Dr. Stephanie Mihalas, Licensed and Board-Certified Psychologist, Nationally Certified School Psychologist, and Founder at The Center for Well Being, discusses how to identify red flags and take action regarding conflict between your student and their instructor.

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How can you effectively handle student-teacher conflict? Conflict is part of any learning process, but when conflict between teacher and student can’t be resolved, the next steps can make or break that relationship. 

A broken relationship means a less-than-ideal learning environment for the student, so it’s a top priority to know how to sidestep the potentially disastrous situation.

Dr. Stephanie Mihalas joins the podcast to talk about the rare serendipity when a teacher’s pedagogy and a student’s classroom management preference perfectly align, how to navigate situations where they don’t, and when you should take actions on red flags regarding conflict between your student and their instructor.

The Importance of Student-Teacher Relationships 

One good teacher can leave a lasting impression that students carry with them for years after school and into their careers. But what is it, exactly, about a good teacher that makes them so memorable? 

They’re the kind of teachers that have students excited in the morning about what the day will bring — whether it be a lesson plan or an exciting surprise. They have an intrinsic motivation to help their students learn. 

But what happens when that student-teacher relationship struggles?

Identifying Your Student’s Struggle

What if your student comes home from school one day and says their teacher hates them? There are a few things that could be happening, Stephanie says.

  1. Projection: Sometimes, the student might hate the teacher; not the other way around. 
  2. Energy mismatch: The energy of the teacher and student isn’t flowing as well as with teachers past. For example, if your student’s new teacher doesn’t praise them like a previous teacher did, that difference in behavior can feel personal. 
  3. It’s the truth: The teacher might really be a bully.

Especially in the third scenario, it’s important for parents to intervene in the right way. We don’t want our students to feel they can’t go to school or they can’t learn. 

How to Know When Intervention Is Necessary 

You want to protect your student, but it’s important to make sure that a situation calls for your intervention before acting. You first want to make sure that it’s not projection or an energy mismatch. Otherwise, you could disrupt the relationship that’s in the process of being built between student and teacher. 

Stephanie shares steps to help figure out what’s going on:

Step #1: Set a Growth Mindset 

Even though a teacher might be trying their best to reach every student, their teaching style will never match the needs of every single student. Take the time to remind your student that every classroom, year, and teacher is different; and that’s okay. It’s about staying flexible and having a growth mindset, similar to what they’ll have to do in life. They can still succeed even when a situation isn’t perfect. 

Step #2: Watch for Red Flags in the Form of Red Marks

If your student is coming home with consistently marked-up papers, there’s a good chance something is wrong. Particularly in elementary years, teacher feedback should be balanced and constructive instead of constant red marks. 

Additionally, if teacher notes are sent home daily or weekly, when your student was completely fine in years before can also be a red flag. Anything that shows a drastic change from the previous year can demonstrate a student-teacher conflict. 

Step #3: Watch Out for Crying or Stress

If your student is saying they hate their teacher, it may be nothing more than mismatched energy; but if they’re crying, that’s different. Crying regularly is a clear sign of student-teacher conflict. Watch out for your student saying they don't want to go to school, or if they start having sleeping issues. 

If not addressed, this can lead to student anxiety, GI issues, and depression in your student. If you see any of this, you know they’re having a serious issue you need to intervene on. 

“This is where, as parents, we need to step in," Stephanie says. "We do not want our kids to feel as though they can't go to school or can't learn because their teacher is picking on them.”

Escalating the Intervention 

So you’ve taken the necessary steps to make sure your student’s situation isn’t just a case of mismatched energy. It’s a real situation where your student is in danger. What happens now?

You may think the best thing to do is to go directly to the administrator to address these problems, especially in such a personal situation, Stephanie says. But when your student’s well-being is at stake, speaking with the administrator first might waste precious time.

“It's important to try to address it with the teacher first rather than going above the teacher to the administrator,” Stephanie says. “Because administrators will typically say to you, ‘Have you talked to the teacher?’”

Only after you’ve created a paper trail to show you’ve done all you can to address the problem with the teacher should you reach out to an administrator.

Taking a More Proactive Approach  

If you have the availability to be more proactive about your concern, there’s more that can be done than issue a complaint with the teacher. One of the easiest ways is to volunteer in the classroom. You can get your eyes and ears on the situation to assess exactly where the problem is. 

Or if time doesn’t allow you that much flexibility, you can speak with other parents about their experience with the teacher to make sure your student’s perspective isn’t skewed. It’s important not to confuse this with gossip, though. Make sure you’re getting concrete, constructive feedback. 

Being Your Student’s Best Advocate 

We want our students to thrive in the classroom. While it’s easy to become upset when your student comes home crying or saying they hate their teacher, it’s important to approach the situation in the right way to avoid any further disruption.

Recognize whether the problem is a skewed perspective of the student or an overly critical teacher, take the appropriate paths to confront the problem, and take a hands-on approach where possible to be the best advocate for your student as you can be. 

Guest Links 

Find out more about Dr. Stephanie Mihalas at The Center for Well Being.

Recommended Resources

Check out these additional resources, from Dr. Stephanie Mihalas.

