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When my son was three years old, we bought him a tiny backpack, packed his lunch and sent him off for his first year of full-time daycare. While finding a childcare spot that matched our budget and philosophy was a stressful process, we felt confident that our child would spend his days learning and making friends under the watchful eye of caring teachers.
Four weeks into the year, after witnessing a particularly ungentle moment between my son and his teacher (centred around how quickly my son was putting his shoes on) and hearing daily complaints from my son that the same teacher didn’t like him, we decided that we needed to do something. As parents, we wanted to make sure that the people looking after our child each day would see his positive qualities and build his confidence. Both my husband and I are educators, and we knew how vital it was for our son to have access to compassionate school teachers. This applies to daycare teachers as well—they meet so many of a young child’s physical and emotional needs as they grow and, in many ways, serve as a daytime stand-in for the child’s parent. Providing sensitive care is vital for their development.
If you’re worried that your child’s preschool teacher doesn’t like them—for any reason—or isn’t treating your kid with respect and kindness, here are some of the steps you can take to help improve the situation.
Sometimes a preschooler might be having a hard day and report that a teacher they usually like is “mean” to them. While trusting your child’s words is important, it may be necessary to dig a little deeper before jumping to conclusions. Parents can monitor the situation by volunteering in the classroom, stopping by for lunch and checking in with their child periodically.
Ann Douglas, a parenting columnist for CBC Radio and bestselling author of numerous books about parenting, including Happy Parents Happy Kids, says that you’ll want to see a teacher behaving in a warm, responsive manner toward your child. If this warmth and responsiveness are missing, you might notice that the teacher “seems impatient, distracted or disinterested in your child.”
Opportunities to look for the warmth you hope to see include how the teacher responds when your child needs help with a task or experiences conflict with another child. While behaviour can be telling, Douglas cautions parents not to draw conclusions from one or two less-than-perfect interactions. “Everyone has an off day, so I wouldn’t hit the panic button immediately if the teacher seems a little grumpy or impatient one day,” she says.
But Douglas warns that if you’re ever worried about a more serious situation implying physical abuse (like if your child comes home with bruises or other marks of injury), it’s crucial to act right away and escalate your concerns rather than wait to monitor the situation or have a conversation with the teacher alone.
It’s also important for parents to take note of how the teacher’s treatment affects their child. If it’s clear to a parent that the teacher simply prefers or pays more attention to other students but the child doesn't seem to notice and is still able to learn, grow and express themselves in meaningful ways, parents may want to press pause before taking any action.
Once I became concerned about my son’s relationship with his teacher, I took a few long lunches to volunteer in the classroom. While I was there, I saw a lot of great interactions, but I also noticed a change in tone when the teacher addressed my son and continued impatience around how quickly he would complete tasks.
According to Lisa Thompson, an early-childhood professional with more than 35 years of experience, parents can help bridge a disconnect between their child and the teacher by sharing their child’s positive perspective with the teacher. “If the child really likes the teacher, the parents can always try sharing all the cute things that the child says,” says Thompson, who now trains early-childhood-education students. “That would have to warm up any teacher with a heart and an ego!” Parents can also share cards, pictures or notes that their child makes for the teacher and might even consider writing a quick note of gratitude themselves.
Parents can also encourage their child to show the teacher their appreciation directly. Jessica Levy lives in Jerusalem and her son goes to school in Hebrew, a second language for him. Early on, Levy says her son’s teacher often seemed short or impatient when he didn’t follow directions or routines as quickly as she liked. “I think his teacher became frustrated with him for having trouble communicating at the beginning,” she says, “so I told him to give her a hug every morning and before he left and she really warmed up to him.”
While some kids are huggers, others might feel more comfortable giving their teachers a high five or saying hello with a special greeting. “Sometimes the best way to get people to love you is to love them,” adds Levy.
If parents have spent time investigating and monitoring how a teacher interacts with their child and are still concerned, they should schedule a time to speak directly with the teacher. While it can be tempting to address the issue as soon as possible, trying to have a productive conversation amid the chaos of drop-off or pickup is often impossible. Scheduling a conference time will ensure that the teacher is able to focus on the conversation without being interrupted and give parents the opportunity to listen and share without disruption.
Whether parents are concerned about negative comments the teacher has made, the tone of voice the teacher uses with the child or how the teacher responds when their child acts up in developmentally normal ways, identifying the specific concerns they want to address is important. Before my parent-teacher conference, I made a list of troubling behaviours and a note about what I wanted to happen instead. I also tried to brainstorm how to share these ideas in ways that felt collaborative and free of judgment. Instead of saying “Your tone is too harsh,” I chose phrases like “I’ve noticed that my son responds best to instructions when we deliver them in a firm yet warm tone.”
While all parents want to hear great things about their child, it’s important to make room for uncomfortable topics that need to be addressed. “The goal of this initial meeting should be to gather additional information from the teacher and look for a way to solve the problem together, assuming that there is a problem, of course,” says Douglas. It’s not about pointing fingers or assigning blame. “When you head into this meeting, challenge yourself to remain open-minded and assume that the teacher has the best of intentions until proven otherwise,” she adds.
If your child is struggling at daycare socially, emotionally or academically, you’ll want to actually listen to what the teacher says. Sometimes what a child reads as dislike is really a teacher working to help them develop a specific skill, and sometimes what a parent hears as undeserved criticism is a teacher trying to express a valid concern about a child’s development. Parents should also be prepared to listen if a teacher shares that their own behaviour, like dropping a child off after circle time has started or sending mixed messages about daycare and teachers at home (like talking in front of the child about your concerns), is contributing to challenges at school. During my parent-teacher conference, I learned that my “extra hug” at drop-off was disruptive to getting my son settled in class. While it stung a little to learn that I was part of the issue, knowing specifically what I could do better was helpful.
While a meeting can help bridge the gap between a parent’s wants and a teacher’s behaviour, it’s not likely going to truly change how a teacher feels about a child—and that’s OK. At daycare, just like in the real world, personalities don’t always mesh and, as fantastic as they are, it’s unlikely that everyone will see the same spark in your child that you do. As long as your child’s teacher is meeting their needs in a kind, empathetic way (or stepping aside so that another teacher can), your child probably won’t be negatively affected by their teacher’s preference for other kids. “Many preschool teachers work in teams,” says Thompson. “If one teacher meshes with a child’s personality better than another, then that teacher can work as the primary contact for the child.”
Hopefully, parents are able to leave a conference feeling confident that a misunderstanding has been resolved and see evidence that their child’s teacher is committed to working toward building a positive relationship with their child. If not, though, involving the centre’s director can be a helpful way to find a solution.
After the conference with my son’s teacher and some internal intervention from the centre’s director, we made a plan as a team and each of us agreed to follow some clear steps. As parents, we would talk very positively about the teacher in question at home, drop the extra cuddles at morning drop-off and encourage our son to follow her directions. At school, the teacher would commit to spending one-on-one time with my son each day and pass along the duties she felt most frustrated by (like helping him clean up his lunch area and pack his bag at the end of the day) to the other teacher in the room. Within just a few weeks, we saw many improvements in how my child’s teacher treated him and how my son responded to her words and actions.
A child’s early educational experience is an important one that can affect the way they think about school as they grow, and the relationship they have with their teachers plays a large part in shaping their experience. While it may have been more difficult and uncomfortable to advocate for my son the way we did, it helped me, my husband and my son learn how to deal with less-than-ideal relationships with grace and understanding—a skill well worth learning at any age.
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