Care and Feeding


My brother might get kicked out of his honors program. How can I help?

A woman comforting a crying boy wearing a backpack.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by erikreis/iStock/Getty Images Plus and kosmos111/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 or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:
Katie Holbrook, high school, Texas
Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York
Brandon Hersey, second grade, Washington
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina

My 12-year-old younger brother is having some difficulties in school. He is a smart kid but a sloppy student—he does well on assignments that interest him and the bare minimum on those that don’t. His spelling and handwriting are atrocious, and his math work is always full of simple mistakes. He also writes his assignments down incorrectly and forgets to hand in work that he has already done. He is in an honors program at a large public school, and his teacher has said that he is in danger of getting demoted to the regular program if he doesn’t improve his grades.

Recently, he has gotten very stressed about school. He cries and says that he feels stupid, that he doesn’t understand the purpose of homework, and that some teachers are unfair and too strict. I was a grade-obsessed perfectionist as a child, and I don’t want my brother to go through that. However, I want him to understand that he has to be able to maintain decent grades and hand in fully completed work. My mother feels the same way but can’t seem to get through to him, so I offered to talk to him about it.

What can I say? I don’t want to increase his grade anxiety. I especially don’t know how to explain the purpose of homework and why some teachers are punishingly strict, because I believe both of those things are unfair. His favorite (and best) classes are the honors classes, and he loves his friends in the program. It would be a shame if he got kicked out.

—Concerned Sister

Dear Concerned Sister,

Oh dear, what is going on with your little brother? I suspect one of two possibilities: He could have a learning disability, or he’s a standard 12-year-old boy.

I’m guessing he’s in sixth or seventh grade. Middle-schoolers mature at different rates. While some of his more mature peers may meet middle school expectations with ease, he may be a more immature student who isn’t quite ready to manage lots of rigorous homework or juggle due dates, especially if he finds a class uninspiring. This is very normal, so you might remind him that he’s definitely not alone in his challenges.

I would not mention your own stellar academic career. That will feed into his insecurity about being “stupid” (which, of course, he is not). Explaining the importance of grades and completing assignments will probably not be effective either, particularly if he’s struggling to see the relevance of homework or classes that bore him. When you talk to him, I would try to listen more than talk. Let him tell you how he’s feeling and what his struggles are. Empathize with him—it is hard when you’re feeling anxious about a place you have to go to every day. After listening, seek to understand what it is he really wants—does he want to stay in the honors program or not? Does he understand what he has to do to stay in the program? Would he like some help getting his act together?

I hope he’s receptive to help, because it’s going to take more than a pep talk to turn this around. He will need help getting organized and managing his responsibilities. Are you able to provide that assistance? If not, can your mom step in?

If he’s not willing to make the changes necessary for the honors program, he will have to accept the fact that he can’t stay there. But certainly he will make new friends and continue to learn interesting things. I teach both “honors” and “regular” courses. I promise I work equally hard in both and care deeply about all my students.

I should point out that some of the problems you’re describing – consistently making “simple” mistakes, bad handwriting, poor spelling, struggling to keep track of assignments, forgetting to turn in completed homework that’s sitting in his backpack – could be indicative of a learning disability like ADHD or executive functioning issues. Students with learning disabilities can often achieve at high levels when they get the proper support – a learning disability does not preclude honors programs.

If you think he may have a learning or attention problem, speak with your mother first. It’s possible she suspects as much but may need encouragement to speak with the school counselor or family doctor. Both she and your brother will need moral support through the diagnostic process.

Try to keep perspective: It’s just middle school! It’s not the end of the world! He has lots of time to get his act together. In a few years, he might be a completely different student. Or he may have the exact same issues. But I’ve taught kids with messy backpacks and sloppy homework who went on to have rich, interesting adult lives. It’s great that you want to support him in school; he may also need to hear that you love him no matter what.

