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Help! A student’s challenging behavior seems unnoticed by her parents.  What should I do?

Dear Ask a Montessorian, I have a student who is showing some difficulty in the classroom.  She seems to have trouble choosing work, I observe her often bothering other students, and doesn’t fall into concentration easily.  Her parents often say that she loves school and concentrates well at home, and seem unwilling to discuss the behaviors I’m observing.  What should be my next steps?

Anne L.

Dear Anne, no parent wants to hear that their child’s teacher has concerns about their behavior in school. We all want the ‘perfect’ child, right? It’s understandable that a parent would be at first hesitant to hear and discuss a problem.

Think of this in two parts.  First, complete an intentional observation to find out everything you can about the challenging behavior. When does it happen? Where does it happen? How often is it happening? Does it include a particular peer or adult, or is it more generalized? Is there a special situation, like a transition? What triggers do you see? What reaction is it getting from you or other children? Most importantly, what is this behavior communicating? What function is it serving? Could the behaviors be for attention, getting something, or avoidance of something else? Reflect on your reactions as well. How are you feeling? It’s not uncommon that a challenge brings up feelings of frustration, insecurity, and confusion in the adults.

Collect your data over several days and weeks. Review what you have found out as objectively as possible and prepare your notes about frequency (the when and the how) and your interpretations of what might be going on with this student.

Now to part two. Evaluate what kind of relationship you currently have with the parents. Is there already trust and collaboration between you? Have you had positive interactions before bringing up your concerns? Have they ever observed in your classroom?  

One productive approach with parents is to ask their help in understanding their child. A humble attitude that acknowledges that they know their child in ways you don’t can be a good way to cultivate a collaborative partner relationship. You each share a common goal–you both want what is best for their daughter. Share the ways you enjoy her, share your caring and enjoyment having her in class. Then ask for their help with something like “when I see her ______ in the classroom, it is really confusing me. Do you ever see this at home? What do you think might be going on? Does she ever talk with you about being unhappy at school?” Remind them again how much you want what is best for her and that you need their help. The solution begins with forming a partnership with the parents, and building their trust and confidence while letting them know you aren’t rejecting their child and that together, you each want what is best for her.

It so often takes multiple conversations, so start early.  Ask them to observe. Ask them to continue the conversation through email, or a weekly phone call. If they make suggestions, let them know you’ll try theirs and some of your own. Get them to meet again after a few weeks to share what you have both learned.

Advocating for each of our students is all about a partnership, trust and mutual respect. Give some of these suggestions a try and let us know how it works!


Christine Lowry, M.Ed.

Christine has a Master’s Degree in Special Education, has founded Montessori schools and has been featured in Montessori Leadership magazine, The Montessori Leadership Institute webcast, and has provided training and consultation to schools across the United States.  Learn more about Christine.