The Four Stages of Parent Grief: What educators should know about how parents process news of their child’s developmental challenges

When the school’s phone number pops up on the caller ID, any parent’s initial reaction is panic.  My first-born child had probably been in childcare for less than a month when they called me to tell me there was a problem.

School administrator: “Hi, Ms. Mitchell.  Donovan has conjunctivitis.”

As a new parent, I had no idea of what conjunctivitis was but it sounded terrible. Apparently, I channel my grandmother (who was known to use a few expletives) when I am not thinking rationally and responded in a less than professional way.

Me:  “No the ___ he doesn’t.  What is that, and who are you to diagnose this?”

Fortunately, the administrator was a seasoned professional that recognized the terror in a young, new mother’s voice.  She responded with a chuckle, “It’s pink eye; he just needs to go to the doctor for eye drops.”  Feeling only slightly embarrassed and mostly sad for my sweet baby boy, I set out to pick him up to address what I learned was a common childhood illness.

The feelings that surged through me during those seconds are the feelings that parents regularly experience when educators tell them their child is having developmental challenges. They are feelings of denial, anger, sadness, and acceptance – what I call the stages of parent grief.  Often sequential, sometimes cyclical, and rarely lasting a mere few seconds, these stages are important for an educator to understand so we can appropriately manage our messaging and counsel families with compassion.

In this post, I summarize the emotions and behaviors I have observed parents experience when processing messages from the school about their child’s developmental challenges.  In subsequent posts, I will share ways I have found parents and educators can work together through the stages to support students in need.

Stages of Parent Grief

Stages of Parent Grief

Denial – In this stage, parents are not yet ready to see the challenges being described by the teachers/administrators.  Parents may make excuses for behaviors or provide evidence that appears to conflict with the claims being presented.

 Anger – Parents may feel personally attacked by teachers or administrators and blame the environment, including teaching practices, structures and policies, and other children for any issues being described.  At this stage, there is some recognition that the issues exist, but efforts are being made by the parent to protect the child from others.

Sadness – This stage usually follows a quiet period.  Parents have had time to talk to others they trust, see the issues being described, and they too believe there is an issue.    They don’t know what to do about it and are unsure of outcomes.  This stage might include feelings of guilt.

Acceptance – Parents are ready to move forward with addressing the challenges described.  They are open to dialogue and willing to take some action.

Again, I have found that these stages are often sequential but sometimes cyclical, especially during discussion about how to address challenges.  My point in sharing these stages is that without awareness of them, educators may find themselves reacting to parent emotions rather than communicating strategically to support families.  Most importantly, it is a reminder that in spite of emotions, educators and parents are on the same team and share goals of good health, happiness, and achievement for students.

Stay tuned for subsequent posts on each stage of grief and how to help families move through them.

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Which one doesn’t belong? Math from a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens

Early childhood mathematics development is finally getting the attention it deserves.  As researchers and educators understand more about how young children learn math, schools are implementing curricula that extend far beyond the 58 seconds of rote counting that had been casually sprinkled throughout traditional preschool days.  We now know that early number sense is crucial for later, more advanced math and that developing skills such as subitizing strengthens students’ abilities to think flexibly and truly understand the concept of quantity.  As a result, math practices have become far more robust, focusing as much on the processes of student thinking as on the accuracy of the results.

IMG_4723One of my favorite math games for making student thinking visible and developing the mathematical practice of constructing a viable argument is called “Which one doesn’t belong?”, originally created as a children’s picture book by Christopher Danielson.  The book contains sets of pictures that prompt students to notice the properties of shapes and then provide justification for their observations about which one doesn’t belong with the others.  The best part about the activity is that there is no one “right” answer.  There are many ways that one can justify their answer, allowing students to hear different perspectives and consider new ways of thinking.  With puzzles that extend far beyond shapes, the activity has become wildly popular.  People across academic disciplines regularly share new ideas and thinking on social media through #WODB.  It is amazing to see just how creative people are in compiling a group for comparison, and equally remarkable to witness how children of all ages can identify patterns and present arguments utilizing precise vocabulary.

