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Dahlia’s Out-of-Control School Behavior: Getting a Reluctant Mom Involved

Date: July 25th, 2013
By: Polly Bath

Sixteen-year-old, blond, skinny, flirty, bombshell Dahlia was out of control. She was tardy, rude, skipped classes, swore at her teachers, and argued with every request.

Dahlia was a kid, if there ever was one, who needed her teachers and parents all working from the same page. But Dahlia’s single-parent Mom, frazzled, messy hair, disheveled clothes, rarely showed up for scheduled school meetings about her daughter.

I didn’t need to be told that this Mom wasn’t comfortable inside a school.

So, desperate to help Dahlia not go down the tubes, I decided to strike up a relationship with her Mom in the high school parking lot of all places! Why not?—She was there every morning, in an old steel blue Chevy dropping off Dahlia. Dahlia’d pop out of the back seat the second Mom braked in front of the school, and Dahlia’s little sister was always in the seat next to Mom—a little, quiet, elementary kid, with dark circles under her eyes.

Coming from a blue collar background myself I have some feeling for parents who are intimidated by the insides of schools, not to mention by teachers. So I didn’t feel judgmental of this Mom for not showing up to meetings, and I’m sure that helped—this had to be a woman who felt judged all the time. I started by making little overtures to Mom—things like waving when I saw her and saying hello when I was close enough to the car. Over time she warmed to me, and we started to talk.

One day, she flat out broke down and cried. The full blow of her reality hit me like a punch to the heart when she pointed to her little elementary daughter and said, “My God, she will grow up just like her sister.”

This was the opening I’d been looking for. Mom was reaching out for help. Help I could give her.

And I did.

For starters, I taught her how to set limits on her daughter. Dahlia was staying out all night with people her mother didn’t want her with even by the light of day! But Mom never said no because she was afraid of Dahlia.

“It’s OK to say no,” I told her. “And look, we’ll deal with Dahlia’s school work, but first, let’s work on keeping her safe. That’s the priority for now.” Mom looked at me with huge eyes, drinking it in. She was hungry for this.

“Give her a curfew,” I said. “And whatever you do, stick to it. If you don’t, you’re just changing the rules on her. Also, if she violates her curfew, which she will, then she has to stay in the next weekend. And make sure you hold to that, no matter what kind of misery she puts you through, and trust me,  she will.”

I taught Mom how to respond to Dahlia without argument. “When she argues with you, don’t defend yourself. Restate the direction, let her know the expectation, and follow through.”

We discussed how to relate to her daughter. “Listen to her when she talks,” I said.

Months went by. Days of riding to school in full argument were replaced with conversation and listening to the radio. Communication opened up. Dahlia began to feel safe—the adult in her life, the one she needed the most, was now being the adult. I’m sure you’ve noticed, kids in chaos often increase their acting out behavior—they are looking to see where the limits are. Well, Dahlia’s world was settling down now, with limits that stayed put, and so Dahlia was settling down too.

When Mom wanted us to be fast friends I had to keep professional boundaries. So I always made time for a conversation with Mom at school, never out of school. Also, I made sure to respect her role as Mom. I restated it often—she was the Mom and I was the educator, so my role was around school success. And it was around school success—every bit of my work with Mom in the parking lot was around stabilizing Dahlia’s world outside of school so that she could have a better chance of succeeding inside of school.


Polly Bath’s articles are about real people and real situations. Changes are made sufficient to protect everyone’s privacy. A veteran educator, she is a behavior consultant, trainer, author and keynote speaker in the United States. Read more information on Polly Bath’s in-school workshops, consultations, summer institutes, and keynotes. And contact us to make arrangements for her to come to your school.