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This episode was brought to you by Art of Problem Solving, where students train to become the great problem solvers of tomorrow. 

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Episode Transcript

Stephanie Mihalas Q&A [1:43]

Eric Olsen: On today's episode, Dr. Stephanie Mihalas, licensed and board certified psychologist, nationally certified school psychologist, and founder at the Center for Wellbeing, joins the podcast to talk about the rare serendipity when a teacher's pedagogy and your student's classroom management preference perfectly align, how to navigate situations where they don't, and when you should take action on conflict between your student and their instructor.

Those who were fortunate enough to have even just one great teacher in our childhoods, we remember them forever. They make so much of a difference. Why is having a great teacher so memorable?

Dr. Stephanie Mihalas: I think having a great teacher is so memorable because they contrast the teacher that is incredibly difficult, and those teachers are also memorable too. But I think that they allow us to actually enjoy learning. They make it fun. I think those memorable teachers are exciting. We want to go to school in the morning. We don't know what they're going to do. They have a new lesson plan. They're going to surprise us with something exciting. They're going to bring a treat. But I think at the end of the day, the reason that that teacher is memorable is that they want us to learn. There is an intrinsic motivation that excites us about learning, and that's what gets kids going.

Eric Olsen: It's a high bar and a beautiful bar for our teachers to strive to live up to. Let's talk about the contrast. Our student comes home one day and says, "Mom, dad, I think my teacher hates me." What's the probable story here? What's actually happening?

Dr. Stephanie Mihalas: I think a lot of things could be happening. First and foremost, your kid actually may be projecting and they may in fact hate their teacher. I think a lot of kids, when they say their teacher hates them, they really do, in fact, hate their teacher. And there is a mismatch between energies of the teacher's style and the kid's style, and we have to figure out what's going on there.

The second likely cause is, in fact, they're picking up on the teacher's energy and the teacher is just not jiving with them. They're thinking about their previous year's teacher, which was like kids med, and they were doing really well and flowing together. And this year's particular teacher is maybe not praising them as much, maybe is just not telling them they're doing a super uber-duper job. And it's not that they don't like them, it's just they're not flowing as well.

The third probable cause is, in fact, the teacher really is a jerk and a bully. And that, in fact, happens too. This is where, as parents, we do need to step in, because we do not want our kid to feel as though they can't go to school, they can't learn, and their teacher is picking on them. And this is where we have to intervene.

How can we make the most out of every season and every teacher relationship our students have? <4:52>

Eric Olsen: Yeah, let's start tiptoeing our way through this escalation of necessary intervention. You mentioned this idea of the teacher who praises our kid, affirms our kid, really sees our kid. Not every teacher is going to see our kid, especially not the way that we do as the parent. Not every teacher is going to have a classroom management style, a pedagogy that perfectly matches our kids' learning preference. How can we make the most out of every season out of every teacher?

Dr. Stephanie Mihalas: That's really hard to do. I think it's important every year when school starts to remind our children that every teacher is different, just like every classroom of students is different, and that that's okay. We may not have the perfect teacher, and this is preparation for life. We're never going to have the perfect boss. We're never going to have the perfect set of ideals when we get a job in life or when we go to college, if we do or whatever the case is. And so to remind our kid that this is about flexibility and fluidity, and that every year is different.

If we can set the stage for that, it also sets the mindset of our child that they still can succeed even though the situation is not perfect. I think it's kind of like a growth mindset that we can put our child in. I think that is step one, because then they're not going in thinking that the teacher is exactly like their perfect teacher from the last year.

What are the teacher red flags we should really watch out for? [6:31]

Eric Olsen: Yeah, let's talk about learning to be flexible versus learning to see real red flags. What are some red flags to look out for as parents? How can we sense, how can we dig, to see if there are class conflicts we should be proactively trying to work through with our kid?

Dr. Stephanie Mihalas: Okay, that's a really great question. I think that if your child's paper is coming home every single day with literally marks and marks of red, that is actually a really big red flag. In the elementary years, there should be an even amount of constructive feedback versus just constant red.

I think the second is if your child is coming home on a daily basis, crying, we know that something is going on there. It's different than my teacher hates me. She's mean. I don't like her. I think then we still have to problem solve the issue, but that's different than your child coming home every day crying. Your child's starting to say, in fact, they don't want to come to school. And they're exhibiting a GI issue; stomach aches, diarrhea, nausea, they can't sleep, real somatic concerns. They start to show mental health issues like anxiety and depression. At that point, we know we have a real serious issue that's happening that we need to address and intervene.

We also know if we start to get notes home on a weekly or even daily basis from the teacher, when years before let's say your child's in fourth grade and you've never had that before, we start to say, "Wow, this is a huge change. How could my kid have been fine every single year in elementary school, and now all of a sudden the teacher is saying my child isn't fine?" That's a drastic change that indicates there is a student/teacher conflict.

Eric Olsen: Let's talk about addressing and intervening in those options there. If we do sense, if we do see conflict, at what points should we work through it with our student versus reaching out to the teacher and addressing it directly versus going above them and reaching out to an administrator when we believe that the problem is severe enough to do that?

