Care and Feeding

A Cap on A’s?

This teacher’s unfair grading policy is preventing my son from acing English.

Photo illustration: Boy high school student looking at a B on report card helplessly
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and shironosov/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from around the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:

Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina
Katie Holbrook, high school, Texas
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York

My son’s teacher told his college prep English writing class it is almost impossible for more than one student per class to get an A. My son has a solid B, but he now says there is no point in working harder since he “can’t” get an A.

Is it normal to have only one A in a class of 35 students? Wouldn’t percentages predict two or three at least? If it’s not normal, I’d appreciate any advice you can offer. Thank you.

—Worried Mom

Dear Worried,

Yeah, that smells like garbage to me. I get, “You’re going to have to earn your grade in here. There will be no gifts.” It’s a college prep class—it’s reasonable for the teacher to be tough. But to set it up the way that teacher did … yikes. And to answer your question, no, it’s not normal to have only one A in a class of 35 students.

So, now what? First, confirm the policy with the teacher. You and I might be feeling righteously indignant for no reason. A simple email will suffice: My son said this thing. I just want to make sure he got it straight.

If the teacher responds that that’s the deal, you have a choice.

1. You can share with the teacher what your son said about his B and ask if there’s anything he can do to be in contention for the A. Or better yet, encourage your son to do that.

2. You can inquire with the brass whether the school has a grading policy. Most do, but in my experience, at the K-12 level, they usually just include rules to the effect of, “No final grades below 50,” “The penalty for late work is 10 percent per day,” or “Homework cannot account for more than 10 percent of students’ grades.” They don’t often get into class grade distribution. If your school’s grading policy does prohibit more than one student getting an A in a course, you can register your concern with the administration.

3. You can do neither. Tell your son to do his best. Tell him he’s capable of an A. Tell him why there’s value in striving for an A even if he thinks he might not get it.

I’d probably focus on some combination of No. 1 and No. 3, unless you’re really unsatisfied with your interaction with the teacher.

I know this is not the point of your letter, but I do want to add one last thing: No writing class should have 35 students in it. Just thinking about the grading is making my eyes burn.

—Ms. Scott

About six weeks ago, my 3-year-old son (4 in January) started going to full-day preschool three days a week. He had previously been in a full-time, in-home day care. The transition has been especially hard for him. In the beginning, he cried the night before what he called a “big-boy school” day, and he would wake up around 4 in the morning to start crying again straight-through until I drop him off around 7. Lately that has abated somewhat, and he only cries during the short ride to school and stops once we get there.

In some ways, I have been happy with the school—they seem to do great activities, he has learned new words and letters, and the teachers seem very nice. Most importantly, he is around more boys and girls his own age, which I felt he was lacking at his day care. My concern is how the teachers seem to be dealing with his crying. Let me preface this by saying this information is coming from my son—he is 3 and I realize his accounts need to be taken with a grain of salt—but something about it still does not sit right with me. He has said that the director has told him that when he cries he should be put in the “baby room”—the classroom where infants spend their day—until he can stop. They have repeatedly told him to “turn it off” when he cries. He has said that he has to go to a corner and sit on some pillows until he can stop.

Is this a normal approach to dealing with a crying child? I realize him crying is disruptive to the classroom, but wouldn’t comfort be a better approach to helping him? I already worry about raising a son in a world full of toxic masculinity where “boys don’t cry,” and this seems to perpetuate that standard. Should I talk to his teachers about it? I worry about being “that mom” when we have just started there, and he is my first child. But his anxiety about school has continued for six weeks now and I don’t know if this is part of the reason.

—Cry Baby

Dear Cry,

First, it’s totally normal for your son to cry on the way to school for the first two or three months. There are always one or two in each class that adjust more slowly. This is his first time from home for that many hours per day. He’s also adapting to new pre-academic and behavioral demands, and less freedom than in-home day care. That’s a lot. So it is OK for him to cry for the first few months.

With that said, here’s my advice. It may sound corny, but it has changed the way I approach all my interactions with adults and children: When you’re talking to another about their behavior, assume the best. That that person (child or adult) has done the best they can, with the information they have, in their given circumstance. Or that they’ve done what they did with the best intentions. Then, working under this assumption, express your problem or concern. It may sound hokey, but that’s how you stop yourself from being “that mom.”

Now, your specific situation: Your child says that 1) he’s being told he has to go to the baby room, 2) he is asked to turn it off, and 3) that he has to go sit on the pillows until he is finished. Let’s start with No. 3. Most preschool classrooms teach “social emotional intelligence”—things like understanding your emotions and fostering positive interactions with peers. Assuming the best of your child’s teacher, this is probably what’s going on: She may have a corner for kids sit in to cool down privately. This also allows the teacher to continue whatever she is doing without shouting over a crying child.

