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.”
Listen…but Reframe. No matter how cheery we may be, of course, a crucial part of our parenting, says Reeves, is to “acknowledge a child’s anxiety” and allow kids to express it without judgment. “Mr. O’Neill is a great teacher,” you might say matter of factly, “and you’re really worried about what will happen while he’s gone.” But then, says Reeves, “parents should reframe the new transition as an opportunity, and have the child identify positive outcomes.” Mark Terry, M.Ed., Principal of Eubanks Intermediate School in Southlake, Texas, also recommends inviting your child to help take a lead in welcoming. “As your child, he says, ‘how can you help this teacher succeed?’” Try taking out pen and paper and brainstorming a list together.
Keep Home Routines. Since teachers and principals generally meet with subs ahead of time, most school routines will stay the same. Kids, however, don’t really know that yet! So especially in the beginning, you can provide enormous comfort—and often address those stress symptoms like acting out—by maintaining familiar home routines. “We know,” says Davis, that “routines decrease the acclimation period.”
Explain Special Needs. If your child has special needs and accomodations, the teacher will most likely have explained them to the sub, but don’t forget that parents can be crucial partners. Don’t hesitate to tell the new teacher what’s up, but refrain from handing over dense files. Instead, ask for a brief meeting, and offer a short list of helpful, practical tips. The new teacher will most likely be very grateful!
Share Concerns Adult to Adult. While everyone hopes that all children will adjust quickly, everyone knows that hiccups can happen. All our experts agree: do reach out to your teacher and principal to resolve your concerns. But, adds Terry, “please do tell us the things you really like as well as anything to address,” since schools will work as hard to build on positives as to resolve negatives. And do beware “sharing negative comments with your child,” says Barbara Chester, a 28-year veteran principal and current president-elect of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. Instead, she urges, “ask the hard questions, but be sure to do it adult to adult.”
Celebrate! Parents, we won’t deny it: a long-term substitute can seem daunting to kids. But here’s the benefit: when schools and parents work together well, the experience can also be as rewarding as any life curriculum unit in the elementary years. “Ultimately,” explains Chester, “it’s about talking to your kids and modeling for them how you accept change. In their lifetimes, they’re going to experience a lot of transitions. Sure, change can be scary, but you don’t have to be stuck in that place. Change is normal, and change is okay.”