As your child begins the second part of his (or her) academic year, you shudder with anxiety and anger as you learn that his motivation has plummeted as his learning difficulties have intensified. You wonder if his teacher is competent, if she's even following his Individualized Education Program (IEP).

Keeping quiet, shuddering with anxiety and feeling angry and resentful won't help. You need facts. You need to know if your child's teacher is doing what needs to be done to help him.

Testing your child might help a little, but using his test results to evaluate his teacher's competency is like evaluating your server for the taste of your soup. Many other factors enter the picture, such as the recipe, the quality and efficiency of the kitchen staff and the freshness of the ingredients.

Likewise, with education. Your child's test scores may well be influenced by the test used, the pace of instruction, the curriculum, the culture of the school, the supports for teachers, the noise in the halls, the other students, your child's efforts and a dozen other factors.

Thus, the far more relevant question needs to focus on the match between your child's needs, his curriculum and his teacher's instructional practices.

Fortunately, there's a legitimate way to get a sense of the instructional match between your child's teacher and his needs: observe his class. Observing will tell you a lot about how she (or he) presents lessons.

Though observation can tell you a lot, "a lot" is not close to everything. Observation is not infallible. It doesn't tell you why the teacher is emphasizing a specific curriculum or why she scheduled a specific subject for 10 a.m. But it's important. It can help you develop a better perspective of reality.

Of course, you'll need to ask the school for permission to observe and to meet with his teacher to discuss your observation. And you'll need to remember that your presence may affect your child's behavior. Thus, you need to focus on what your child's teacher says and does.

To benefit from your observation, you need to answer the question, "What should I look for?" One answer is SCREAM, created by professors Margo A. Mastropieri and Thomas E. Scruggs of George Mason University.

SCREAM summarizes much of the professional literature on the presentation of lessons. Below are the SCREAM factors, factors of systematic instruction that teachers can adjust to help most children, including struggling learners. You can use these qualities to begin answering the question, "Is the match between the teacher's instructional practices and my child's needs likely to help him overcome his struggles with learning?"

Before you consider observing your child's teacher, focus on its purpose: to help you gain an initial impression of the match between your child's teacher and his needs so you can begin a constructive, problem-solving dialogue to help your child overcome his learning problems.

Ideally, this dialogue will involve your child's teacher and other school personnel who can shed light on the nature and extent of his difficulties and how you might help him overcome any school-based learning problems. Thus, observation is a first step in helping you to better understand part of your child's world.

To help your child, you should use SCREAM to foster your understanding, not to criticize. Solving learning problems and developing an intervention plan like an IEP takes lots of work. Once you have a fairly good idea of what's happening in your child's class, you're more likely to make contributions that remedy his struggles.

The SCREAM factors

Structure: Did the teacher ensure that her students understood the overall organization and purpose of the lesson? Did she make clear when one of the lesson's activities was about to change? Throughout the lesson, did she help her students summarize and review critical points — what she wanted the students to understand and remember?

Clarity: Did the teacher speak clearly and directly to the lesson's objective? Did she provide concrete, explicit examples? Did the students understand her words? Did she focus on only one objective at a time?

Redundancy: Did the teacher reemphasize only a few key concepts, procedures and rules? Did she refer to these key concepts throughout the lesson? Did she create opportunities for extra practice, such as study groups in study hall?

Enthusiasm: Was the teacher enthusiastic about the lesson? Was she enthusiastic about the students’ successes? Did the students find the teacher’s enthusiasm infectious?

Appropriate Pace: Was the pace brisk enough to moderately challenge but not frustrate students? To check if her rate was too fast, did the teacher ask students question to assess their learning? Was extra help given to students who were at-risk for falling behind?

Maximized Engagement: Was the lesson structured to encourage maximum engagement. For example, was the material at each student’s instructional level—not too difficult, not too easy? Was it interesting? Before the teacher asked students to answer questions, did she ask them to discuss their answers with their neighbor? (This is called Think-Pair-Share.) Did her feedback encourage students to attend to the tasks and engage in the lesson’s activities? If necessary, did she show students how to improve their performance?

A flexible guide

Think of SCREAM as a flexible guide, not an absolute set of rigid, unbending rules that must be applied to all situations. As a flexible guide, SCREAM can help you form an impression, one that’s influenced by your background, knowledge, and concerns.

Essentially, I'm suggesting that you use SCREAM as a flexible guide to better understand your child's class and his teacher's instructional practices. This will help you build a foundation for crafting questions to improve your child's program.


After your observation, it’s important to meet with his teacher to discuss what she did and why. It’s an opportunity to ask questions, such as:

  • What was the purpose of the lesson?
  • How will you assess its effectiveness?
  • How do you determine what to teach?
  • Was today typical of how my son acts? If not, how does he typically act?
  • When he has trouble, how does he get help?
  • How do you prevent him from getting frustrated?
  • Do you have any ideas, even inklings about how we can reduce his struggles while accelerating his progress?
  • What's the easiest way to routinely let me know what you'll soon be teaching him? This will help me help him.
  • Can I be of help to you in the 30-40 minutes a week that I'm somewhat free?
  • How do you think I can help him at home?
  • What questions do you have of me?
  • When would be a good date and time for another observation?

A caution

Nothing is foolproof, including SCREAM. Much of what you see and think, even using SCREAM, depends on your knowledge of teaching and your experience observing teachers in different instructional situations.

And SCREAM doesn't deal with many factors involved in teaching, such as deciding what to teach, when to teach it and how and when to make adaptations. So, use SCREAM cautiously, to get an idea about your child's instructional world, but not to make definitive judgments.