Care and Feeding

My Daughter, the Babysitter

My sixth-grader’s teacher puts her in charge of the difficult boys. What should I do?

Photo collage of girl looking upset and a boy throwing an airplane in classroom.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Wavebreakmedia/iStock/Getty Images Plus and monkeybusinessimage/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 across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:
Katie Holbrook, high school, Texas
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut

My daughter’s sixth-grade elective teacher recently called me to tell me that my daughter is a great student, eager to learn, and very fun to have in class. Sounds great, right? But he also mentioned that he often asks her to partner with difficult students in class. When I asked my daughter about this, she said that these difficult students are often boys that don’t pay attention and don’t really want to be in the class. I let my daughter know I thought she was a good classmate, but the more I think about it, I feel like it isn’t my daughter’s responsibility to manage these boys in class, and that this is part of how girls get taught to be responsible for boys and their behavior—and likewise how boys learn that they aren’t responsible for their behavior. Is it worth going back to the teacher to have a discussion with him about this? Or should I just let it go because it is one semester of sixth-grade mythology? How should I talk with my daughter about it?

—Teaching Girls to Let Boys Be Boys?

Dear TGTLBBB,

This question gives me all the feelings. Thank you for asking it!

When I was a brand new teacher, I clearly remember my mentor pointing out that boys were responsible for the vast majority of participation in my class. This flustered me. “But they’re the ones raising their hands,” I protested. She nodded and said, “Yep.” Through her facial expression, I knew what else she was saying: You have a responsibility to encourage girls to participate, even when they aren’t raising their hands, because their voices are important.

I am a feminist. Being a feminist is integral to my identity—I double-majored in women’s studies! Yet I was calling on boys while girls remained silent. And I hadn’t even noticed. I wish I could say that from then on, I was the perfect feminist teacher who always created an inclusive classroom free of all bias. But it’s not that easy. Fostering inclusivity and equity are ongoing challenges that require constant reflection and effort.

Your question hits me in two places. Schools are institutions where we socialize children, for better and worse, and so educators often enforce oppressive gender roles, even if we do so unwittingly. At the same time, I recognize this teacher’s desire to manage his classroom and help struggling learners succeed. The latter is not your daughter’s responsibility, but pairing struggling students with more successful peers is a common strategy employed by teachers everywhere. I know I’ve done it. So how should you move forward?

I do think it’s worth mentioning to the teacher. First, I would investigate how your daughter feels about partnering with difficult boys. Does she find this incredibly irritating? Does it interfere with her learning and engagement? Or does she actually enjoy being a leader in the class? Some students—both girls and boys——like helping others and are proud to do so. When you ask her about it, try not to lead her into your interpretation. Ask open-ended questions intended to get her perspective and feelings.

If you talk to the teacher, I wouldn’t describe the boys as students who “don’t really want to be in the class.” That is your daughter’s interpretation, and it might be accurate. But sometimes challenging behavior is a symptom rather than a cause. Some students wear a “bad attitude” as a mask to hide their academic challenges or insecurities. I’m guessing the teacher genuinely wants to help them succeed and doesn’t view the class as “just one semester of sixth-grade mythology.” Keep the focus on equity. While you are so pleased that your daughter is a leader, she can’t bear the burden of always being the teacher’s helper. Not only is it unfair to her, it reinforces sexist tropes that male and female students may carry into adulthood. It will be hard for him to hear, but it’s important nonetheless.

—Ms. Holbrook

My daughter is in her third and final year at a preschool that we love. Today, she mentioned to me that when her teacher, K, was helping them open their lunches, K commented that student A’s lunch was “pure sugar” in front of A and the other kids. (According to my daughter, A’s lunch was a bagel, cheese, banana, yogurt, and fruit snacks.)

I explained to my daughter that I’m not worried about what A’s mom packs her for lunch because her mom knows what’s best for her, like I know what’s best for my kiddo. I did say I didn’t think it was nice of Teacher K to comment on A’s lunch, and that I hoped A didn’t feel bad about her lunch. This teacher (definitely a little wacky, but mostly good) has also instilled in my daughter the idea of “wet” vs. “sticky” foods, basically saying that sticky foods will constipate one, while wet foods won’t. My daughter often categorizes foods as wet or sticky, I think because this teacher does so. (I guess these kids get constipated a lot?)

What’s an appropriate course of action here, if any? I know kids are unreliable narrators, and on the one hand it seems pretty minor, but I am uneasy with a preschool teacher attaching a moral value to food, discussing a child’s diet in front of others. It was clear to my daughter that a lunch of “pure sugar” was a bad thing. I don’t think they need to be getting the message that food is good or bad at preschool. Should I say something?