IMG_4726I love what this activity does to develop critical thinking and communication skills.  So, I struggle with the lingering feeling of unease that I have maintained since the very first time I watched a teacher facilitate the activity with a group of young students.  It’s the language.  “Which one doesn’t belong?” is difficult to accept when looking out at a classroom full of children that are moment-by-moment authoring their identities with the language we use.  My unease became further strengthened as I witnessed a group of Pre-K students looking at a “Which one doesn’t belong” poster, and I found myself sympathizing with the one African American child in the group listening to someone say “the black one doesn’t belong because it isn’t white”.

IMG_4727 2

While the shapes presented for comparison in this activity are not people, the process of identifying what is the same and different transfers easily in young minds that are building background knowledge and shaping ideas about how the world works.  As a natural process for keeping up with the abundance of information we face every day, our brains rely on what we’ve experienced or what we have come to believe is true to make decisions about new situations.  Also, natural is the desire to associate with people like us.  So with that in mind I wonder, are we inadvertently promoting the identification of and, more disturbingly, exclusion of things that are different by asking for what doesn’t “belong”?

I’ve been thinking about what else we could ask students that would still promote critical thinking, pattern recognition, and communication skills.  If we asked, “What can you find that is the same?”, students would be able to acknowledge at least one basic way that all four pictures are related before beginning to focus on their differences.  They are all shapes.  Or we might ask, “Which one is different?”, because it gives us the opportunity to talk about how everyone is different, and different is not bad.  Neither of these questions is quite as succinct as “Which one doesn’t belong?”, but I’d like us to consider them and others anyway.

As educators, we work carefully to integrate academic and social-emotional learning, because research shows that they cannot be separated.  In order to learn, students must feel safe and connected to their learning community.  Knowing that words matter in how we shape identity and view others, educators must be mindful of the questions they ask and the responses they might elicit.  So, how can we adjust this activity to be sensitive to the girl, the student of color, the non-athletic boy, or __________, who will hear a description of themselves when the class is asked to describe which one doesn’t belong?

This post is not a critique of any individual, idea, or practice.  It is an attempt to build awareness and prompt discussion about how we can intentionally use language to develop flexible math thinking and relational thinking.  I realize that after reading this, some people will naturally want to step back from the “Which one doesn’t belong?” activity out of fear or discomfort.  Please don’t.  Lean into that discomfort and be brave.  This is what being a reflective practitioner is all about.



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Passing Along Our Faith

I have very few memories of showing anyone my report card during my school years. No one checked that I did my homework or studied for a test. It wasn’t due to a lack of interest in my academic success. My family understood the importance of a quality education, and we lived in a neighborhood that provided the best public education available in the city. Grades in school were simply not their measure of success.

I do remember many talks with my family about making good choices – choices about who I considered a friend (because the answer to their question of “Who are their people?” when I mentioned a new name provided my family with all they needed to know about this person; choices in how I presented myself to others (because respect and decency came before anything else); and choices about what I did with my time (I still hear my grandmother saying “Make sure you do something with yourself.”). It was always clear to me that people make choices in life, and I was called to reflect on mine regularly.

My family collectively worked to provide me with opportunities, modeled and explicitly taught what they believed were core character traits and habits of mind, and they regularly expressed their faith in me to be my best self. The message of faith was so prevalent that it transferred to me, and I developed faith in myself.

My family’s faith built my confidence by reminding me of the skills, abilities, and accomplishments I’d worked to attain. It caused me to set goals for myself and develop a sense of responsibility. It motivated me to work through difficulties and setbacks so I could live up to the expectations that they set for me and I adopted for myself.

As parents and educators, we work to provide children with the best learning experiences and opportunities we can provide. We strive to cultivate curious, lifelong learners and often find ourselves wondering what more we can do to prepare our children to be thoughtful, contributing members of society. This question persists in my mind as a school administrator and parent of two teenagers.

As I was thinking about my grandmother recently, I found myself wondering what would happen if we were more intentional about passing along our faith to children – to our own and other’s.  I don’t mean shallow praise or fleeting compliments but empowering messages of belief and expectation.

