A Letter to Parent Volunteers in Elementary School Classrooms

28 Oct


The following blog is written the way that it is, in letter format, because of a wise friend who saw my Mama Pain in a brief vent on social media today and encouraged me to write something that informs parents from the perspective of a parent with a child who struggles. He is often the recipient of harsh treatment from perhaps well-intended parent volunteers. Sometimes, this has happened right in front of me at volunteer times in the classroom, and sometimes, my child tells me days later, in tears. He is sensitive, but not overly so. He knows not everyone will jive with everyone else. In his short school tenure, at age 8, he has had teachers he really clicked with and those he hasn’t. He knows not every person will really try to know him, and that’s okay. That’s true of life.

But I have been growing very weary of parent volunteers going in to a lower elementary school classroom lacking humor, patience, and compassion, especially for kids with struggles or who think outside the box, and “playing uptight parent” to someone else’s kid. I know the lower elementary school teachers benefit from rotations of parent help for reading times, math games, and research, and we have wonderful staff, but if a parent is going in to exert a power trip over little kids, perhaps they should not volunteer. I volunteer to help children and teachers but also now to babysit out-of-line parents. Happens every year.

Not on my watch.

In my opinion, being that harsh to a child with or without struggles (not their own child…mine or someone else’s) is without excuse. The school environment should be a safe place for little hearts.

Some of the most cutting, sharpest comments are made to my child by parent volunteers. Little Man sat at my breakfast table this morning in tears thinking he had done something wrong when he was being creative. (I cleared up the details of what was said, why, and if there was misbehavior or teacher intervention. There wasn’t.) His exact words: “She [snappy parent volunteer] connected with all of the other kids there but me. She didn’t make a good connection to me.” This was after letting me know what she did say to him. I spent part of the morning praying down my mother rage. I don’t even know her or her name.

It motivated me to write this. Thank you for reading it.


Dear Elementary School Parent Volunteer:

There are a few things I would really like us all to know, to think about, to swirl around in our minds and hearts before we enter the classroom to help with math games, reading centers, research units. Going to volunteer training is not enough. We must go in deeply, firmly rooted in an understanding that we are not the parents of every child in that classroom. We can’t possibly know each situation, each struggle, each backstory, each tender heart. We do not know what each child faced that morning over his/her bowl of cereal.

  • He could have heard his parents threaten each other with divorce for the tenth time this week.
  • She could have heard that anger rising in the voice of a violent family member or encountered the malaise of a depressed or ill parent.
  • He could have had his fifth meltdown because the tag on the neckline of his shirt was irritating him.
  • She could have had a panic attack about the small oral presentation she had to give today for her book project.
  • He could have washed his hands 12 times before, during, and after getting dressed because he was worried about germs.
  • She could have struggled to get her math facts the night before, and everyone else in the class seems to catch on more quickly.
  • He could have struggled to write neatly and color in the lines because of a fine motor weakness.
  • She might not be able to focus because something happened on the bus on the way in that was too loud for her, too much for her to process at once, and she’s still in the middle of processing it.

Dear Parents: We don’t know whom and what we are walking into when we go in to help. We are not experts on the issues of all children. Let’s face it: Some days we don’t always even know the “right” approach for our own. We do not have full perspective.

We are not there to parent other parents’ children. The class discipline is really up to the teacher’s discretion and discernment.

Even if some of us have degrees in special education, social work, or child/family therapy, if we do not live with a child with those challenges, we only know the outside story. We do not know the inside one. We do not know what it is like to work around the challenges and struggles, big or small, typical or atypical, on a daily basis of those specific kids.

We also do not know what it is like to be a child with adults towering over him/her trying to be part of a “solution,” one that is assumed, while the child is silently trying to figure out where and why he/she is failing expectation.

Here are some things we need to remember: Everyone struggles with something. In any home, there may be:

  • academic super-achievers who are a little immature or socially behind
  • dyslexia and other learning disorders
  • developmental delays
  • autism spectrum
  • anxiety/depression (yes, young children can legitimately struggle with these for a host of different reasons)
  • speech delays
  • processing disorders
  • a combo meal of several of these

And the list goes on.

Really, do any of us know what those all look like in individual children and families? Are we reading IEPs before we go into the classroom as parent volunteers?

Of course not.

So we need to allow for the fact some kids are going to be slower to process something, have trouble focusing, melt down emotionally more than another kid. We don’t have access to this information, but we absolutely should go into the classroom to volunteer wearing:

  • grace
  • patience
  • compassion
  • understanding
  • kindness

I’ve had a parent hover over my child who couldn’t complete a drawing/coloring task anywhere near the time other kids could. She kept on him as if he were her personal “fix-it” project for the day.

I wanted to say to her:

“That is not why you are in the classroom today. You need to let the school specialists help my child in that way. Your job is to encourage him, perhaps kindly redirect, but to help him at whatever point he is at. It is not to tell him over and over again he isn’t as quick as everyone else and to hurry up and catch up, and why is he coloring like that?

Your job is to keep him on task, to make sure everyone is including each other, to build these kids up, to make sure they understand the instructions.

Your job isn’t to roll your eyes when one kid is fixated on dinosaur facts. Or another talks louder than others.

Can you see inside his ear? Do you know if he has a hearing problem or processing disorder?”

No, we just work around whatever we find in the classroom. We don’t try to fix, control, or judge it.

One day, my child could not move beyond the glue on the end of his fingers that came off of a Valentine someone gave him. He thought it was a germ. A volunteer yelling at him to hurry up and finish his own Valentine wasn’t going to help him stop fixating.