—Stay Out of Our Kitchen

Dear SOOOK,

To be honest, I’m not sure that there’s much you can say. In my state, for example, pre-K teachers are mandated to teach children about healthy eating habits. However, we are also required to serve the lunches students’ parents provide. At times, these two things are at odds—I have kiddos who come in with half a Lunchable, two baggies of cookies, Kool-Aid, and a mostly sugar fruit bar. I have spoken to parents about lunches before, but they often tell me, “This is all my child eats,” or “We would send in other things, but we don’t want them to go to waste,” despite my assurances that we would not throw away a perfectly good untouched meal. So as a teacher, I’m left in a bind: I’m supposed to teach my kids that there are healthy foods that you need to eat to grow big and strong, but I’m not allowed to feed kids anything but what their parent sends in.

On top of all that, food and morality is a touchy subject for many adults. You don’t know what baggage your child’s teacher is bringing into the classroom. She may, for her own personal reasons, feel that parents shouldn’t be serving certain kinds of foods. Or she may have a tough relationship with eating in general. All of which is to say that your child’s teacher, whether she’s right or not, is probably doing her best to try and find a way of addressing this mandate in a way that makes sense to her. Not to mention that asking her whether she knocked some other kid’s perfectly acceptable lunch is probably not something she can address with you anyway, because that is between her and that child’s parents.

If you’re concerned about the way your child is being taught about food, you can ask if your school or your daughter’s class is offering a parent engagement opportunity about healthy eating. Maybe it’s a workshop about picky eaters or a nutrition information session. Depending on the programming, maybe you can volunteer to help out. If your class doesn’t have a parent engagement plan, offer to help start one. You and the teacher can work together to plan a cooking activity with the kids on an afternoon where the parents and kids can make something healthy together, and you and the teacher can talk about what kinds of lunches kids seem to enjoy that are nutritious. A quick search on Pinterest can offer some super cute cooking group ideas. That sort of activity could help the parents or—if she needs it—the teacher to improve kids’ relationship with food in the classroom overall.

—Ms. Sarnell

I have a first-grader who some might call “spirited,” and others might call “difficult.” He is smart, athletic, funny, and enthusiastic. He is also extremely impulsive, strong-willed, and stubborn.

Last year, in kindergarten, he had a very experienced teacher who was really amazing with him. And while the year was not without some behavior indiscretions, overall he had a wonderful year socially and academically.

This year, however, has been very difficult. He has a brand new teacher (new to the school and new to teaching) who seems overwhelmed by the classroom and my son, in particular. My husband and I met with the teacher in November to discuss my son’s behavior and left the meeting feeling like the teacher had given up on my son. We also talked to the principal and his former kindergarten teacher in an effort to help get this new teacher the support she needs. I do believe the school has given her some additional support, but the issues continue.

Unfortunately, my son continues to have a tough year. We get weekly emails about something else he has done that, while definitely not OK, seem to me to be things that the teacher is better able to address with him (swinging on the door in the bathroom, running in the hall, not listening during story time, throwing a marker cap in the classroom).

My son likes school, and he likes this teacher. Am I off-base with this? Was the teacher last year just painting a rosier picture of my son? I am not in the classroom, so what can I do to get this situation under control?

—We’ve Got Spirit, Yes We Do!

Dear We’ve Got Spirit,

There could be many factors at play here, but I see it as boiling down to this: Different teachers have different expectations of behavior, and different teachers have different philosophies in terms of dealing with that behavior. This means that a child who is described as spirited by one teacher could easily be described as difficult by another. What one teacher might see as youthful exuberance and a zest for life could be seen by another teacher as disruptive and nonconforming to the expectations of the class. Both teachers could be right.

It’s also a fact that a child’s behavior can change drastically from year to year depending on teacher, the composition of the class, and the child’s elevated maturity. I can’t count the number of times that a student who was described as exceptionally challenging by a previous teacher ends up as one of the best students in my classroom.

Teachers also differ in their approach to discipline. Some believe in communicating behavioral issues with parents in order to establish and maintain a strong partnership with school and home. Others believe in only contacting parents about behavior when it rises to certain untenable level.

Neither approach is necessarily wrong, but all of these factors make it hard to pinpoint what has happened to your son this year. The inexperience of your child’s teacher could also be playing a role here, and my gut says this is the likeliest explanation.

As for what more you can do, it sounds like the teacher’s communication with you is almost exclusively focused on your son’s negative behavior, and if so, it needs to stop. I would contact the teacher, either through email or face-to-face, and express that while you’re open to hearing about the struggles that your son is having at school and reinforcing expectations at home, it might also be helpful to hear about some of the positive parts of his day.

This will serve three purposes: First, it might indirectly cause the teacher to begin focusing on the positive aspects of your son’s schoolday, which could prove beneficial to both her and your child. Second, it will provide you with a more balanced view of your child’s schoolday, which every parents needs and deserves. Last, it will provide you with positive examples to share with your child so that every conversation about behavior at school is not negative.

