I still remember the feeling of existential dread as I waited outside my son’s classroom for our parent teacher conference. Eric’s fifth-grade year had been rocky from the start, with a September inpatient psychiatric hospitalization followed swiftly by more than a week in juvenile detention. The juvenile court judge released Eric to my sole custody.
Suddenly, just like that, I was a full-time single parent of a special needs child. I had no family close by and few friends I could rely on. I didn’t even know what respite care was. And I had three other children and a demanding job as a general education department chair at a local college. Because of Eric’s criminal charges, I was taking court-ordered parenting classes and meeting as many as 20 hours per week with required teams and specialists who thought that if I could just be a better parent, my son’s brain disorder would resolve itself.
Now I was resigned to go into yet another space where the people in charge would blame my poor parenting for my child’s inability to thrive. But something else happened instead, the beginning of a partnership that helped my child to complete his elementary school education successfully.
Eric’s teacher had been a single parent himself. Instead of meeting me with a judgmental stare, Mr. Marinelli gave me a warm smile. He apologized for the fact that conferences were taking place during school hours, knowing that I’d likely had some difficulty in taking time off work and arranging for childcare. He opened our meeting by asking me what I thought he could do to better support Eric in the classroom. Together, we brainstormed some ideas, including having Eric eat lunch with his teacher instead of his classmates to help him avoid triggers.
With frequent communication and partnership, Mr. Marinelli and I worked together to ensure that Eric survived his fifth-grade year and came back to complete elementary school in sixth grade.
Overcoming Assumptions Is Key
Single parent homes like mine are increasingly common. Globally, the United States has the highest numbers of children living in single parent households — nearly ¼ of all American children live in a single parent home. But too often our public school’s systems and processes are still designed for two-parent families. For example, consider the traditional back-to-school night from a single parent’s perspective: A 2019 Atlantic Monthly article noted: “Schools that don’t allow children to attend or provide childcare place single parents in a bind: Pay for childcare (if you can find it) or don’t attend.”
As my son’s teacher understood, single parents are balancing many responsibilities. They may not be able to meet during regular hours. They may feel overwhelmed some or most of the time, which explains why they may initially seem defensive or hard to work with.
In a viral 2019 PopSugar post, Suzanne Hayes shared her response to her daughter’s teacher about a missing homework assignment that captured the self-blame and shame many single parents feel: “My daughter didn’t have her homework done because, quite frankly, I failed her as a mother that week. There was no village, no husband, no nanny, and no friend down the road to jump in and help me.”
On the other hand, researchers have found that parents’ fear of conflict, confrontation, and blame is actually mutual — teachers feel this way about parents too. A 2018 qualitative study of parents’ and teachers’ experiences in working with children who had autism spectrum disorder found that “parents and teachers experience negative emotions, such as guilt and frustration, because of the numerous assumptions they make about each other. These assumptions are often made without confirming evidence.” In other words, what teachers don’t know about parents — and vice versa — can harm their mutual goal of successfully educating the child.
The stigma attached to single parenting, especially for single mothers, doesn’t help. According to the Pew Research Center, women ages 35–59 are more likely to be single parents than are men in the same demographic (9% vs. 2%). These women are often paying a “mommy tax” with their employers, accepting less pay for more flexible working conditions — as I did. Mothers of special needs children are especially prone to burnout. A 2012 study found that 77% of mothers of children with autism spectrum disorder met the criteria for clinical depression.
‘Smoothing the Waters’ Between Parent and Teacher
How can teachers and parents overcome these barriers and partner for student success? I reached out to my friend Nancy Young, Ed.S., a special education instructional specialist and career classroom educator who has taught at all grade levels, to ask her about how teachers can partner with single parents.
“There’s a natural sense of ‘mama bear’ instinct in the parent, making them want to defend the child’s actions or condemn the teacher’s actions,” she told me. “To combat this and help smooth the waters between teacher and parent, especially for students who have behavioral difficulties, I have found it useful to first establish open lines of communication at the beginning of the school year in a positive way before any problems have had a chance to occur.”
At the beginning of the school year, Young sends a hardcopy survey to parents with questions about their child and keeps track of who returns the forms. “Without judging a parent based on whether or not the form was returned promptly (because I have been a single parent and realize the demands being placed on these parents daily from every angle of life), I send emails or text messages to parents who don’t return the form by the deadline,” Young told me.
Young also mentioned the importance of respecting single parents’ time. “I reserve phone calls as a last resort because I try to respect the time of the parent, realizing he or she is just as busy as I am and phone calls require a great deal of one’s time and energy and depend on both parties being available to chat at the exact same moment. Emails and texts can be answered as time allows,” she observed.
Young stressed the importance of ongoing communication between parents and teachers throughout the year, not just at IEP meetings or parent-teacher conferences. “Parents have information to give teachers which can help them understand the child and the home situation better. Without such background information, it can be harder for teachers to respect a single parent’s time,” she said.
Educating a child with mental health challenges truly takes a village. Without the right help and resources, it’s easy for single parents to feel overwhelmed by the task. But as my son Eric’s example shows, teachers and parents can forge powerful partnerships for student success. In 2018, Mr. Marinelli came to Eric’s high school graduation, and I’ll never forget the tears in both of their eyes as they hugged after the ceremony. I’m so grateful for the parent-teacher conference that changed my son’s life.
A Teacher’s Guide: Seven Strategies for Student Success
- Open lines of communication early, especially for children with behavioral issues.
- Send an open-ended survey to all parents at the beginning of the school year and follow up with parents who don’t respond.
- Make sure you have current phone numbers and the parent’s preferred form of communication.
- Be creative in how you communicate. A single parent may not have time to check the child’s backpack for notes that require immediate attention. Consider signing up for an app like Google Voice or Talking Points, which enables you to maintain your personal privacy while also facilitating texts with parents who may respond best to you this way.
- Do not allow the child to triangulate communication between the parent and the teacher.
- Be respectful of each other’s time. Both single parents and teachers are juggling multiple demands.
- Ask your school about providing childcare options for open houses, back to school nights, and parent-teacher conferences so that single parents feel more encouraged to attend.