What if we shared our faith in them and their abilities, imploring them to believe in their own worth and beauty in spite of what others may say about them? What would come of regularly reminding children of the skills they have developed and the knowledge they have acquired, encouraging them to stand firmly on their past efforts and accomplishments? What about deliberately coaching them to look to examples of those who came before them as evidence of what is possible and as motivation to persevere when times are hard? Would it build them up inside?

Then, what if we made it clear to them that our faith is not hope alone but is coupled with expectation and a history of planning, preparation, and sacrifice? How would they feel about a warning that we’ll be trusting them to do something with themselves – something greater for all of us. What if our words and actions taught them that life is full of choices and then we gave them some to practice so they would know for themselves. Would this promote a sense of responsibility and agency?

Research on locus of control and the Adlerian theory were not on my family’s reading list. Yet the ideas of choice and autonomy promoting motivation (internal locus of control or self-determination) and the need for a sense of belonging along with contribution (Positive Discipline) resonate with me as a critical part of my childhood experience. Since these practices shaped me so strongly, I will use them more intentionally in my own parenting and teaching practices. However, please note that I will continue to check progress reports.

(cross posted at

Suggested Reading:

Fostering Independence in Children

Frequently Asked Questions About Positive Discipline



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Hidden Menus: What we should uncover about our students

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 10.10.37 PMHave you ever heard of a hidden or secret menu?  I had not until recently.  I didn’t know that some restaurants offer items that are not advertised and only available if you know to ask.  Isn’t that like our students?  Some of the things we need to know about them are readily observable, but other things (maybe the most important things) require more effort and deeper searching to uncover.
My daughter is a middle school-aged digital native and has essentially built herself a full class load of YouTube videos on subjects ranging from make-up application to school supply organization tips.  I’m guessing this is how she learned about the Starbucks secret menu.
On our way home one day, she asked me if we could stop by Starbucks.  As I pulled up to the drive-thru window, I asked her what she’d like.  Her response was that she’d like to try the Cotton Candy Frappuccino.  I looked all over the menu for this drink and didn’t see it anywhere.  When I told her there was no such drink at this particular Starbucks, she assured me that if I asked for it, the person taking the order would know what I meant.  So, I did; and out came this lovely pink drink that completely delighted my daughter.
Later, she showed me the extensive menu of drinks people have created and Starbucks regularly produces.  I guess I understand why restaurants don’t list every option available.  It would take forever for people to read through the menu and make a selection.  Similarly, students don’t preface all of their interactions or learning experiences by listing their idiosyncrasies.  Yet, this information is critical for those who support student growth and development.  This is why, as teachers, we must be willing to search for each student’s hidden menu.

Top 3 Hidden Menu Items

Learning preferences

We are at a point in education where our understanding of teaching and learning has led us to adopt best practices such as “learning by doing” and ongoing formative assessment.  These practices have resulted in engaging learning experiences and real-time information about where students are in their knowledge and skill development.   Just as important as the methods and status of student learning, are the processes and habits of student learning.  Student learning preferences is a hidden menu item that is important for teachers to know about students and for students to know about themselves.
  • Is it important for the student to understand the big picture, or the why, of a concept before going into the details of what and how?  Or, do they prefer to just get started and work through the details in order to see how all of the parts come together?
  • Do they need individual think time? Or, do they benefit from talking out an idea with others?
  • Must they have a highly organized space to work?  Or, do they thrive in dynamic workspace?

Social-emotional learning skills

Research has clearly shown the importance of social-emotional learning and the connections to achievement.  Social-emotional skill development is critical for individual self-regulation and growth.  Plus, it develops the skills necessary to maintain healthy and productive relationships in a world where people are highly interconnected.  Building student social-emotional awareness and interpersonal skills promotes the ability to successfully navigate various environments and situations.  Are we looking beyond how well students conform to rules and more carefully observing the hidden menu information about how our students interact?
  • Are they able to see another perspective when confronted with potential conflict or an opposing idea?
  • What role do they prefer when working in a group?  How does this impact their contribution?
  • Are they comfortable asking for help with something they don’t understand?


