Dealing with a Substitute Teacher: Don't Panic!

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Updated on Feb 25, 2010

Life itself is a classic part of elementary school curriculum. Kids discover it in seeds planted in cups; the ways of clouds and weather; and through the changing of the seasons. It’s all pretty enchanting, except for once in a while, when changes are a little more overwhelming, such as a change in school staff.

Maybe your kid’s teacher is leaving for several weeks to have a baby; maybe to take a leave to care for family; or perhaps to recover from an illness. Much as we’d all like a classroom to hum along predictably—well, we just can’t always make that happen. To quote Ken Davis, principal of McNeill Elementary School in Richmond-Rosenberg, Texas and a seasoned administrator, “The natural progression of life happens. It doesn’t stop because you’re a teacher.”

So parents, if your child’s teacher has announced an upcoming absence, you’ve probably noticed: kids can feel quite anxious about a replacement, even if it’s just for a month or two. And just to add to your fun as a parent, young children often don't tell you this in straightforward words. Instead, warn experts from the National Association of School Psychologists, many kids express their unease by acting up, talking back, eating differently, or even having nightmares.

Does this mean you’re in for some kind of home-based explosion? Not at all, say these same experts—especially when you’re on the job with some simple but crucial tools. Above all, explains nationally certified school psychologist Melissa Reeves, Ph.D., we need to remember that helping kids welcome a substitute can actually be an invaluable life lesson. “They learn transition skills,” she says. “They learn how to adapt and be flexible….These skills can help them in future situations where there is new change.” She also offers this pragmatic reminder: “For some, the new teacher’s style and method of teaching may even fit better!”

So if your child is facing a change of teacher, how can you help? Here are some practical suggestions from Reeves, as well as from long-time principals who have been through these situations many times:

Get information. It’s standard operating procedure for your regular teacher and principal to announce an upcoming absence, estimate its length, and tell you about the new sub. If the school offers a meeting ahead of time—many do—make sure you attend. You’ll be sending a message of partnership right from the start. Your school will appreciate it, and so will your child.

Keep it positive. Principal Davis, himself the father of two children, says it straight: “Look, there’s no need to panic. You can trust the professionals. Safety is our #1 mission.” If you are feeling nervous, do everything possible to show a positive, upbeat face to your child. “If parents see the transition as positive,” adds Reeves, “their child will most likely view it the same.”

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