Help! Parents Are Throwing Full-Blown Birthday Parties in My Classroom

Boundaries help.

Illustration of teacher dressed as a clown at a class birthday party with parents looking on and thought bubble text 'This was not in my job description'

Dear WeAreTeachers:
Birthdays in my kindergarten class are getting out of control.  One mom recently asked to bring cupcakes and pizza. She and her boyfriend wanted to attend and asked for an hour to be set aside. I explained that we have a learning schedule, and we do birthdays at 10:15 snack time.  She showed up at 10:40. With an entire cake and 25 juice boxes. And that’s it. No plates, forks, or napkins. I asked the family if they wanted to cut and serve the cake, and they looked at me with blank stares. So I cut and served 25 pieces of birthday cake and juice boxes and initiated the birthday song. I was fuming. Not to mention, I had 25 kindergarteners hopped up on sugar for the rest of the day. I felt like I went out of the way to accommodate this family and was totally taken advantage of. How do I avoid putting myself in that situation again? —Not Your Hostess

Dear N.Y.H.,

Even though there are a lot of troubling circumstances and intense emotions related to the birthday celebration that you endured, I’m sure you made your student feel valued and celebrated. That’s worth something. It is, however, cringeworthy to imagine you hustling and doing everything while your anger and resentment built up.

With the various policies and events at school, we need to establish clear boundaries and have effective communication with families, staff, and students. This is much easier to say than to do. Even harder to do consistently. It’s important to set professional limits so that you can bring a sense of well-being to you, your classroom community, and beyond.

One thing to consider is firming up your gauzy boundaries and summoning up the courage to speak up and follow through when things feel hard. I often use the language, “Thanks for sharing your ideas. Let me think through the details and get back to you.” The experience you described with the lack of respect from the family is the type of depleting experience that leaves us educators drained, resentful, and feeling taken advantage of. It’s crucial for you to protect your time and energy and consider the necessity of boundaries between teachers and families.


Peer coach Johanna Rauhaula describes the need to “recognize professional limits and know when to say ‘enough.’ Resisting overextending ourselves is a form of engagement. And it’s a form that, used judiciously, can support long-term engagement with teaching and with students.”

Imagine yourself saying: “I’m grateful to learn about your child’s birthday. Celebrating each and every child is important to me. I’d like to invite you to purchase a book for our classroom library. I have a special nameplate where you can write a personal birthday message to your child. Our whole class can join your child on the rug for a very personal, positive birthday read-aloud. If you’d like to join, we will begin reading at… We aren’t allowing outside food in the classroom because there are many students with special food requirements. Let me know if you would like to be a part of this special tradition.”

I recently surveyed a group of TK-12 educators and asked them how they are feeling. Guess what the most repeated descriptors were? OVERWHELMED and TIRED. So often, when things feel like they are going “wrong,” teachers are asked to do more. We need refreshed, energized, compassionate, wholehearted educators out in the field working their magic. This occurs when teachers establish, communicate, and follow through on boundaries and expectations, as well as find ways to nourish themselves.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I teach second grade, and a student recently told me that her mom said it was OK to use the word “retarded” because it’s in the dictionary. I’m working every moment of every day with my students on building a positive and respectful community. I know that intentional language is important. The old adage about sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me is just NOT TRUE. This is a battle I’m choosing to fight. What kinds of things can I do to address this lack of consideration by a parent? —Say No to the R-Word

Dear S.N.T.T.R.W.,

When you say no to the R-word, you are saying no to exclusion and yes to human rights and a more just classroom. It will most likely be a hard conversation, and trust that you have a whole cadre of educators who support you and are cheering you on. Inviting a colleague to join you when you talk to the parent is a good idea, and know there are thousands of us with you in spirit.

Open the dictionary to any page, and there will be words that are not appropriate to use in certain contexts. We use language based on the task, purpose, audience, and context. Using the R-word at school and about children is not OK. PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center describes how “the word has morphed into something negative and offensive. It’s used to insult someone or something considered to be lesser in some way. And while the people who use it might not even know about its history, it’s still linked to people with disabilities. That means that when someone uses the word ‘retarded’ as an insult, it is degrading to people with disabilities.”

The Special Olympics and other organizations support a campaign where people “pledge to stop saying the R-word and hold an event at your school encouraging others to pledge as well. Your pledge shows that you are committed to using language that respects the dignity of people with intellectual disabilities and creating more accepting attitudes and communities for all people.” How do you feel about asking colleagues you work with to join the pledge? Once you gain some teacher support, your administrator can send communication to families, too.

