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Adults' Differing Perceptions Make It Hard to Read Johnny

Susan Notes: Here is University of Virginia press release on the study.


by John O'Neil

A mother, a father and a teacher sit down for a conference. A question soon arises: Are they talking about the same child?

It may not seem so. Several studies have found that evaluations of students by parents and teachers overlap on less than a third of the measures, a "pretty low" rate of agreement, said Timothy R. Konold, coordinator of research, statistics and evaluation at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education.

Educators have generally assumed that the teacher is right, with some justification, Dr. Konold said. "Teachers have a whole classroom of kids to use as a standard" for assessing behavior, he said, "and can compare them with others."

But a new study by Dr. Konold concluded that parents and teachers focus on different aspects of children, with teachers more attuned to external behavior and parents more sensitive to emotional states.

Dr. Konold's study, which was presented earlier this month at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in San Francisco, drew on evaluations of 562 first graders. He grouped traits into three he considered "internalizing" - whether a child was withdrawn, had physical complaints or seemed anxious or depressed - and two that were "externalizing" - delinquent and aggressive behavior.

Analyzed in that way, the disagreements fell into a pattern. The scores the mothers assigned for the emotional traits were roughly twice those assigned by teachers - an average score of 47, compared with 24 from teachers. On the external behaviors, the gap was even larger, with teachers assigning an average score of 77, and mothers 35.

Dr. Konold said the study did not answer "whether the kids are actually acting differently in home and at school." But it does argue that parents and teachers should try to meld their perspectives.

"Parents' ratings are as important and in some cases more important, because they might see something that explains the behavior" a teacher sees, he added.

Valerone Young, a teacher at the Ashley Elementary School in Winston-Salem, N.C., said that when parents doubt her reports of troubling behavior, she relies on documentation of specific incidents or even a videotape of their child acting badly in class. "The proof is in the pudding," Ms. Young said.

The issue, isn't winning the argument, she said, it is how to get enough information to get the fullest picture of the child. "I think that a lot of times their emotions dictate their behavior in class, and because I only know their behavior, I don't always know the why," Ms. Young said of her students. "If I talk to the parents, we can figure out what's changed."

Dr. Konold's study also found that fathers were the least likely to flag problems of any kind with a child. On external behaviors, their average rating was a mere 25.

Ms. Young said that finding meshed with her experience. "Fathers are more lenient when it comes to behaviors," she said. "Mothers are like, you have to do this!"

— John O\'Neil
New York Times


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