How to decode what teachers say about your child

Have you ever gone to a parent-teacher conference and felt like the comments meant something more than what the teacher actually said? Or that the concerns raised were vague?

Sometimes teachers aren’t as direct as they could be — or would like to be. That can be true of many topics, including learning and thinking differences. Teachers might not come out and directly say they think your child is struggling with, say, dyslexia or ADHD.

There can be lots of reasons for that. There might be official (or unofficial) school policies that limit what teachers can say to you. They might be worried about giving bad advice. Other teachers might be uncomfortable saying something negative about your child.

If you feel like there’s something more to what the teacher is saying, you might have to follow up to get at what those comments mean. Here are some examples of comments you might hear, what they might really mean, and how you can follow up.

What the teacher says

What it could mean

What you can ask

“I love that Kevin has a lot of energy. But he has a hard time sitting still, and it can bother the other kids.”

Your child needs to be “redirected” a lot, which can get in the way of learning for all students — including your child. The teacher might even wonder if your child has ADHD.

What strategies have you tried, and have they helped?

Can you write up your observations for me to discuss with my child’s doctor?

Is this what you see in kids with ADHD?

“Michelle’s not shy, but she gets upset and anxious when I call on her in class or ask her to read out loud. I’d like to add her to our response to intervention (RTI) program.”

Your child’s discomfort with reading aloud could be a sign of trouble with reading. The teacher might wonder if your child has dyslexia, or if anxiety plays a role.

Can you tell me more about RTI?

How does my child do with reading one-on-one?

Are those reading scores typical for kids of this age?

Does my child seem anxious or upset in general?

Is it possible to not call on my child to read out loud unless you see a raised hand?

“Kevin’s always polite and well-behaved, but he often struggles to follow directions. I can’t pinpoint why, though. Do you see this at home, too?”

The teacher may wonder if ADHD or trouble with listening comprehension are making it hard for your child to follow directions.

When do you see this happening?

Are there certain types of directions that cause more trouble than others?

What does my child do instead?

Is it affecting my child’s learning?

How concerned are you about this?

How can we help?

“Michelle’s work is spot-on, but she often forgets to turn in her homework and bring her notebook to class. Is this common at home, too?”

The teacher may think your child struggles with organization. The term executive function might be going through the teacher’s head. Executive function is a group of skills that includes things like organization and planning.

Does this happen consistently?

Are there ways to help her be more organized?

Are you seeing other things that concern you?

Why do you think this is happening?

“Kevin has good observations and is eager to share them in class. But he has a lot of trouble waiting his turn to speak.”

The teacher is seeing trouble with impulsivity, which can be a sign of ADHD. It’s possible the teacher is wondering if an ADHD evaluation for your child is a good idea.

Do you see this during classes for all subjects?

Do other teachers see it, too?

Are there other things you see that concern you?

Is this unusual at this age?

“The stories Michelle tells are great, but I don’t see nearly the same detail and imagination in her writing journal. I was surprised to see that.”

Your child is having trouble with writing. The teacher might suspect that a learning difference like dysgraphia (which teachers may refer to as “disorder of written expression”) is getting in the way of getting thoughts down on paper. If your child’s handwriting is messy, the teacher may also wonder if your child has trouble with motor skills.

Is handwriting the problem, or is it more about trouble expressing ideas? Is it both?

Are there other things my child struggles with?

What do you suggest we do?

“I really enjoy having Kevin in class. But sometimes he gets very upset over little things. It seems to come out of nowhere. Does he react this way at home, too?”

Your child is more sensitive and emotionally reactive than other kids of the same age. That may make the teacher wonder about ADHD or sensory processing issues.

Are there certain times of day you see this happening?

Can you describe the behavior you’re seeing?

Is this something we should talk about with our health care provider?

“I notice that Kevin’s easily distracted and zones out sometimes. It can be hard to get him back on track.”

The teacher might think your child is distracted because of ADHD. Or that your child has trouble with listening comprehension, receptive language, or processing speed.

Do you feel like my child is hearing and understanding you?

Is my child distracted by things or unfocused?

What’s your gut instinct about what’s happening?

“Kevin’s so smart, I would have expected this to be much easier for him. Without an evaluation, it’s hard for me to know why he’s struggling.”

The teacher is seeing very uneven skills, and may think your child is twice exceptional. It’s possible that an evaluation could help get appropriate supports and services.

What activities seem challenging?

Are there areas my child is really strong in?

Has my child said anything about why it’s hard?

How do I request an evaluation?

Would tutoring help?

“I’m surprised at how inconsistent Michelle is in remembering how to do math problems. She often understands a concept one day, but not the next.”

The teacher is concerned about your child’s trouble remembering math facts or formulas. This can be a sign of a math learning difference called dyscalculia. It could also be related to trouble with a skill called working memory, which can affect learning in lots of ways.

Does my child have trouble remembering things in math class only, or in other subjects, too?

Have you noticed other difficulties with math?

What can I do to help?

What should we do next?

Talking with the teacher is a great first step to helping your child thrive in school. Learn more about what to ask teachers if you’re concerned about your child’s:

If the teacher mentioned an evaluation, learn more about what that is. Or find out how to request a free school evaluation.


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