The Pollyanna Effect

Fall 2013

By Pamela D. Brown

In independent schools, parents of color tend to do fine with the spoken truths. It's the unspoken truths that cause the most confusion and misunderstanding. In particular, the Pollyanna Effect — the tendency for schools to wrap their messages so nicely that you don't hear their actual concerns — throws many parents of color for a loop.

An example of the Pollyanna Effect? A teacher wants to tell you about some struggle your daughter is having in a class. You are "invited" to meet with the teacher, who first goes out of her way to highlight the wonderful qualities your daughter possesses, then adds something else about your daughter in such a kind way that you leave the meeting thinking all is right with the world. You may even leave wondering why you met at all. Is this just what they do at these schools? All in all, you take it all in stride because you are new to the community, you want to belong, and you don't want to make waves.

The school, however, has a different view. It hopes that, despite the kind words offered, you heard that your child is disorganized, needs help with reading, and is persistently disruptive. The language may have been polite, but the expectation is that you now seek outside help to correct the problem (e.g., hire a tutor or therapist), talk to your daughter about her behavior, or work more collaboratively with the school to address the issue going forward.

Through the teacher, the school believes it has delivered the message in a transparent and supportive manner. The teacher began with the positives because he has been trained to have a strengths-based approach to supporting children. Any sugarcoating of the message was simply a display of the school's sensitivity and care. Isn't that part of what drew you to the school in the first place? Beyond the desire to do what they think is best for your child, the school administrators and teacher are also relieved. The meeting went well. You didn't seem upset — and they believe you got the message and will take whatever action was proposed.

But you didn't get the message and don't know that the school now expects you to act. And this leads to greater confusion. The school wonders why you didn't do X — and you wonder why the school can't be clearer about its concerns and wishes.

Why doesn't the school tell you more clearly that there is a problem? Mainly because the adults in the school don't know you well and don't want to offend you. They may not want to tell you that your child's previous public education is inferior. Maybe your daughter is significantly behind other students and they are rethinking whether she can catch up. In their concern about her academics, they don't know if they can ask you to work with her because they don't know if you have the ability to do so. They don't specifically mention tutoring because they don't know if you can afford tutoring. They are uneasy about saying something that draws attention to possible economic disadvantage. In their worry about behavior, they don't know if they can call your daughter on her disruptive behavior or on the language she uses because the school is not sure if that is part of your "culture."

Ironically, the miscommunication created from trying to be unbiased with regard to class, ethnicity, race, and culture can actually result in awkward, biased behavior. The lack of clarity can leave the school thinking it has shared a problem that parents will now act upon, while you walk away thinking everything is basically OK. The unfortunate result can be the accidental affirmation of the school's repressed fears.

What is the solution? If you are "invited" to a meeting, know that it's not really an invitation, but a requirement — and that, however kindly a teacher speaks, he or she has serious concerns about your child's education and expects you to be a partner in addressing those concerns. At any meeting with your child's teachers, therefore, you need to ask for clarity. Be sure you understand the concerns on the table, and what needs to happen next. After the meeting, assuming you agree, follow up with the action steps the school suggests. The more long-term solution is a partnering between school and parents in order to know one another better and to work toward the same end: nurturing all children to reach their potential.

The more you understand about the school's culture, the more you can work with the school on behalf of your child.

Pamela D. Brown

Pamela D. Brown is an educational psychologist at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy (Pennsylvania).