As for the first two parts: We absolutely tell children to stop “being a baby” at this age. Think about potty training: “Are you wearing big-kid undies?” When one of the girls in my class whines (which she does quite frequently), we tell her we only understand her “big girl voice.” Are these particularly kind things to tell children? No, they’re not. But they are powerful, motivating teaching tools, and they are part of developmentally-typical socialization. The whiner in my class would whine constantly if we didn’t give her that reminder, and her response is always to repeat her sentence in a clearer, easier-to-understand tone of voice with better enunciation. She also uses longer, more grammatically complex sentences.

I think it’s reasonable to assume his teacher is not saying “turn it off” or “you’re going to go to the baby room” to make him feel bad, and she’s probably not saying it all that often. It is probably done to address a certain behavior (i.e., if he cries every time he has to do a particular kind of work).

All of that said, teachers are human, and some are bad. It’s totally fine to call her up and find out what’s going on. Other than “assuming the best” (which is more of a life trick than a teacher-specific trick), the other piece of advice I’d like to impart to all parents reading: Remember that you and your child’s teacher are on the same team. So when you call her, rather than say “It seems like your approach with my son reinforces toxic masculinity. What gives?” try, “My son still cries on the way to school. I want him to help him cope with his sadness and anger. What strategies are you using in the classroom? Is there a way for me to bring those strategies home so that he can practice them?”

This team approach opens a dialogue between you and the teacher. She can tell you what they’re doing (a cool-down corner, pictures of yoga poses, breathing exercises, or a scream-pillow), or you can share some of your ideas with her. No matter what comes out of that dialogue, it can only benefit your son.

—Ms. Sarnell

I am the lucky mom of two “third-culture” kids (my husband and I are American, but we’ve been raising our children in Germany for the last three years). We moved here when my son was 6 and my daughter was 3.

My son has always been a little atypical—I’ve found it helpful to keep an autism-spectrum perspective in mind while parenting him—but he’s generally a lovely, happy, well-adjusted kid. We were fortunate to find a really small, supportive school for him to attend here in Germany, which was particularly great because none of us spoke a word of German when we moved here. He was a trooper, and he managed all the changes of moving, starting school, and learning a new language like a champ.

Three years in now, though, I’m starting to worry a little. His writing, in both English and German, is a mess. His spelling is a disaster, and he never strings together more than a few sentences of written text. He never reads for pleasure, even though the house is full of books in both languages, and he strongly resists any attempts I make to encourage him to read. Here’s the puzzle: It’s not a comprehension issue. (We play hours-long, complex strategy board games together as a family, and he has no trouble comprehending lengthy and intricate rules and instructions. Also, I read to the kids every night at bedtime, and we’re currently closing in on the end of The Lord of the Rings, which they’ve both loved.) But at the same time, he’ll crumble when faced with the prospect of reading a simple paragraph for homework and answering a few questions.

What do you think is the difficulty? Is this dyslexia? Is this a result of moving to a new country (and language) right at the start of his process of learning to read? Do you have any suggestions for me on helping to “defang” reading and writing for him? His teacher hasn’t raised any concerns, but I’m starting to feel like there may be a larger issue at play than just the timing of our move. If that’s the case, I’d love to find some tools to help him work through the (very real) fear he seems to have of the written word.

—Language Barrier

Dear Language,

I am compelled to seize this opportunity to broadcast something I believe very strongly: Teachers should not diagnose children. Even teachers who have considerable experience with, say, autism or dyslexia should not diagnose a student unless that teacher is actually qualified to do so. Most of us are not. Of course teachers have valuable insight into a child’s learning and behavior, and when they have concerns, they should share their observations with parents. But they should then refer parents to the appropriate professionals for diagnosis and treatment.

You mentioned that you find it helpful to consider autism spectrum disorder when parenting your son, but it’s not clear if he’s been diagnosed. Certainly the problems you describe could be symptomatic of dyslexia, but they could also be related to autism. It is worth it to have him assessed for both. If your son is diagnosed with autism or dyslexia, his needs will be specific, and a qualified diagnostician can help you.

Of course, you may find that your son has neither. My general advice to parents when they are trying to promote a love of reading is to follow their kids’ interests. If your son enjoys listening to you read, continue reading to him and try audiobooks. Since he enjoys playing strategy board games, check out books on related topics from the library. Don’t force them—leave them lying around or pick them up yourself and read aloud from passages to see if he bites. Let the school push the academic reading so that home is a place where your son finds respite in literary activities he enjoys. And most importantly, model your own love of reading. You said you have a house full of books, so perhaps you are already doing this, but if you haven’t picked up a good book in a while, make time to read (and make sure he sees you doing it).

