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Cooperative Learning: Helping your child navigate the bumps of school

That's my boy. The photo is from about five years ago. These days the top of his head reaches the base of my eyes, his shoe sizes surpasses my own, and he knows more about alternative energy than anyone I know.

He's a perfectionist and a dreamer, and sometimes the two clash. He's bright...too bright for his own good at times.

Recently, we've had incidents of complete freak-out sessions over assignments, something rare for him. We hear about them only at the quiet time of night, when we're finished saying prayers and the safety of darkness covers the expressions of shame and fear.

"I don't think I'm going to finish my LEAP project in time."

"When is it due?"

"I don't know," now sobbing, "I don't know, and I have to finish my citations and I don't know how to do it, and Mr. B showed us a long time ago, but I didn't get it, and now I have to finish it, and I...ooohhhhhhhhhh."

The boy also tends toward the dramatic.

We also learn of these stresses through an increased sullenness and more frequent eye rolls.

"Buddy, is everything okay? You seem a little off today."

Insert enormous eye roll. "Yeeeeesss!" Insert gigantic sigh.

"Are you sure? You seem upset about something."

"Ugh! I have a book project to finish and I don't know when it's supposed to be done, but I asked Miss C about it today and she told me I had two activities to choose for morning work and that wasn't one of them. And I'm trying to do it, but I don't know what I'm supposed to do, and now I'll never get it done, and I want to do well but if I don't turn it in.....ooohhhhh....there's only three days left of school and one of the days is Field Day..." Child breaks into sobbing with a red face, hands clenched into white-knuckled fists, and shaking.

Do you see a pattern forming? We definitely did.

When your child hits a wall at school - whether it's a long-term project, daily assignments, or a personality conflict with a teacher - it's easy to want to step in and fix it. Often, we don't think that our kids possess the emotional or mental capacity to deal with these delicate situations. And in some senses, that's true. However, they will also never learn how to deal with situations of conflict and stress if we don't walk them through it and teach them.

I'm not claiming to be an expert, by any means, but I've spend time on both sides now. Have been a teacher, I've experienced parents who've approached this is a positive way, and those who've approached a not-so-positive way. As a parent, I've experienced those "mama bear" feelings where I just want to dive in and make everything okay for my kid. I think somewhere in between sits the balance.

So I want to offer some tips today on how to help your kiddo deal with stress or conflict at school. You don't have to follow the advice, but just promise me you'll think about it.

1. Get the whole story and be gracious: Do your best to gently get at the heart of the problem. For us, at first it seemed like my boy's teacher was being unfair. However, after digging a little deeper, we realized our kiddo lost his notes and felt afraid and embarrassed to admit that and ask for help. Give teachers the benefit of the doubt. I can't stress this enough. These people aren't monsters. They usually have reasons for what they do. If you feel like what your kid tells you seems unusually harsh, contact the teacher, and simply ask her the details of the situation in a calm, polite manner.

2. Make your kid take responsibility: I think until your kid is in middle school, you do need to walk him through the process of making things right. Don't expect your third grader to go in on his own and talk to his teacher about a missing assignment or make-up test without a little practice or prep. In our most recent project mishap, we had our guy dictate an e-mail to his teacher the night before school (I typed it verbatim - run-on sentences and all). His teacher - God bless her soul! - e-mailed back praising his bravery and mapping out what he needed to do for the next day. He had a plan to follow, and adults to hold him accountable. We've also role-played scenarios with him. I've accompanied him to talk to a teacher but let him do the talking. We refrained from blaming the teacher and asked the question, "What can you do to work toward a solution here.?"

Older kids, middle school and up, should have more autonomy in advocating for themselves over assignments, grades, and projects. However, I will add this caveat: When a child enters a new building (like a 6th grader moving to 7th grade or an 8th grader moving to high school), parents need to step in and guide them initially. Expectations and educational culture are often different building to building. What worked in elementary school probably won't work in middle school. Set them up for success by helping them navigate those new expectations with your wisdom and guidance.

3. Cooperatively work toward a solution: Far too many parents march into a classroom and demand a teacher take action on behalf of their child. Understandable, yes. Acceptable, no. Teachers are trained professionals required to meet the needs of a variety of different learning styles each day. They employ specific, proven methodologies and strategies in order to make sure a classroom runs efficiently - that take an incredible amount of organization.

Stop grumbling and hear me out. I'm not saying you cannot suggest interventions and solutions to a teacher. I'm saying you cannot demand one way and one way only. Before going with your child to talk to a teacher, brainstorm a few solutions and ask the teacher's opinion of those solutions. Are they doable? Will they accomplish the educational goals the teacher is trying to achieve? Listen to the teachers suggestions as well.

Working cooperatively with a teacher in this situation does a few things for your child 1.) It teaches him to respect authority. I don't care how independent and free-thinking you want your kid to be, learning to respect authority is important. Period. 2.) It teaches your child the nuances of negotiation and compromise. He learns how to give and take a little and strike a balance somewhere in between. This is a valuable life skill. 3.) It teaches your child how to interact appropriately with adults and grows his confidence in doing so. Think of all the ways in which a child will be forced to interact with adults in the future. You are giving him the tools to do it successfully under your watchful eye.

So the ending to our story? We've got two full days to go. The book project came home last night, and my guy worked on it diligently. The tears have subsided and our witty, goofy kiddo is back to his old self.

And best of all, he feels really good about taking the steps to solve the problem. He also got a little self-esteem boost out of it when his teacher wrote to him: "You're demonstrating real bravery to talk to me about this. I can tell you want to work hard and do well on this project. I realize that I might need to think about how much time I give for this project next year."

Now that's cooperative learning.

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