Helicopter parents, jackhammer parents, lawnmower parents. Whatever piece of machinery you know them by, they have a way of making their presence known. These are the parents who, in the name of doing right by their child, are becoming over-involved in both their personal lives and education. It’s obvious when you’re dealing with one … but unfortunately, recognizing them doesn’t necessarily make them any easier to handle.
While I can’t offer a cure to your helicopter parent problems, I can provide some expert advice that might help. Judith Bass is a certified educational planner and founder of Bass Educational Services. She helps students with college planning, developing executive-functioning skills, and identifying the right K-12 learning environment for individual needs. Throughout this process, she works closely with students’ families—making her an authority in handling helicopter parents.
I sat down with Judy to talk about how teachers should navigate their interactions with over-involved parents. Luckily, Bass points out, teachers and families have a common goal: to ensure the child gets what they need to be successful. Here’s her advice for how to work with, rather than against, families to make this goal a reality.
Assure parents that they can do less for their kids and still be a “good parent.”
Parents who are “helicoptering” are almost always coming from a place of fear. They desperately want to be good parents. They are afraid that their child getting a C, forgetting their lunch, or showing up late either reflects badly on them or causes their children to suffer. And they are so eager for their child to succeed that they ensure success by doing things for them, thus stripping the child of the opportunity to do it themselves and achieving a sense of accomplishment and responsibility.
Take, for example, the parent who reminds their child of soccer tryouts after school, packs their soccer bag for them, and drops the bag off at school when it is forgotten. The child may show up to soccer tryouts on time with all of their gear, but have they learned the skills to do it themselves? Will they be able to prepare themselves for a practice or game independently? While a reminder or dropping off a bag looks like an act of support, they are actually just the opposite. When a child successfully completes a task themselves, they gain a sense of accomplishment and independence. “It’s important for kids to feel a sense of responsibility,” Bass states. “It makes them feel valuable.”
Bass’ suggestion to get parents to stop completing tasks for their students? Reassure them that letting their child make a mistake does not make them a bad parent. In fact, quite the opposite—making a mistake creates an opportunity for children to learn and lessens the chance they will repeat it in the future. By instilling in parents that doing less for their children can actually make them better parents, we can empower them to ease off the gas pedal.
Give parents an alternative way to advocate.
Some parents are not going to readily accept the “do less” mentality. For these cases, teachers can provide support by introducing a new way for parents to take action—creating opportunities for their children to contribute and take responsibility.
Bass suggests that parents involve kids in developmentally appropriate household activities from an early age. Examples might include setting the table, folding their own laundry, or caring for a pet. She shared with me a story about her grandson, who loves to help in the kitchen. “He gets so excited when the muffins come out of the oven, because he helped to make them … he’s so proud of the end product.” Teachers can initiate this sense of responsibility in their classes with classroom jobs. Bass shares that she would often give special roles to kids who needed more support, either socially or behaviorally. When she had a student who needed opportunities to move, she made them her class messenger. “The other kids were jealous,” Bass explains, “because he was who I gave an errand to.”
Rather than advocating for kids by doing things for them, advocate by building opportunities for them to do things themselves, whether in the classroom or at home. A little reverse psychology? Maybe. But imagine teaching a class of students who have the confidence to attempt things on their own because they know the adults in their lives believe in them to accomplish things independently. This “replacement approach” is worth a try.
Don’t accept the forgotten items parents bring in.
You’ll likely need admin support if you choose to go this route, but Bass is adamant that it’s worth it. She shared that in the school where she taught, forgotten items parents brought in for their child were turned away. If the item was a lunch, food would be provided by the school. In the case of musical instruments or gym clothes, the child must endure the natural consequences of not being able to participate. “We would never let a kid starve,” Bass explains, “but if they’re eating carrot sticks and a bagel and they’re not happy about it, they aren’t going to forget their lunch the next day.”