Kids need to hear about their outstanding moments even more than they need to be reminded of their less-than-ideal decisions. Asking for positive examples might help your child understand what he needs to do to be successful at school. Good luck.

—Mr. Dicks

My second-grader was diagnosed with ADHD and Tourette’s in kindergarten. At the same time, he was found to have very high cognitive potential. We ended up paying thousands of dollars for assessment and private therapies as we did not know that he could have an evaluation through the school. He has never been an easy kid in the classroom (very sensitive and prone to prolonged arguments, getting in other’s personal space), and we have appreciated his teacher’s patience with him this year. However, he is still struggling socially. Recess is miserable for him, and he does not have any friends in his class. He is in a social skills group at school, but I am not sure if this has helped much. I witnessed his classmate shove him repeatedly out of a group at recess until my son gave up and went to stand by himself. I brought it to the attention of his teacher, and she addressed it appropriately, but she also indicated that this was probably an isolated incident, which I doubt. 

He is also extremely bored and frustrated with the pace of math and reading. He has been identified as gifted at school, but they do not offer any additional services for this until fourth grade. When we brought this up at a parent conference, his teacher acknowledged that the material was too easy for him, and she suggested we teach him extra math at home. She also has him correct the other kids’ work, which I’m not sure is a good idea given his social difficulties. When I pushed a little harder, she started sending extra math homework home, which my son feels is unfair. He does not want extra work, just more challenging work. I agree with him, and I am worried as he has gone from loving school to asking to stay home and crying when I pick him up.

I am not sure how to advocate further without offending his teacher, who seems to be a very sweet, caring person. I feel like my son needs help navigating social interactions at lunch and recess, but because he performs well academically and manages to not get into serious trouble (so far), I feel that I cannot get buy-in from the teacher or school for more services for him. We have asked for another meeting with his teacher, but I don’t even know what to say at this point. He has so much potential, but I see him heading toward hating school. Any advice?

—Worried Mom

Dear Worried Mom,

Let’s break this down into two sets of concerns: social and academic. First, it sounds from your letter like your son probably already has an IEP or 504, but if he does not, you should speak to his teachers about getting one so that the school can supply behavioral and academic services. Your son has a right to these services, and they should be provided for free. In terms of your son’s social development, ask your son’s teachers and therapists whether his needs fall under the purview of his speech-language pathologist (SLP). We tend to think of SLP’s as doing stuff like articulation, vocabulary, and even feeding therapy, but a big part of their work is what we call “pragmatic speech skills.” Pragmatic speech skills are those little parts of speaking that most typical adults don’t even think about—maintaining a topic of conversation, appropriate eye/face contact or joint attention, and taking turns when speaking.

Kids are not always great about overlooking when another kid is “weird” or “different” for not following these social norms, and an SLP can help your son develop conversation skills, which will help him to make friends. If your son is already receiving speech therapy, you can ask to increase the number of group sessions as opposed to adding individual sessions, or talk to his SLP about his social skills and see if she has any advice. Counseling through his IEP/504 could also help your son with his social skills.

The other way you can help your son is more old-fashioned: Increase his opportunities to make friends. Ask his teacher if she’s aware of sports teams, clubs, or other activities that his classmates participate in so that he can join them. If she’s not aware of anything, offer to start something. When I taught elementary school, a few parents picked their kids up instead of putting them on the bus, and they all lingered at the playground. By the end of the year, nearly the entire class stayed after school to play. This took very little organizing from the parents (the school playground was open after school, so they didn’t have to do anything other than show up), but it gave the kids an extra hour to hang out and play.

Regarding the academic: Your son is above grade-level in math, and his teachers can’t add him to a gifted program because of his age. Unfortunately for you, the teacher did give you the best solution—extra work. Sometimes, teachers can differentiate work in-class (like giving the above-grade-level kids independent work, or having homogenous math groups organized by level and presenting harder instruction to the above-grade-level kids), but if the school doesn’t have systems in place for that, the teacher’s hands may be tied. You can ask the teacher to replace his normal homework with the harder work (so that it’s no longer extra work). You can also consider some kind of STEM extracurricular program. Some of these are really fun, though they won’t solve the issue of him being bored during math instruction.

Regarding the special “work checker” job: Try to figure out how your son’s teacher presents it and how he responds to it. When handled well by a teacher, it can be a great way for students to connect. When I taught middle school, I had one student who would offer to explain questions to a friend of hers, and the job both gave her something to do other than cause trouble, and it also helped her friend who was struggling and needed the one-on-one attention. Plus, sometimes kids have little tricks to understanding math that adults would never think of! It’s possible your son is a budding teacher himself and that it’s good for him socially. It all depends on how his teacher is presenting his job to his peers. It sounds like you trust her to do her best for your son. That’s a good start, at least.

—Ms. Sarnell