We are all products of our experiences and environment.  Where students are from and their families (structure and beliefs) influence how they behave and learn on a daily basis.  In order for us to make the meaningful connections with students necessary for productive learning, teachers must seek to understand and acknowledge each student’s personal story.  What is on the cultural hidden menu?
  • What are the family’s implicit and explicit expectations for learning, and what is considered “smart”?
  • How does the student spend time outside of school (time is treasure)?
  • How is behavior managed at home compared to what the child is experiencing at school?
Like the Starbucks Secret menu, the hidden menu items of students are extensive.  Those listed above are only a few to consider when trying to understand and support the students in our care.  What is your favorite student hidden menu item?  How does it help you connect and support your students?
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Let’s talk: Why and how to promote language development in children


The child begins to perceive the world not only through his eyes but also through his speech.  ~ Lev Vygotsky

language post

Language is a way we come to understand ourselves, through our connections and communications with others.  Human babies can decipher sounds to understand and communicate in a particular language before the age of two; and by the time they enter Kindergarten, children of professional families know approximately 4,000 words.

Language is the foundation for literacy.  The ability to hear individual sounds in spoken words and manipulate those sounds (think nursery rhymes and Raffi songs) is a precursor to breaking the code of written language, or what we know as reading.  Then, once the mechanics of reading are established, the focus of literacy instruction shifts to comprehension. The strategies we teach for comprehension such as using picture clues, making connections, and visualizing are methods whose effectiveness is dependent on the reader’s bank of vocabulary and prior knowledge.  It is through life experiences and the language used to build understanding that students truly develop content knowledge as well as the skills of perspective-taking and analyzing necessary for deep comprehension.

As educators, it is important to know that children don’t come to school with the same levels of exposure to language.  Both, opportunities to engage with language at home and previous exposure to language in a school setting vary with each child.  Unfortunately, these variations can lead to gaps in understanding and achievement in school.  Children with low exposure can enter Kindergarten with fewer than 1,200 words (compared to a classmate with 4,000 words).

What can we do as educators and parents to be sure all children have a solid language foundation?  Harvard professor, Catherine Snow, shares how to use language to build literacy skills in Pre-K through middle school age students, and describes two major roles adults play in helping children develop knowledge through language.

Adult as Responder

By three-months-old, babies are cooing and smiling to interact with others; and children between the ages of two and five ask 50 to 150 questions per hour.  Whether a babbling six-month-old or a pubescent 12-year-old, children need their right to question and wonder confirmed by the adults in their lives. Responding to questions, and attempts to communicate such as babbling, nurtures curiosity and promotes a love of learning, while modeling language and providing important vocabulary and knowledge.  As adults, it is not our responsibility to know all of the answers to questions children pose, but to engage interactively and encourage continued communication.

Adult as Questioner

While the number of words a child hears from adults is important, the type of interaction is equally important.  Beyond vocabulary development, talking is how people learn to make sense of the world; develop personal identities and connect to history.  So, it is important that we as adults not only expose children to a variety of environments, topics, and experiences, but that we ask children open-ended questions that generate rich discussions.  Asking questions with discussable answers builds a much stronger vocabulary and bank of knowledge than simply labeling items or giving directions.

Good Opportunities to Talk to Children

Casual Conversations

Many times the richest and most powerful teachable moments surface during casual conversations with children.  When adults are skilled questioners, we can facilitate conversations about interesting topics through the use of open-ended questions with discussable answers.  Think about the difference between asking a child, “What is that?” and “What do you think would happen if…? .”  In the first case, the child might offer a short response such as “a tree”.  In the second scenario, the request is for a story that can be extended with other questions about how and why, leading to potential connections between the adult and child.

Reading aloud

Interactive or dialogic reading allows the adult to ask questions that develop inferencing skills, vocabulary, and connections – all of which build background knowledge and improve comprehension.  It is a practice that has the reader pause to ask open-ended questions that spark conversation such as, “Why do you think …?, What did she mean when she said…?, How does this remind you of…?, When have we heard something similar?”

