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Teachers and Stigma – Judging and Blaming Families

By September 6, 20093 Comments

As parents of troubled children, we already know that our child’s disorder or behavior will not work in most classrooms.  Teachers don’t need to tell us this or explain why our child needs to change in order to learn–we already stay up at night worrying how our child or teen will make it in the world.  Most parents have tried everything:  we’ve looked for other educational options (which almost never exist or we don’t qualify), we’ve asked or pleaded for help, we’ve read books and scoured the internet for advice…  When nothing works, some parents and caregivers just give up and try to muddle through.

When it comes to working with teachers, it feels like you can’t win for losing

Those parents who’ve tried everything become deeply frustrated and take it out on school staff.  This reaction makes sense when you’ve been there like I have.  I probably looked bad at meetings, angry, stressed, anxious, and confused—and that’s how I was treated.  I could sense teachers assumed I was this way all the time and thus the cause of my child’s disorder.

Those parents who give up don’t show up.  They can’t face another school meeting to listen to the litany of their child’s problems, feeling nagged with advice given in a tone of impatience, never getting help, hope, or heard.  Not showing up also makes perfect sense.  Who wants another downer?  It’s best to stay home and conserve precious emotional energy.  These parents look apathetic and neglectful at best–I personally know a couple who’ve given up.  I’ve heard school staff wondering aloud if these parents were using drugs, abusive, or criminally neglectful.  I personally knew they weren’t.

Teachers have the same paradoxical attitudes held by the public at large when it comes to troubled children.  They may try to be neutral when they work with parents, but underlying attitudes and feelings still come out:

  • We sympathize but you’re still to blame;
  • You can change things if you want to, but you don’t really care;
  • We know what your child needs, you don’t.

I truly believe teachers care about children and teens which is why they are teachers.  Their professional education centers on children’s development and learning, but not on the intricacies and psychology of family relationships or children’s mental health!  Their qualifications and license are for giving their students a quality education, not for doing social work with families.  Even if teachers recognize that families struggle with their child, there is still a sense that the cause of a student’s lack of achievement “sits squarely on the shoulders of parents”  who simply “don’t care.” *

* Taliaferro, JD; DeCuir-Gunby, J; Allen-Eckard, K (2009).  ‘I can see parents being reluctant’: Perceptions of parental involvement using child and family teams in schools.  Child & Family Social Work, 14, 278-288

> Find out more about this research at the Research and Training Center – “School Staff Perceptions of Parental Involvement,” August 2009, Issue #164 <

Mixed messages from schools


Teachers and schools give mixed signals to families, on the one hand encouraging parents to work with their child’s teacher, and on the other hand becoming “offended when… parents would take the side of their children or question a teacher’s assessment.” *  When it comes to mental health, teachers simply aren’t trained to recognize or diagnose disorders.

Parents with troubled kids in school have additional responsibilities, but their energy and time reserves are the lowest: they have Child and Family Team (CFT) meetings to attend; Individual Education Plan (IEP) meetings; waivers, Releases of Information (ROIs); and many communication attempts to follow through on each of these.

Teachers need to believe in the ability of parents to contribute to their child’s well being and understand parents’ need for support when children have mental or emotional disorders.  And “…schools must change practices so that information can be shared with a socially just approach.  Schools must meet families where they are rather than embracing misperceptions and stereotypes…” *

Let’s change this situation, and here’s how you can help

If you are a teacher, parent, or other education advocate, there’s a program available from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to develop understanding and partnership between schools and parents with troubled children.  It’s called Parents and Teachers as Allies.

This is an in-service mental health education program designed for teachers, administrators, school health professionals, families, and others in the school community.  The curriculum focuses on helping everyone better understand the early warning signs of mental illnesses in children and adolescents and how best to intervene, and how best schools can communicate with families about mental health-related concerns.

The program is also designed to target schools in urban, suburban, rural, and culturally-diverse communities.  The toolkit is being developed to be culturally sensitive and will include a Spanish language version.

For more information about this program, please contact: Bianca Ruffin, Program Assistant, Child & Adolescent Action Center, Email:, Phone:  703.516.0698


  • Cate says:

    Great to read this article and really relate. My teen went from a Catholic school where the “counselors” were teachers with no counseling qualifications – where he was judged, blamed and shamed, and us as a family was judged as being poor parents who were always “against” the school – to a state run school who had definite policies in place to deal with my son.

    If he broke the rules, there were the consequences, no exceptions. No shaming or thinly veiled attempts to get us to leave the school and the area. The state school staff saw potential in my son and worked with qualified school counselors and behavioral specialists and were prepared to go as far as they could to give him a chance.

    In the end my son was diagnosed with ADD and after being on medication is now doing brilliantly at school and in life. For now, 6 months on, a happier ending, still some aspects to work through (having got into trouble with the law last year and earlier this year) but going well. His current school is supportive to the max. It was an interesting contrast all up.

  • Marcia says:

    What a great article and blog.

    School administrators and teachers say they want parent involvement, but few really do. It’s also hard to convince the schools to institute an IEP and enforce it, and parents new to the system are easily discouraged.

    Because the parents feel unsupported and alone, they withdraw from other families and don’t get the help they need. And it spirals down.

    I have some resources listed for parents on my site at – just look at the comments.

    Best of luck,


    Author: Strained Relations: Help for Struggling Parents of Troubled Teens

  • steve says:

    We avoided standard schools on purpose with our “ADHD” boys, because we assumed we would not get the needed support. We homeschooled and used alternative educational settings where “different” is not synonymous with “bad” or “problem.” That’s how all schools should be.

    I now work as an advocate for foster children, and often have direct or indirect contact with schools and kids on IEPs. When schools say they “want to work with you”, three times out of four they mean they want YOU to work with THEM, as in do as you are told. Questioning their judgment often leads to being attacked or dismissed as ignorant or naive. School can be hostile environments for parents and foster parents, and even for caseworkers and advocates who aren’t willing to just go along with the program.

    Sometimes I think our whole approach to saying our kids have “mental health diagnoses” is part of the problem. I never thought of my kids as diseased or disordered – they just did things differently, in a way that I knew schools weren’t willing to accomodate. So we found another place that would, instead of trying to make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear that our schools have become for “special needs” kids. I think we should view our kids as needing different things rather than being disordered or diseased. I know there are extreme cases, but for most kids, they need accomodations rather than “treatment” and they need understanding rather than judgment. Both are in short supply in your average classroom, in my experience.

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