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If your child is struggling, Take N.O.T.E.


As an educator, school leader, and someone with expertise in learning and thinking differences, I’ve always told families to reach out to the school and ask for a meeting if things aren’t going well. Taking action at the first signs of trouble was important in pre-COVID times — before school shutdowns, chaotic remote learning, and massive academic slide. Now, it’s more important than ever that families quickly figure out how to get the support they need for their kids.

Getting a school’s attention is going to be hard right now

Everything we know from education research tells us that getting help as early as possible is critical, and it starts with crystal clear communication. But getting a school’s attention is going to be hard right now. Even in the best of times, I’ve seen communication break down between families whose kids are struggling and their schools. Trust is never established, and negative feelings on both sides just keep getting stronger as time goes by.

The current situation makes these breakdowns even more likely. Families don’t get the support they need, kids struggle more and more, and educators feel stuck — like there’s nothing they can do.

What happens the first time parents reach out for help is more important than ever.

When we think of what teachers do, it usually involves lessons and students. But the job also involves meeting with other adults. Families may come on their own to share observations about their child’s behavior and learning. They may ask teachers for information, advice, or resources. And there are also formal discussions between families and the school.

Child study team meetings can be challenging, especially the first one, when parents and caregivers come to the school because they’re concerned and looking for additional help for their child. Other especially challenging meetings include student support meetings, where interventions are planned and progress is monitored, and the first meeting of the IEP or 504 process, where the team, including the family, the school administrator, and the general ed teacher, are deciding whether to evaluate a child to see if they have a disability.

I’ve been involved in many of those meetings as a teacher and as an administrator, and I’ve been in a few as a parent, too. So I’ve developed a pretty good perspective of what makes a meeting go really well — and what can send it off the rails.

I remember one meeting involving a boy named James, who was entering high school. We were having meetings with all of the incoming ninth graders’ families. James had reading challenges, and the middle school had provided a good amount of support in that area. The situation seemed pretty clear, and we could plan for it.

In the parent survey that James’ parents filled out over the summer, though, they mentioned that things had been getting worse with him at home, and not just with his reading. He was getting frustrated more easily when his mother Ellen asked him to do anything around the house, and he was arguing a lot more with his sister. He’d had an outburst and yelled at his father. James wasn’t sleeping well, and he closed his bedroom door to play video games for hours on end.

Ellen was nervous about speaking to our team at the high school. She didn’t know any of us, and none of us knew James. There was so much going on with him at home, both prior challenges and newly emerging ones. Ellen didn’t even know where to begin when trying to explain why she was concerned. His behavior just felt different to her — like there could be a bigger issue. But James’ father didn’t agree. There didn’t seem to be anything medically wrong, so she didn’t discuss her concerns with James’ pediatrician.

Ellen needed an easy way to make sense of what she was seeing and how she felt. She would have been helped so much by a resource like Take N.O.T.E., a new tool developed by Understood and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Take N.O.T.E. would have guided Ellen through the process of noticing what was going on with James, observing his behaviors to look for patterns, talking to last year’s teachers and her family, and engaging with her pediatrician and other allies in preparing for her meeting with us at school.

Instead, when Ellen came to the meeting and it was her turn to tell us about James, she focused on what we were saying about his test scores from middle school and the reading support we could offer. I asked her about the survey she had completed, but Ellen just said that James got frustrated with schoolwork and his parents and was acting like a “typical teenage boy.” He wasn’t, though. We went through three quarters of ninth grade with James before we had Ellen back in to tell her we thought James should be evaluated for ADHD.

Ellen had left our first meeting feeling frustrated that we couldn’t see how concerned she was. That made her hesitant to ask for our help when things got worse. She didn’t have an easy way to share what she was seeing at home, and that made it harder for us to give James the help he needed.

Clear communication is the most powerful tool for understanding why children are struggling and how best to support them. It’s also key to building a relationship of trust between families and schools.

Today, in the age of COVID, communication has never been more important. Schooling has changed, and neither teachers nor families really know what to expect. This is especially true when it comes to support for students who are struggling. A clear and guided experience like Take N.O.T.E. empowers parents to enlist allies like pediatricians and educators to identify ways to help their children thrive in school and at home.

If you think something unusual is going on with your child — whether you think it’s because of the current environment or something else altogether — use Take N.O.T.E. to get a conversation going with your school. The worst thing you can do is to do nothing when you know something just isn’t right.

Bob Cunningham, EdM, is the Executive Director, Learning Development at Understood.

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