Dr. Stephanie Mihalas: Like I said, I think that when we're noticing those somatic issues, those mental health issues, really kind of inappropriate behavior on the part of the teacher, that's when we take the step. I always think it's important to try to address it with the teacher first, rather than going above the teacher to the administrator, because administrators typically will always say to you, "Have you talked to the teacher?" And so we always try to say, "Please speak to the teacher first," so there's documentation and a paper trail that this has been tried.

At the point that that's been tried, and there's been some problem solving or understanding, that we have attempted a discussion around what is the issue, then the next step is typically a conversation with the administrator that there's been a history of appropriate and fine behavior on behalf of the student, and all of a sudden these changes have been happening. That's when we go to the administrative level.

But in terms of when we try to work it out with our child first, I think that's when the child is saying, "My teacher's mean; I don't like this classroom," I think we try to figure out what is that kind of ambiguous statement about? Is it that you just don't like her teaching style? Is it that your best friend isn't in that classroom and you miss that best friend? What are the tangible things that possibly we can problem solve? Because going to the teacher sometimes can create a problem that may not actually be there, and we don't want to create an issue that really is about our student that we can rectify first as parents.

Eric Olsen: Stephanie, finally, any next steps advice for parents trying to navigate teachers that aren't a perfectly natural fit for our kids' learning preferences? How should we think about that challenge?

Dr. Stephanie Mihalas: If you have the availability as parents, and we oftentimes are very tapped if we're part-time or full-time parents or have other children, one option is to try to volunteer in the classroom. You can then get your eyes and ears on what's actually going on there. That way you can see their style and then talk to your child about it and then massage the difference between student and teacher. That's one option.

​​Another option is to talk to other parents that you may know, not in a gossip kind of way, but just in a concrete problem solving way. "Do you know this teacher? Do you understand the teacher's pedagogy or philosophies?" Just so that you can get other people's perspective in the event that your child's perspective is skewed.

Another option is to try to communicate with the teacher openly and honestly. "I'd really like to understand your protocol and processes in the classroom. This is new for me. Can you share with me how you run your classroom so I can help my child understand?" That could be a first step approach before even saying there's an issue, so you can bridge the conversation between your student and yourself.

Download AoPS’ Raising Problem Solvers Guidebook [12:15]

Eric Olsen: That idea of being your student's advocate, being their bridge, being their voice and learning when not to be, is so important and so challenging. That's exactly why we wrote the Raising Problem Solvers Guidebook. It's full of helpful strategies to support and challenge advanced learners, curriculum recommendations straight from our Art of Problem Solving families, our STEM gift guide, free resource recommendations, and much, much more. It's the perfect next step to help you navigate and build an educational plan that's right for your family. Download our Raising Problem Solvers Guidebook for free today.

Dr. Stephanie Mihalas Rapid Fire [13:00]

Eric Olsen: It's now time for our rapid fire segment called Problem Solved where we ask the guest to solve incredibly complex and difficult education issues in single soundbites. Stephanie, what's one thing about K-12 education you wish you could snap your fingers and problem solved, it's fixed?

Dr. Stephanie Mihalas: I wish K through 12 education could somehow manage mental health in schools. I really wish that each K through 12 hub could actually instill a mental health program on each and every campus, whereby we could have psychologists, social workers and licensed mental health therapists on each and every campus.

Eric Olsen: If you could go back and give your kid-self advice on their educational journey, what would it be?

Dr. Stephanie Mihalas: I wish I had more fun. I was way too focused and way too obsessed with grades and getting into college that I think I would have been well more prepared if I just had a little bit more fun and let my hair down.

Eric Olsen: I think that's often my answer as well, but then I question whether or not I could actually hear that. Even now, that's my advice to my current self, and I don't know how to do that. Can you take that advice yourself now?

Dr. Stephanie Mihalas: No. No. No. No. I still can't apply it.

Eric Olsen: What part of education do you think or hope looks the most different 10 years from now?

Dr. Stephanie Mihalas: I would like to see the student/teacher relationship enhanced. There is a lot of research and clinical programming around the student/teacher relationship, but I still don't think that there is enough time and energy that teachers are afforded to enhance the relationship.

Eric Olsen: And finally, what's your best advice for parents looking to raise future problem solvers?

Dr. Stephanie Mihalas: Let your kids actually problem solve. Stop getting in the way of them having failure and frustration. Let them actually be frustrated and figure things out and have meltdowns and tantrums, because within that time and space, that's actually how they get to problem solve.

Eric Olsen: And listeners, we'd love to hear your answers as well. So email us at podcast@aops.com with your best advice for raising future problem solvers. And we'll read our favorites on future episodes.

Stephanie, thanks so much for joining us today.

Dr. Stephanie Mihalas: Thank you so much. Nice seeing you.

Episode Summary & Conclusion [15:30]

Eric Olsen: How can we find the best teachers for our students, and how can we navigate situations where we're really far from that? It's so challenging and that's why we're here to figure it out together. I hope this conversation with Dr. Mihalas helped you think through some potential next steps if you're in that situation right now. And may you continue your journey alongside us raising the great problem solvers of the next generation. See you next week.

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