (“she’s not reading on grade level”), skill outcomes (“her handwriting is impossible to read”), and behavioral outcomes (“she argues with her peers all the time”).

As a parent, I was bothered because I could tell that this teacher saw nothing of value in my child.

That made me sad.

But as a teacher, I wanted to know more about the steps that Reece’s teacher was taking to address the gaps that she had noticed in my daughter’s performance. “So, tell me what you have tried to help Reece meet your expectations?” I asked.

Her answer: “Well, Mr. Ferriter, I’ve emailed you every time that I’ve seen her struggle.  And I’m having a parent conference with you right now.”

Can you spot the weakness in that reply?

An intervention, as defined by Response to Intervention experts Austen Buffum, Mike Mattos and Chris Weber (2012), “is anything that a school does, above and beyond what all students receive, that helps a child succeed in school” (p. 129).

Interventions are deliberate actions taken by professional educators to address the academic, social or behavioral weaknesses displayed by individual children. Each intervention is selected and delivered based on the collective knowledge and expertise of collaborative teams—and when initial attempts at intervention fail, teams work together to identify new strategies worth trying.

That means parent communication is NOT an intervention. Plain and simple.

Here’s why: Parents—regardless of their level of education—don’t have the knowledge and skill to provide systematic interventions to address the school-based academic, social, and behavioral needs of their children.

That responsibility belongs to the classroom teacher, to the professional learning teams working together to study practice inside the schoolhouse, and to the other professionals—guidance counselors, principals, social workers—charged with supporting struggling students.

Sure, letting parents know about the struggles of individual students is a responsible act. 

And sometimes, those notifications may result in improvements.  A parent might hire a tutor for their child to address academic gaps or a student might change their behavior in response to home-based consequences.

But seeing parent communication as your primary intervention—instead of as nothing more than providing information—is a cop-out.  

John Holt, who was researching high performing schools all the way back in 1964, called this “making alibis” for poor performance:

“The researchers then examined [high performing schools] to find what qualities they had in common.

Of the five they found, two struck me as crucial: 1) if the students did not learn, the schools did not blame them, or their families, backgrounds neighborhoods, attitudes, nervous systems, or whatever. They did not alibi. They took full responsibility for the results or non-results of their work.

2) When something they were doing in the class did not work, they stopped doing it, and tried to do something else. They flunked unsuccessful methods, not the children.”

Brilliant, right?  

High-performing teachers don’t blame the students or their families or their backgrounds or their attitudes when kids struggle with academic, behavioral or social outcomes in school. They take full responsibility for the “non-results of their work” and then they ditch unsuccessful practices and try something new.

That’s an important lesson to learn, y’all.

Our goal isn’t to lean on parents when students are struggling in class. Our job is to relentlessly question our own practice until we can find ways to help every child succeed.

Period. End of discussion.

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