Read alouds can happen in a classroom as part of a planned themed unit, with a caregiver in the library after school, or with a parent at night before bed.  There are no age limits for a read aloud.  When reading to infants or toddlers who are in the early stages of language development and may respond to your questions with babble, acknowledge the communication they do offer (babbling or otherwise), and model the answers you are thinking to your own question (ie.  “I think the bunny was excited!”).  The following is a demonstration of dialogic questioning using an online picture book.

Guided Play and Discussion

Time for unstructured, child-directed free play and social interaction is a critical element of learning.  Children need time to practice independence, problem-solving, exploration and discovery. However, as teachers and parents, play and discussion are the tools we should also use to intentionally build specific knowledge and skills; this is guided play and discussion. Whether your intention is to teach spatial language at the sand and water table or storytelling at dinnertime, incorporating those objectives into play and discussion provides opportunities for children to learn in meaningful and interesting ways.

Words matter because they communicate ideas, feelings, and information.  The deeper and richer a child’s vocabulary and knowledge, the better they are able to make connections and learn more.  As teachers and parents, we can support the building of language by listening to the wonders of children, providing interesting topics, and facilitating conversations that expand thinking.



Start by Talking:  What Education Leaders Should Know About How to Build Strong Reading Skills by Leah Shafer

Developing Language, Knowledge, and Vocabulary via Dialogic Reading Methods by Susan Ebbers

Use Open-ended Questions to Improve Kids’ Language Skills by Lisa Wilkin, M.Ed.

Steps to Help Foster a Preschooler’s Spatial Reasoning Skills by Deborah Farmer Kris

How to Raise a Voracious Reader:  Promoting literacy with dinnertime storytelling, family conversation, and books about food by Bari Walsh

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Managing My Expectations

Here is a challenge for you.  Try to count the number of times the people wearing white t-shirts pass the ball.  They are moving around a lot, so it’s challenging, but see how close you can get to counting the correct number of passes.

How did you do?  Were you surprised by the results?  If so, you were probably highly focused on counting.  The first time I saw this video, the meeting facilitator stopped it before revealing there was a gorilla in it.  I was distracted that day and couldn’t focus on the ball passes so I saw the gorilla, but sat in complete shock as the facilitator asked people about passes without first discussing the gorilla.  I noticed a few others with confused looks on their faces, then realized most people had not seen it.

The video wasn’t a hoax.  It turns out, our brains ignore the unexpected.  It’s called inattentional blindness or selective attention.  In an effort to efficiently process tremendous amounts of information and make decisions quickly, our brains rely on schema, stored knowledge that has been grouped and organized for understanding, to fill in blanks as we perceive information.  We filter out whatever we don’t expect based on our mind’s idea of the situation.  No one expects to see a gorilla walk through the circle, so when focused on counting, most do not see it.

Why is it important to know about inattentional blindness, especially as educators and parents?  We need to know so we can actively manage our expectations of children (abilities, worthiness, potential) and for children (belief in success and achievement).

The literature on motivation and school performance in younger school children suggests that expectations shape the learning experience very powerfully. For example, classic studies in the psychology literature have found that merely stating an expectation results in enhanced performance, that higher expectations result in higher performance, and that persons with high expectations perform at a higher level than those with low expectations, even though their measured abilities are equal.  ~ Schilling and Schilling

If a great deal of student performance is attributable to our expectations, we must be intentional in setting and stating those expectations as well as in our practices of supporting and assessing achievement.  It’s easier said than done.

  1. Our brains rely on our stored collection of experiences, knowledge, and understanding to set our expectations about what should or could be.  Schema: Balls. People. Movement.  
  2. Our expectations determine what we see or filter out.   I don’t expect to see a gorilla.  Ignore the gorilla.
  3. Our stated beliefs (high expectations for all) may not be in line with the schema the brain uses to determine expectations (high expectations for only some students).

Unfortunately, we all have unconscious ideas in our minds about what could or should be, based on experiences and messaging, that may seriously conflict with our stated beliefs (implicit bias).  For example, most parents would say that they believe their daughters are intelligent, capable beings with the same potential to achieve as boys.  However, parents are twice as likely to Google “Is my son gifted?” than “Is my daughter gifted?” and almost twice as likely to ask “Is my daughter overweight?” than “Is my son overweight?”.

