A+ Advice for Parents

'Tough' Teachers Help Kids Build Character

Q: Our fourth-grade son's teacher is strict and he's having a hard time. I admit Jeremy doesn't always listen and often acts impulsively. My husband thinks it's good for him to be reined in, but I don't want Jeremy to feel like a failure. Should I ask the principal to switch teachers?

A: Why would you do that? To protect Jeremy from having to learn how to deal with a world that doesn't always run according to his whims?

Unless there is a severe personality conflict between the teacher and your son -- and you offer no evidence -- don't think about changing teachers.

Instead, be grateful for the wake-up call. Now is the time to work closely with Jeremy's teacher to foster character, responsibility and emotional development.

"Every school year is important, but fourth grade is pivotal for mastering the habits of mind that make or break students from here on out," says Bill Laraway, a fifth-grade teacher at Silver Oak Elementary in San Jose, Calif. "I can tell the first week of school which students will soar and which will struggle because they lack these skills."

"By the end of fourth grade, students should have learned organization, self-regulation and how to schedule time and assignments," says Laraway. "They should know which study skills are most effective for them and be accountable for their work. Mom shouldn't run interference for Jeremy.

"Nor should Dad put the burden of 'reining in' on the teacher. Instead, they should support the teacher in helping Jeremy build character, grit, impulse control and work habits."

While students entering Laraway's class might call him strict, "by the end of the year they're proud of what they've accomplished. Students regularly come back to visit -- one recently after getting her Ph.D. -- to tell me they were grateful I didn't cut them any slack.

"Students benefit from being held to high expectations."

Compelling research shows the benefits of moderate childhood stress, setting the bar high, how praise kills kids' self-esteem, and why grit is a better predictor of success than SAT scores, says Joanne Lipman, co-author of "Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations" (Hyperion, 2013).

Lipman cites the work of Stanford researcher Carol Dweck on the demotivating effects of overpraising students; University of Pennsylvania researcher Angela Duckworth on the importance of "grit" and tenacity in school success; and University of Nebraska psychologist Richard Dienstbier, who pioneered the idea that dealing with routine stresses -- such as having a tough teacher -- can make students stronger.

"When it comes to doing well in school, learning to set goals, manage time, prioritize assignments, focus without being reminded and take responsibility for one's actions are key," says Laraway. "Parents do kids a disservice when they want to solve every problem and smooth every wrinkle in their lives."

For more insights, check out Dweck's book, "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success" (Ballantine, 2007), and "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character," by Paul Tough (Mariner Books, 2013), which explains Duckworth's work.

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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