—Ms. Holbrook

My fifth-grader was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome and ADHD. He is generally quite bright and successful in school. However, his handwriting and spelling are absolutely atrocious, which probably has something to do with his diagnosed conditions. His handwritten work is a struggle to read and is full of absurd misspellings. Just looking at it makes me anxious. He does better when writing on a computer. You can tell that he’s not a great writer, but probably (barely) within expected range for fifth grade. Spell check doesn’t always help, and his writing is almost always extremely brief and lacking in any of the creativity and insight that he displays in other scenarios. His teacher says that his writing abilities are fine, and she is unconcerned about his handwriting or spelling challenges. I’m not sure if I should relax about this and expect that technology will make up for his handwriting and spelling challenges, or if I should be fired up to address these issues now (and if so, how).

—Worrying for Nothing?

Dear Worrying,

When I read your letter, what stands out most to me—but what I worry may not stand out most to you right now—is that your son is a kid for whom a whole lot is going right. He’s bright, successful, creative, and insightful. He falls within grade-level expectations, and his teacher is unconcerned. In other words, he’s a strong student and a generally high performer! I understand you’re concerned, my first suggestion is to try to reframe your thinking. Almost all is well! Encourage yourself to think of it that way.

Second, I think you should adjust your expectations. Writing is laborious and challenging for just about everyone. It’s a generative act that requires the writer to face a blank page, pluck words from thin air, and arrange them into a meaningful whole. And however daunting writing may feel for neurotypical people, it’s often even more so for those with ADHD. Some of the soft skills inherent to the task—sustained focus and physical stillness, wrangling scattered thoughts into cohesion, making purposeful choices about organization and elaboration—line right up with things that are uniquely challenging to the ADHD brain. That’s not to say that students with ADHD can’t be great writers, or can’t use strategies or accommodations to navigate those difficulties, but it’s also OK if it simply isn’t a strength. Your son’s writing lacks the creativity and insight you know he’s capable of demonstrating in other modes of expression, and that’s OK. If he can functionally communicate ideas with a reasonable amount of accuracy and clarity, he has achieved the baseline required.

Third, I think there’s a middle ground between expecting that technology will negate his spelling and handwriting issues, and getting “fired up” to fix it now. Technology certainly helps, but only to an extent; it isn’t always available, and it can’t reliably catch and fix every error. You can start asking around for some resources to support him at home; his teacher and perhaps your school’s occupational therapist would be sensible places to start. Whatever you try, I would make sure to keep it light, appealing, and low-pressure. Our kids are acutely attuned to us and our expectations of them, and those expectations carry a lot of emotional weight. The very last thing you want is for your son to sense that, in your eyes, he is underperforming or needs improvement, and to start feeling rebellious, anxious, or inadequate as a result. (And again, feelings of guilt and shame around being disappointing can be especially hazardous for kids with ADHD.)

I would be lying if I said that writing skill, handwriting, and spelling aren’t important; they are, and they affect the way students (and later, adults) are perceived. But your son has plenty of time and strategies available to him to meet this need, and it sounds like a relatively small problem for an overall great kid with a lot of potential. He’ll be OK.

—Ms. Bauer

My daughter turns 5 in July and thus would be eligible to start kindergarten in the fall. However, we’ve had some behavioral issues with her at her preschool. (She is what I would consider “strong-willed” and what her teacher likely considers “defiant”.) She also doesn’t seem to know her numbers and letters as well as her older brother did at a similar age. Granted, he’s been assessed above average through kindergarten and first grade, so I don’t know that it really says anything about her academically.

My question is this: When is it appropriate to wait a year to start kindergarten? I am pretty adamant that she start this fall, but my husband (a July birthday who didn’t start kindergarten until he was already 6) thinks we should postpone a year. What say you about this?

—A Young 5 Is Still 5

Hi AY5IS5,

Great question. Kindergarten is the first step on a long and winding uphill journey. I wouldn’t hesitate to say a child should start kindergarten if said kid is having difficulties with academics or behavior individually. However, it seems like your kiddo needs a little help with both. Based on the little you’ve told me, I would say to wait.