The same is true of teachers.  Most teachers firmly believe they have high expectations for all students and that they do not vary how they assess or support students based on gender. However, a recent study shows students were given a math exam in which the girls outscored the boys when scored by teachers who did not know student gender, but when graded by teachers who were familiar with their names (and gender), the boys outscored the girls.

Neither of these examples speaks to the values or character of the people involved.  In fact, it’s important to know that nice, well-intentioned people have blindspots, too.  Awareness is the first step to managing our expectations.  I plan to begin by exploring the following questions:

  • What are the unconscious beliefs that inadvertently lower my expectations of and for certain students?
  • How are my behaviors and practices out of line with my beliefs and intentions?
  • What can I do to reshape and expand my schemas?


American Friends of Tel Aviv University. (2015, February 26). Teacher prejudices put girls off math, science, study suggests. ScienceDaily.

Banaji, M., & Greenwald, A. (2013). Blindspot: Hidden biases of good people. New York: Delacorte Press.

Carpenter, S. (2001, April). Sights Unseen.  Monitor on Psychology.

Miller, R. (2001). Greater Expectations to Improve Student Learning. Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Schilling, Karen Maitland and Karl L. Schilling 1999. Increasing expectations for student effort. About Campus, 4:2.

Stephens-Davidowitz, S.(2014, January 18). Google, Tell me. Is My Son a Genius?  The New York Times.


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Fresh Eyes

job teams.jpgGrand Day is one of my favorite events at school for so many reasons, not the least of which is seeing the pride of students, teachers, and grands over the accomplishments of learning and friendships.  Beyond that, listening to grandparents talk to each other about what they perceive as happening with and for their grandchildren allows me to see what we do with fresh eyes.  I don’t know if it is the wisdom grandparents have earned over time or an appreciation for fundamentals now overlooked, but grandparents seem to recognize the implicit learning objectives built into our teaching as readily as they see the obvious, stated objectives.  One grandparent stopped me to ask if we have always given the students “jobs” in the classroom.  I thought, “Yes! We vertically align learning objectives and facilitate interdisciplinary experiences to deepen student understanding while empowering them with skills and strategies all of the time.  Thank you for noticing.”  I did not say that.  After I explained the jobs chart, he was so impressed with the idea of developing academic skills while promoting a sense of personal responsibility and community.  But, I wonder if we think about the depth of learning that will occur each year when those charts are set up.  Or, have we done it so long that we just know “jobs” are what we do?

I have enjoyed the work we do as a professional learning community analyzing our curriculum and teaching practices to consider how we can get better.  One of the things I have tried to do is bridge the perceived gap between early learning objectives and those of more advanced grade levels.  On the surface, there may seem to be little connection between the tactile table and essay writing or color sorting and algebra, but foundational knowledge and skills are critical for future academic success.  Is the connection difficult to see because we focus on the activity/lesson and not the why behind it?  In his book, Start with Why, Simon Sinek says, “It is not just WHAT or HOW you do things that matters; what matters more is that WHAT and HOW you do things is consistent with your WHY.  Only then will your practices indeed be best.”  Are we starting with WHY when we plan our lessons?  How might that look?

  1. Why:  We believe students need a firm foundation of early literacy and math skills and habits that include conceptual understanding as well as procedural knowledge.
  2. What:  We build number sense and phonological awareness while emphasizing strategies, communication, and flexible thinking.
  3. How:  Daily lessons include number talks with subitizing activities and differentiated small groups during literacy block.

One might argue that it doesn’t make a difference where you begin if you end up in the same place.  Only, I don’t think we always end up in the same place when we begin with the activity or lesson rather than with the WHY.  So, I will continue to bridge the gap by pointing out the connections between early learning and upper grades, and highlighting how our WHY is the building of foundational skills/strategies for later success.   I will always work to see what we do with fresh eyes.


Sinek, Simon. Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. New York: Portfolio, 2009. Print.

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