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Why do kids behave differently with teachers than with their parents or caregivers?

Part 1 of a three-part series where learning scientist, Dr. Annie Snyder, answers questions about teaching children at home.

Tags: Article, Corporate

Updated August 23, 2022

In this new three-part series on pandemic learning, we spoke to Dr. Annie Snyder, a Senior Learning Scientist here at McGraw Hill, about how remote learning has changed the dynamic between students, teachers and parents. 

Our question: Why do kids behave so differently for their teachers in comparison to their parents/caregivers?

This is a great question. There are likely many factors that can all lead to the same general phenomenon: kids almost universally act differently for teachers than they do for their parents and primary caregivers. Here are some of the reasons why this can happen:

  1. Context 
    Think back to that time you first saw one of your teachers in the grocery store. Were you absolutely shocked? This is likely what it has felt like for many children who must suddenly view their parents and caregivers in a new way. Just as seeing the outside-the-classroom life of a teacher is disorienting, so too is the shift in parental role. 

    In fact, this type of sudden role reversal can cause a rapid cognitive disconnect that makes it difficult to process a current situation, let alone learn the content and skills typically taught in school. The brain responds to such unexpected situations by diverting cognitive resources toward processing the disconnect, which leaves fewer resources for activities such as school learning. In addition, it can take time, sometimes a lot of time, for the brain to adapt to the new circumstance. Indeed, it is for this very reason that many excellent teachers go to great lengths to ensure they do not teach their own children! 

    This sort of unexpected cognitive disconnect can happen with other things, too, not just social roles. How humans learn, behave, and socially interact is influenced not only by who is involved, but also where it happens, when it happens, why it is happening, and how it is happening. Research has long demonstrated that the context in which learning takes place is very closely associated with how well that learning takes place – and how engaged the learner will become. If you think about it, the COVID-19 situation has suddenly upended every single one of these aspects of the context of "school" – from where school takes place to how it is conducted.

  2. Professional training 
    Unfortunately, teaching has historically been the subject of widescale de-professionalization. Unlike lawyers, doctors, engineers, and other professionals, teachers are often viewed as less skilled than those in other fields – thus, the unfortunate phrase that still lingers in relation to the profession: "those who can, do; those who can't, teach." However, the reality is that teachers must undergo intensive training to become certified and further, must continually maintain their certification over time through professional development. Trained teachers develop skills not only in subject area content, but also in pedagogy, or how best to teach. 

    Just as we should not expect students to suddenly view parents as their teachers, parents should not feel they must magically acquire the training and experience of professional educators. We would think it absurd if we suddenly asked parents to become expert rocket engineers, surgeons, car mechanics, or concert pianists. Parents should continue to be exactly what they are: parents. Many experts are now suggesting we all follow the mantra of "parent first, teach second," and I think this is wise. The parent/caregiver relationship is of the utmost importance right now and should come first. To help with the secondary role of teachers, professional educators all over the country are going out of their way to communicate with families and lend their expertise to the evolving situation. Together, parents and teachers can help keep things going. 

    All that said, parents can, and should, use one classic tool of the teaching trade to help guide learning experiences, because this tool is valuable across both roles: parent and teacher. That tool is a simple question. When professional educators plan their instruction, they begin by first asking "what do I want my students to learn and be able to do by the end of the lesson/unit/day?" When parents ask a variant of this question - what do I want my kids to remember about today? – they help ensure that good learning is taking place no matter what, even if it doesn't exactly match how a school day would happen inside a typical classroom.

  3. The emotional side 
    Stress. Uncertainty. Sadness. Boredom. All of these feelings are understandably part of current emotional landscape for children and adults alike. We are all in the midst of both widescale tragedy and uncertainty, yet humans deeply crave the opposite: happiness and certainty. In fact, the human desire for certainty serves as a biological and evolutionary advantage for us, since stable situations usually are associated with greater rates of survival. Uncertainty alone can therefore trigger significant negative emotional responses. 

    During times of upheaval, those negative emotions can begin to dominate – and children can pick up on these feelings quite well. Parents all over the country are struggling with very real issues, such as having to suddenly adjust to working from home (with kids underfoot) or unexpectedly having to file for unemployment. As adults, parents employ one or more emotional coping mechanisms that they have developed throughout their lifetimes. Children, however, have not had the benefit of time and experience in order to develop the same set of mechanisms, which is another reason why they may display behaviors that seem out of the ordinary or simply inappropriate for "school." This is normal, and to be expected. 

    The more that both parents and teachers (from afar) provide opportunities for students to express emotions (e.g. make an emoji picture and ask kids to point to any feelings they may have at the moment) and teach, model, and provide practice in using strategies for constructively managing those emotions (e.g. using three minutes of guided meditation to move from an angry state to a calm state), the more likely it is kids will behave in positive ways; though again, we should not expect them to act as though they are in their typical school setting.

  4. The social side 
    In addition to having to adjust to having their parents become their teachers, children are simultaneously adjusting to the big changes (and emotional grief) associated with not seeing their teachers, school staff, and school friends each day. Children built those bonds over several months, or in some cases, years, and suddenly all those social interactions have been disrupted or even severed entirely. Since humans are inherently social creatures, for many children this sudden disconnect can have a real impact on every aspect of life, including school learning. This is true for shy and socially hesitant kids and more outgoing kids alike. Efforts to maintain these social interactions online are thus of great importance, even though they may prove somewhat tricky to implement.