For me, the question isn’t whether your daughter is ready for Kindergarten, but rather, will she be successful? While it may seem cute, kindergarten is no joke. As I’ve said before, kindergarten is where we learn “how to do school.” While your daughter’s strong will is an admirable trait, you should consider how that will play out in a traditional classroom setting. I assume her Pre-K program offers a very different learning environment with more adult attention and fewer classmates vying for it. Transitioning from that space to a kindergarten classroom with 1 teacher and 20+ kids may be too much too fast.

In spite of my thoughts, I will add that you should, of course, consider your own instincts, too. While students may be at an initial advantage by starting kindergarten at an older age, there are studies that show the opposite: that starting younger may be more of an asset in the long run.

To help tip the scales, you might have her visit a kindergarten classroom at her brother’s school (if they allow that) to get an idea of what it’s like and how she’ll perform. You could even ask the teacher about what skills your family could work on to fully prepare her for the transition. Hope this helps!

—Mr. Hersey

How does one go about picking a school? We have two kids, ages 2 and 5, and we are relocating to one of two Midwestern cities to be closer to family. Our career options are similar enough in each town. Both areas have neighborhood public schools and not much in the way of school choice or lottery options. In essence, by picking a neighborhood, whether urban or suburban, we’re also picking schools, which feels like a very weighty decision.

I don’t want to be lazy and pick based off GreatSchools because, for me, test scores seem more confounded with socioeconomic factors than academic rigor or positive, encouraging learning environments. (Correct me if I’m wrong.) So what should we be looking for? What red flags to avoid?

A balance of rigor, diversity, arts, language, stem, activities, and sports seems sensible. I guess bullying policies are more of a consideration since my K-12 days. What else? What next?

At this point, our kids don’t have any prevailing hobbies/interests/special needs to consider. We feel lucky to have so many options, but it feels like there’s a lot on the line, and ideally we would like this to be a choice that will last through their K-12 years. Help!

—Where Do We Begin?

Dear WDWB,

You’re correct that a GreatSchools rating is not a perfect criterion for choosing a school, but the organization does claim that most of their ratings take into account factors other than test scores, such as academic support and bias in discipline. Still, GreatSchools is limited by the data it has access to, and as you may have heard, there are lies, damn lies, and statistics. I wouldn’t say you should dismiss the school rating altogether—I don’t—but do remember its limitations.

Here’s what I recommend you do. First, research the school.

Look at its website. Read news stories. Ask neighbors. Inquire on listservs or Facebook parent groups. Does the school seem to align with the values you mention above? Are there any red flags?

Second, and more important, take a tour.

How does the school feel? Try not to base your assessment on whether it’s shiny and/or new. An old or somewhat run-down school can be a great learning environment. Is it warm? Bright? Does it feel friendly? What’s on the walls? Teacher-created bulletin boards are often eye-catching, but they don’t reflect rigor or student creativity. Is student work displayed? What is the quality of that work? What are the teachers doing? We all have to do some direct instruction, but good teachers know we have to balance being a sage on the stage with being a guide on the side… and all the other less epigram-worthy methods of teaching. What are the students doing? Are they engaged in meaningful work or discussion from the upper levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy?

If you do some research and take a tour, you’ll probably have a good sense of the school, and whether it would be appropriate for your kids. But if at all possible, ask the teachers what they think of the school. In my opinion (and I admit, it’s a biased one), teacher happiness is the most accurate barometer of school climate. If the teachers are happy, it likely means the district doesn’t overburden them with irrelevant tasks and paperwork, the administration is supportive, and the students’ needs are not so challenging as to interfere with the school’s academic and social goals.

There you go. Research; tour; interview teachers. Throw all that in the mix with the GreatSchools rating, and see what shakes out.

—Ms. Scott