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The Principal Is Calling, Now What?

It's news that no parent wants to deal with. Your child has gotten into trouble at school. How do you react?

Just when you think you might be getting the hang of this parenting thing, you get called to the principal’s office.

It happened to me recently. What do you do, how do you react? 

When I was in elementary school my teacher taught me to tell the difference between the words “principle” and “principal” by using a memory trick. “Remember that your principal is your ‘pal,’” I was told.

I don’t know about you, but I was highly skeptical. Maybe it had something to do with the paddle that hung behind my principal’s desk. It is forever seared into my memory of the one and only visit I ever took to a principal’s office.

So flash forward more years than I will admit to in print, and I get that familiar sick feeling when my Kindergartener recently broke an important school rule.

It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t good. As the mom of an impulsive young boy new to the classroom and playground jungle, I worried that this would happen sooner or later.

It took four weeks.

My son’s school principal thankfully doesn’t strike me as the paddle on the wall type (is that even allowed anymore?). While I don’t get the impression she is looking to be “pals” with the students, I know she is genuinely concerned about promoting a positive school environment and cares about all of the students.

I’m happy to say that our family survived the experience pretty well in the end. Even though my husband and I were upset, we chose to treat it as an important opportunity for our family to respond according to the values we’ve worked hard to establish in our home, and make an impression that we hope will go a long way towards making incidences and resulting trips to the principal’s office highly exceptional in the future.

We learned:

1. Don’t react hastily in the moment. Even though your initial impulse may be to react emotionally, remain calm, especially if your child is with you when you hear the news. 

Do convey to your teacher/principal that you take whatever has happened seriously, and make arrangements to follow-up immediately.

2. Gather information to get as full a picture of the situation as you can. Listen. Take yourself and your feelings out of it. Get the perspective of those at the school, and also make time separately to hear from your child.

When talking with your child about it, I think staying calm is key. I’ve also learned from some wise(r) parents that reacting calmly, delaying consequences until they are intentional and not reactionary, is more effective than lashing out in the heat of the moment. The wait can feel like a punishment in and of itself.

3. Decide on a course of action collaboratively. The principal may not be your pal, but they and your child’s teachers should be your partners. Talk with your child’s teacher/principal, and discuss how you will respond at home to support and reinforce how they are responding at school.

4. Teach to shape the heart, not the behavior. These are the opportunities in parenting that we should work hard not to miss—the moments when children’s hearts are open, and true character can be built.

Be mindful that it is a vulnerable position for a child. It’s an opportunity to build character by helping them take responsibility and have concern for how their actions affect others. But, it can easily become a tear down session that weakens your relationship, and thereby your authority, when the message becomes about you, your anger, disappointment, etc. The goal is to not merely enforce rules, but build an understanding of the reasons you follow those rules.

5. Face consequences as a family.  Even when you are disappointed in what your child has done, make sure they know by what you do that you are in their corner and love them unconditionally. Facing the principal wasn’t easy for my son, but he knew that regardless of how I felt about what he did, we walked into the school together, and out of the school together as a family.

Larry October 07, 2012 at 09:31 PM
Wow! This is exactly why there are so many behavior problems with middle and high school students. I got in trouble in Kindergarten many years ago. A swift swat on the rear and being sent to my room, was all it took. I rarely misbehaved after that. Too many children these days are taught at an early age that you should never let an adult, especially a teacher, talk down to you. They are lead to believe that they are equal to adults, which is a shame. It looks like this child will be in for a rude awakening one day when mommy and daddy aren't there to protect him.
Kirsten Branch October 07, 2012 at 11:40 PM
Wow, Larry. Not quite sure how you got what I said so wrong, but I can assure you that respect for teacher, principal, school, and classmates was the complete core of how we handled this situation. That can completely be accomplished without hitting. In fact, I didn't share the specifics of the consequences we chose to use in this case, but they were *more* than the school was calling for or expected from us. So, with respect, you are quite off base.
BethAnne October 08, 2012 at 03:25 AM
The problem Larry is that many kids didn't receive just a swat. Many kids were forcibly held down by two adults while another adult hit them 20 times, causing bruising so severe that in one case a school nurse said if a parent had done it she would have called the police. There have been several incidents in which blood has been drawn and welts were left. How happy would you be Larry if a principal beat your child 20 times with a paddle while two other teachers held him down?
Larry October 08, 2012 at 05:10 AM
"many kids are forcibly held down...." where? When? In srvusd? Where are your sources. I highly doubt a teacher or principal has beaten a student.
BethAnne October 08, 2012 at 01:21 PM
You must not be familiar with the case that the Supreme Court used to say that corporal punishment was allowed. Here are the facts of the case... "One day, because fourteen year old James Ingraham was slow to leave the auditorium stage he was held face down on a table by two assistant principals while the principal, Willie J. Wright, hit him on the buttocks at least twenty times with the paddle. Later that day Ingraham's mother took him to a hospital where painful bruises on his backside were diagnosed as a hematoma. A doctor prescribed ice packs, pain pills, sleeping pills, and a laxative and advised Ingraham to rest at home for at least a week. More than a week after the beating, another doctor examined him and found that the hematoma was still "swollen, tender, and purplish in color" and was discharging fluid. This doctor prescribed rest at home for an additional seventy-two hours. Ingraham could not sit comfortably for about three weeks. Ingraham was not the only student to feel the sting of the paddle. Roosevelt Adams was paddled on about ten different occasions during the year. Once, in a hair-raising episode in a bathroom, he was whacked by an assistant principal on the leg, arm, back and neck. Another time, for an infraction which Adams claims he did not commit, Wright hit him on the wrist. A doctor prescribed pain pills and an ice pack for the resulting swelling. Adams could not use the arm for about a week."

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