Again, the voice in my head had an internal conversation with her:

“Because you don’t live with him, you don’t know that he is having a massive, internal panic attack, one that, not being visible, is almost more crippling. It’s not your fault you can’t see it, but please approach him with kindness and not judgment. He is my ‘project.’ He was given to me. Along with specialized staff, I’ll take it from here. Please know your part is just to do classroom tasks and not to make everyone fit into the same size box of expectation.”

To be fair, I see so many parent volunteers do it well. Because they bring grace in with them—and the perspective that they do not “know it all” and can only come at it from their own limited experience. Just like mine is limited. We each come in with only one piece of the puzzle.

Like all of the adults in the school building directing small kids, volunteers make an impact and leave an imprint. My son often receives the message that (his exact words): “She connected with all of the other kids there but me. She didn’t make a good connection to me.” Young kids are smart, intuitive, and sensitive. They know when adults don’t like them or are irritated.

For 45 minutes, can we please just walk in, turning off the following buttons in our minds and hearts (we all have them):


Can we please go, approaching tender hearts as if we didn’t have all the answers yet?

Because none of us do—even in our own homes and situations.

Let’s take the burden off ourselves and let the staff “figure out” the kids. Some kids might not read as fluently as the rest of the class or color inside the lines. Let’s meet them right where they are and just grace them to the next logical step, or even just help sustain the learning of the moment.

Today might be a rough day. A child may have already been necessarily corrected by several staff at this point. He/she might be weary, frustrated, or sad.

If you have three to five adults (parents, teacher, principal, special services teachers, specials teachers) in your life every day that you expect to be leading you, having several more in your face—some outright strangers—can add stress when you’re 5, 7, 9.

Let’s go in and be stress-reducers, speaking in soft tones.

Let’s remember how our kids are all still works-in-progress—how we all are.


The Concerned Parent of a Child Who Struggles


In the middle of writing Not Just on Sundays, I heard the squeaky, growing voice of my youngest child begging to be heard, and a children’s book deposited itself into my heart; I asked all three of my children to collaborate with me. It attempts to shed light on how it feels to be a child when adults aren’t really listening to them. Why Don’t Grow-Ups Listen? should be out in 2015/16.

*This blog can also be found at Mom 2 Mom Monday Link-Up #25, Make a Difference Mondays, Pick Your Pin TuesdayFaith-Filled Fridaysand Grace & Truth Link-Up.


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8 responses to “A Letter to Parent Volunteers in Elementary School Classrooms

  1. wobin950

    March 17, 2015 at 3:30 pm

    Wow.. Thanks for being the voice for these special children Bonnie!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bonnie Lyn Smith

      March 17, 2015 at 5:58 pm

      Thanks for stopping by “Espressos of Faith,” wobin950! I really appreciate the encouragement!


  2. aladyinfrance

    March 17, 2015 at 4:44 pm

    This is important to hear, but not an easy message to automatically know. I think I’m better now at showing grace when I work with kids, but I know I haven’t always understood the needs. I come from a background and an expectation that you do it quickly, you do it right, and you obey. You fit in the box. I think my only redeeming quality is that I now know that there is a much larger picture, and I try really hard to see it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bonnie Lyn Smith

      March 17, 2015 at 6:01 pm

      Hi, aladyinfrance! You have a lot of redeeming qualities! 🙂 But, yes, you raise a good point…not everyone can be expected to automatically know this. That’s so true. There are other situations of life I can’t relate to because they haven’t been my personal struggles, and I need someone to say: “Bonnie, you might want to find a better way to talk to that person about their disease, struggle, grief.” I can relate to the “do it quickly and right” part!


  3. Tracie

    March 17, 2015 at 9:05 pm

    This is such a good reminder.

    I am….not gifted with kids. It definitely isn’t my first reaction to slow down, think carefully, and connect with them. I think, for me, it is probably better for everyone if I volunteer in other ways than being in a classroom of little kids. But when they hit about 14, send them my way! I do well with teenagers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bonnie Lyn Smith

      March 17, 2015 at 11:29 pm

      Oh, wow, Tracie…we definitely need more people in this world who do well with teenagers! That’s a special gifting! 🙂 It’s true we all have a different gifting, and I’m very glad you pointed that out. Thank you so much for coming by!


  4. kcgroves

    March 18, 2015 at 12:29 am

    There is a reason I do not volunteer to help with kids and it is because I know it is one of my weakest areas. It is very hard as a parent myself, who often gets told they need volunteers for any child related thing happening to say “No” I don’t want to be seen as the parent taking advantage. I think we need to quit making parents feel so obligated to help in ways that they are not great with. As a parent I have many other skills that are in no way related to any kind of thing to do with actual interaction with kids and that is where I put my volunteer time in at. I just think a lot of times this is why volunteering goes badly, when we feel obligated so we volunteer and it goes as badly as anticipated.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Bonnie Lyn Smith

    March 18, 2015 at 6:39 am

    Oh, kcgroves, I completely agree with you! I often disliked volunteering with my first two kids for similar reasons. I was overspent and felt forced. I think that’s a really important thing to consider. I am in the classroom much more now to keep an eye on how he is treated by other volunteers (and last year by his actual teacher…she would completely ignore him). I have friends who don’t volunteer for Sunday School or nursery for the reasons you state. Perhaps some of these less-than-kind volunteers I encounter don’t want to be in there at all. In some of these scenarios, I wish they’d understand that the child is a child, and they are the adult, and any misplaced frustrations need to be dealt with by the adult and not put onto the child. But you are right: There needs to be less pressure. I went through a period of saying “no,” and there are still some things I just won’t help with. Service to others is service; it doesn’t have to be with kids to matter.



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