When Bass shared this example of helicoptering with me, it blew my mind. Not because this never happens in my classroom, but because it happens SO OFTEN. It’s rare that I go a day without getting a call that a student needs to collect sneakers, homework, or some other miscellaneous item they forgot from the office (as Bass was talking, I wondered how much instructional time I lost to these calls in the last year). I was so conditioned to this that I didn’t even see it as a form of helicoptering. But Bass makes a good point: If every child that forgot something had to face the natural consequences, how many fewer phone calls would interrupt my class? And how much more quickly would students develop executive-functioning skills related to organization?
If parents push back at first, Bass recommends equipping them with the “landing and launching pad” strategy. This is an effective way to help families support their student’s organization. A landing and launching pad are one space in the house where all school work goes when kids come home, and where the packed school bag waits to be picked up the next day. And if all else fails? Wait it out. “Eventually, they’ll realize how much easier this makes their lives,” she shares. Soon, they’ll be saying “Wow! … I don’t have to be running around the house picking up everyone’s stuff and stuffing it in bags!” Sounds like an easy sell to me.
Explain your school’s SEL goals for emotional regulation.
If your school has adopted a social-emotional learning program, there’s a good chance that student empowerment and independence are an important part of it. It’s a lot harder for parents to push back when you explain you’re following a school initiative.
For example, my district is in the process of adopting RULER. A goal of RULER is to help students identify and respond appropriately to their emotions. By continually bailing students out or removing situations that create negative emotions, students can’t learn to regulate them.
Let’s go back to the student who forgot something … say, a band instrument. This could bring up a range of emotions for the student, such as embarrassment, frustration, or fear. Knowing a parent will drop their saxophone off absolves them of having to navigate these emotions. The next time they feel a sense of embarrassment, they won’t be able to say to themselves, “It was hard sitting in my music lesson and not being able to play. I felt really out of place. But nobody held it against me. I made it through an embarrassing situation then, and I can do it again now.” As Bass so succinctly put it, “When a kid gets frustrated … it’s not something you want to take away from them. You want them to learn how to work through it.”
Children need to (safely) go through difficult situations to learn they can make it to the other side. As part of SEL curricula, allowing children to persevere through negative experiences is a skill that schools should be explicitly teaching. And kids will present us with plenty of opportunities to do so if we give these emotions the space to occur.
Advocate to develop school-wide policies for common helicopter situations.
While instating new polices might be out of your control, they are something you can advocate for. This is especially true in situations where you anticipate parents could have strong opinions. This “strong parent opinion” phenomenon seems to be becoming increasingly common, especially with the texts used in Language Arts classes. Bass recommends that the school adopt a common response to such concerns. A script for responding to a parent concern about a text could look something like this:
“At XYZ Middle School, children will not be required to read material that conflicts with their family’s beliefs. We will provide an alternative text for your student to complete the unit. However, we will not remove texts from our course curriculum based on individual concerns.”
When you have the support of your administration, you can feel empowered to take a stand for your curriculum. Additionally, a unified front strengthens your argument. Imagine if your entire English department said no to replacing a book in your curriculum to accommodate a parent request. Suddenly, you have power in numbers. And while Bass recommends meeting individual requests to exempt students from a text, she makes it clear that she’s against changing your course based on one parent. “(In the past) if a parent objected to a field trip, the child would stay home. … The child may feel really uncomfortable not being able to read with the rest of the class, but that’s the parent’s doing, not yours.”
In conclusion …
What a whirlwind! (Sorry, too soon for helicopter jokes?)
Unfortunately, you will likely encounter at least one helicopter parent this school year. Whether you approach the situation by empowering parents do less for their children, offering responsibility to students, investing in social-emotional learning, or advocating to develop school-wide policies for common helicopter concerns, I hope this advice will help you approach the situation with professionalism and tact.
How have you handled helicopter parents in your classroom? Tell us in the comments.
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A special thanks to Judy Bass for her time and contributions to this article.