You just found out that your child has been suspended or expelled from school. Natural reactions might include: shock, confusion, embarrassment, or anger. When I worked as a school counselor, I remember speaking to parents soon after discovering their child had been suspended or expelled. Those were really tough conversations.
Here are some tips on what to do if you ever get that dreaded phone call:
Try to stay calm.
Our kids watch us closely, particularly in times of crisis. Our immediate reaction is often anger but that’s not always the best response. You might be thinking to yourself, “Good, I want him to know and see how angry I am.”
It is perfectly understandable to feel angry, particularly if you believe your child has been treated unfairly. The urge to chew out the school official or even your child is understandable. The problem is that your other kids, or someone else’s kid, may be watching how you interact with your child or another adult in a heated moment. Even when anger is warranted, remember that you are always modeling behaviors, whether or not you realize it.
Instead of blowing up, set an example of emotional regulation by saying to your child, “I am really upset, so I am going to walk away right now and we will discuss this later when I feel calmer.” When you walk away, take a few minutes to take in some deep, slow breaths or walk around the neighborhood to clear your head.
Get all the information.
Another reason staying calm is the first course of action is because it is important to get the full story. When blindsided by difficult information, it’s easy to jump to conclusions or automatically assume the school is in the wrong and that a grave injustice has been done to your child. Or, you may be the parent that assumes that your child is in the wrong and deserves the discipline. Either scenario might, in fact, be true. However, rather than explode on your child or the school administrator delivering the news, assume the position of an investigative reporter and get all the facts.
Schedule an in-person meeting.
If possible, schedule an in-person meeting with the administrator or teacher involved. Discuss the details leading up to the incident and the reason this disciplinary measure was chosen over others. And, be sure to clarify if your child is facing suspension or an expulsion. A suspension is typically short-term while an expulsion often requires your child to be out of school for a much longer time–sometimes up to a year or more. Knowing which one will help you determine the next steps.
For example, if your child is facing an expulsion, consider consulting with an educational attorney to be abreast of federal and state laws. When the meeting is scheduled, perhaps take someone with you who will help you feel comfortable and stay calm. This can be a friend, colleague, family member, or a ministry leader. Just be sure to inform the school in advance. Prior to the meeting, write down any questions that you have.
Here are some questions you may wish to ask:
- What are the details of the incident?
- May I see the evidence that supports your conclusion?
- How long will the suspension or expulsion last?
- Are there any alternative punishments?
- How will the suspension impact his or her academic progress?
Regardless of your child’s role in the incident, remember you are his or her educational advocate. Your child has the right to complete assignments and tests missed during the suspension period. As much as possible, ensure that your child does not fall behind or is academically harmed as a result of the suspension.
*If you are the parent of a special education student, your child has very specific rights and educational protections. Consider seeking the counsel of an experienced special education lawyer before your child begins serving the suspension or expulsion.
Talk with your child.
It’s important to talk with your child prior to meeting with the school and after. Your goal is not only to understand their side, but to ascertain the reason for the behavior. In your chat, you might learn that your younger child doesn’t feel challenged in a certain subject and was disrupting class out of boredom. Or that your older teen has quietly dealt with bullying for most of the school year and reached the last straw.
Regardless of the reason, use this time to reinforce to your child that your love for them is without conditions. Remind them they are still loved by you and by God.
Allow for consequences and empathy.
If you’re familiar with Jim Fay’s love and logic approach to parenting, you may remember that one of the toughest concepts to put into action is allowing for consequences while expressing empathy. One way of doing this is to allow the natural consequence of a behavior (e.g., school suspension or expulsion) to unfold while expressing compassion for how these events are affecting your child emotionally.
Also, use the suspension as a teachable moment. Engage your kid or teen in a conversation about behaving differently in the future, given the same set of circumstances. By helping them come up with ways to respond, despite being bored or angry, you are teaching them problem solving skills and preparing them for real-world conflicts.
Explore other forms of support and structure.
Through discussion with your child and school officials, you will determine if the current incident is an isolated one or a pattern of behavior. When a child or teen is exhibiting difficult behaviors, particularly behaviors which fall outside their normal behavioral patterns, it might be a sign of other problems. Look into opportunities to support your child not only academically but also emotionally. Individual, group, or family counseling may be a helpful resource to dig into underlying issues. In this process, you may discover that your child is actually not struggling mentally or emotionally. Rather, he or she is in need of a structured environment or other support.
Perhaps get your child connected to a youth ministry or a small group where they can discuss topics like peer pressure and learn better decision-making skills. Explore different programs and organizations like Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, or JROTC. Such structured programs not only help address any underlying boredom, but provide your kid or teen with exposure to service driven missions and supportive peers and adults.