One more thing: I don’t think your son’s difficulties are a result of learning German while learning to read. My understanding of the research is that children can learn literacy and a new language simultaneously. In fact, “dual language” programs are the all the rage in my own city’s public school system, with parents clamoring to get their children into the programs.

I know struggles with reading can be highly stressful for parents: Whether he has a disability or is simply averse to reading, take it in stride. If he has dyslexia or autism, you will develop a plan to meet his needs. If it turns out he’s just not an avid reader, that is disappointing but not the worst thing in the world. Good luck!

—Ms. Holbrook

My son turned 5 in August and is currently in kindergarten. He’s had a rough transition to kindergarten, which has included some hitting, acting out, and behavior issues. These behaviors, which we didn’t see in preschool, manifested in the first few weeks of school. We resolved them by the beginning of October by working with the teacher. However, now I’m getting notes that my son is being silly and doesn’t seem to know when to take schoolwork seriously. The teacher suggested that I get him evaluated for a sensory disorder to see if the doctor suggests occupational therapy. We are in the process of that right now, but it’s not a quick solution.

I’ve gotten three notes in the last two months about his silliness, and I’ve tried to talk to him about appropriate behavior, but I’m starting to wonder if he’s just frustrating her. He’s immature but academically bright. Another mom who volunteers regularly in the class tells me that it’s not just my son who is silly but that about half of the class behaves the same way. I know the teacher (she taught my older children when they were in kindergarten), so I know she’s coming from a good place, but I’m not sure how to handle this. She’s asking me for ideas to help curb his silly classroom behavior and I’ve tried talks, consequences for good behavior, consequences for poor choices, and I’m just not sure what to do. I’m sure he’s eating up the teachers’ time (there is a teacher and a full-time teacher’s aide in the classroom every day). How do I help the teachers and more importantly, my son, have a good classroom experience? Thank you.

—Stomp the Sillies Out?

Dear Stomp,

This will be frustrating to hear, but there is only so much you can do to help your son at school. While parents can be supportive, engaged partners who can make a significant difference in their child’s education, school is also an entirely different environment from home.

A big part of kindergarten is learning to become an effective student. Kindergartners learn patience and focus. They learn to take turns and sit still for longer periods of time. They learn about sustained effort, collaboration, and cooperation. Some kids arrive to kindergarten with many of these skills already, but most learn them over the course of the year. Preschool can help, but the chasm between preschool and kindergarten can be wide. The difference in your son’s behavior between preschool and kindergarten could be the result of increased academic rigor, a different style of classroom management, or something as simple as him enjoying positive feedback from his peers when he is silly.

That said, I have found that the single best way to improve a student’s performance is to involve him in the plan for change, even if the child is as young as 5. Here are some suggestions for how you might do that:

Call your child’s teacher, tell her you’ve been giving this a lot of thought, and you’re wondering if you could work together to improve the situation with the following plan:

First, ask if you can schedule a meeting with her that includes your son. Tell her that there you’d like to present a united front to your son where you frankly discuss his behavior and the impact it’s having on the classroom and his learning. What does he need from you both to help him be more successful? Is something preventing him from behaving well? Is there an incentive that could help him perform better? You can frame this as an invitation to him to join your team, and you can also talk about possible consequences for future behavioral problems.

Ask her if after your meeting, she’d be willing to create a system of accountability that she’d utilize throughout the day. While this will definitely take a bit of time out of her day, in my experience, this kind of intervention will often yield great results and pay off in better behavior in the long run. While it may feel awkward to ask this of your teacher, remember that this is her job. You can be kind in how you word it, saying something like, “I know this will take some extra time, but I think this sort of system might really help Joey.”

You should know that most teachers are already very familiar with accountability systems. Most already have one they implement along the lines of, say, a checklist that identifies one to three specific behaviors that need correction (“Sit up when listening to a book,” “Raise your hand before answering a question,” for example), which they evaluate throughout the day. Often this evaluation is as simple as her circling a happy face or a frowny face.

You can ask the teacher if she can send this checklist home nightly to review with your son.
Look for patterns that might help in diagnosing the problem better. Does his behavior decline in the afternoons? Does lunch set him off? Does he struggle most often during math or reading or writing? You can also institute an at-home incentive aligned to your child’s score.

No matter what you decide, I strongly encourage you to include your child in the decision-making. When your child sees you and his teacher as a team and is invited to join that team, real change is more likely to happen.

Good luck!

—Mr. Dicks