In addition to addressing the parent, it’s important to be proactive and clear with your students. In your next classroom meeting, protect time for your learners to reflect on how “put-downs” might make people feel. Empathy and compassion are foundational as you create a classroom culture of trust, belonging, and respect.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
Do you have a better consequence than taking away recess? We have a few frequent fliers in our fourth-grade group, and they honestly don’t care about having their recess taken. Plus, in general, I hate not letting the kids get outside and burn off some energy. What are some other good options? —Teachers Need Breaks Too

Dear T.N.B.T.,

I’m sure we all agree that consequences are integral to your classroom management system. There are many ways to shape student behavior and maintain a sense of teacher well-being, too. In my almost 30 years as an educator, I have embraced my recess breaks to regroup, cultivate calm, and just plain old take care of my basic needs. Not only does taking away a student’s recess time affect you negatively, because you have to watch the student, but it also doesn’t solve the deeper behavioral issues.

If students are having behavioral issues DURING recess, then some modification might need to be made but should not fall on you to lose your break time. Students might need to take a break from playing soccer for a short period of time. Teachers or staff members should talk to the students about the choices they make and the consequences that can happen.

It sounds like there are repeated behavioral issues that could use some strategic support. Logical consequences can help! For logical consequences to be effective, students need to see the connection between their behavior and the consequence.

According to the Responsive Classroom system, there is a difference between logical consequences and punishment. “The goal of logical consequences is to help children develop internal understanding, self-control, and a desire to follow the rules. Logical consequences help children look more closely at their behaviors and consider the results of their choices. Unlike punishment, where the intention is to make a child feel shame, the intention of logical consequences is to help children develop internal controls and to learn from their mistakes in a supportive atmosphere.”

A teacher’s mindful attention to language plays a powerful role in building trust and nurturing learning conditions that are a result of applying logical consequences. When repeated and challenging behavioral issues continue to surface, it’s not enough to use reinforcing and reminding language to help shape behaviors. Teachers need to use redirecting language. When we are in redirecting language contexts, stay away from asking questions. For example, you might say, “Pearl, take a break” versus “Pearl, do you want to take a break?” Using statements and not questions when things are escalating helps bring clarity, attention, and a strong presence.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
We are five weeks in, and today made me question my future in education. Sometimes I feel so isolated and alone.  It seems like more and more the educators at my school are accepting what is. I’m feeling like I’m one of the only ones at my school STILL having a rough school year thus far. Teaching in a mask is not getting any easier for me, and I can barely hear my students’ voices. We spend a lot of time being safe, but I feel like the quality of my teaching has really declined. I’m not trying to look for sympathy.  How can I shift my mindset to a more positive one? —When Will This End?

Dear W.W.T.E.,

Thank you for bringing up your raw and authentic feelings. You may be feeling isolated and alone, but I’m here to say that many educators are STILL having a rough year just like you. A principal recently shared that she feels like she’s been through the washing machine cycle so many times this year that she is worn thin like threadbare fabric.

This year feels rough, not only because we continue to work in the context of a global pandemic with the ongoing stress of COVID-19 protocols and contact tracing, but also because of the tension and frustration with teaching grade-level expectations. Also, teachers are expending a lot of time and energy redirecting extreme student behaviors. So many educators find themselves with a long list of student concerns and are supporting families who have experienced trauma.

Toxic positivity is making headlines lately, and it’s worth our attention. WeAreTeachers’s Julie Mason reinforces that we need schools that focus on mental health and well-being, not just superficial comments like “it could be worse” or “look on the bright side.” Folks might mean well, but what they are saying is an example of toxic positivity. Toxic positivity happens when we focus on the positive and reject, deny, or displace the negative. In theory, it sounds like being optimistic, but in reality, pushing aside our unpleasant emotions only make them bigger.

So what can we do? The best advice I have right now is to “keep moving.” American poet Maggie Smith wrote, “Fight the urge to withdraw, to fold in on yourself, as if your pain is contagious and might infect someone else. We are here to take care of one another; the care is what’s catching, spreading person to person to person. So take and give and care. Keep moving.”

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Dear WeAreTeachers:
I just learned at a staff meeting there is now a zero-tolerance policy on celebrating any holidays. There will be no more activities or even themed worksheets allowed at our K-3 school. Give me a break. Let these kids be kids. I mean, our school actually has to redo the October calendar because it was a bit ‘Halloweenish.’ That seems so extreme to me. What’s your advice on Halloween at school?

Illustration: Jennifer Jamieson

 Help! Parents Are Throwing Full-Blown Birthday Parties in My Classroom