Care and Feeding

The Sound of Silence

My daughter’s teacher tells us nothing!

Photo illustration of a woman helping a child with his backpack straps.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by lewkmiller/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Thinkstock.

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:

Brandon Hersey, second grade, Washington
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut
Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York

My daughter is currently in half-day kindergarten. She loves it. She loves her teacher. All seems well, and she seems to be excelling academically—at least as far as I can tell. We’ve received one conference report, had one conference in mid-November, and we’ve received a few math assessment reports, but nothing else. I know she’s doing well and learning assigned sight words because we do them at home, but I have no other feedback from the teacher, and no idea if any is coming. I’ve asked around about what I can expect, but no one seems to know. There are conferences coming up in two weeks “if necessary.” 

I haven’t asked the teacher because her communication with parents about real issues is generally nonexistent. (We get bare-bones weekly updates that say almost nothing.) Even at Back to School Night, she took the attitude, “Well, we’ve all been here before so let’s get this over with.” Except some of us haven’t been here before, and I’d really like to know what’s coming up. 

My kid likes her, and as long as that’s the case I’m generally going to roll with this, but in the meantime, how much info should I be getting about a kindergarten student’s performance? Maybe I’m expecting too much.

Craving More Info

Hey There CMI!

First, thanks for taking such an active interest in your daughter’s learning! Involved parents are a major part of the formula for academic success. In terms of communication, I’d say it varies, but you may be expecting a bit too much. Every teacher’s communication style is different. Some overcommunicate, sending daily texts home for every kiddo. Others undercommunicate, only speaking with the parent three or four times a year.

Personally, I tend to communicate less because that works for my teaching style. However, I make it known at the beginning of the year that if that doesn’t work for a family, then I can adjust my communication frequency. From what you say, it seems like your daughter is progressing well and is happy with her teacher. And at her grade level, that’s honestly what is most important.

I certainly understand your position as a “new to school” parent. If you’re primarily interested in what’s coming up academically, consider asking for a copy of what’s called a pacing guide: This is a sort of road map most districts have, and it can give you a sense of what your daughter will be learning and when. (Keep in mind, though, that these guides can often change for a host of reasons.) If you’re more interested in school events, ask the front office for a school or district calendar. These are often created at the beginning of the year, or month to month, and have the most important dates and information on them.

If what you’re really craving is information very specific to your daughter’s performance, consider talking with the teacher or sending her an email every now and then as a check-in. I’m sure her teacher will have no problem sharing how well your daughter is doing.
Hope this helps!

—Mr. Hersey

This year, we’ve been having lots of problems with my son’s third-grade teacher. We notice he isn’t being challenged at all. His teacher’s classroom management is not great, and she’s teaching a lot of the same material he learned last year. He also goofs around a lot: For the first time, he’s been labeled a Bad Kid, and he seems, distressingly, to be taking on this identity.

The main issue is that his teacher punishes him and other kids by shaming them. She tells other kids not to play with them, talks about the “kids who make good decisions and the kids who make bad decisions; and we know which are which,” refuses them their snack, or sends them to the kindergarten class to “learn” how to behave.

In the beginning, I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt by offering ways to support her and tried to get my kid to pay attention (I’m a teacher myself). But after she sent him to the kindergarten class, where students were instructed to be on their best behavior because my son “needed to learn from them how to behave properly in school,” I emailed her that shaming and humiliating a child into behaving is not OK. When she didn’t reply, I emailed the principal. Then she replied that she’d reconsider the approach. The principal, on the other hand, assured me that this was not a schoolwide practice, and that it was not OK with him.

Today we found out that she threatened to send him to the kindergarten classroom again, and she denied him a snack because he wasn’t listening when she told students who needed a snack to raise their hands. So he was the only one during snack time without a snack.

I’m super angry. Do you think my anger is justified? Any suggestions on how I should approach this now that there’s been another incident (kind of)? Go back to the teacher directly? Straight to the principal? Take him out of the school?

—Fuming and Furious

Dear Fuming and Furious,

Your anger is justified.

I always counsel parents to proceed slowly in matters such as these, keeping in mind that a child’s accounting of an incident is not always accurate for a multitude of reasons.

However, you have received confirmation of this behavior, which is unacceptable, and you were assured by the administrator that this is not a schoolwide practice and that it was not OK with him. This is not a matter of determining what is happening in the classroom. The problem here is the continuation of poor decision-making.

And it’s exceptionally poor decision-making. Denying food is a terrible and stupid punishment for any child. As a person who was hungry for most of his childhood, I can assure you that hunger and academics do not mix.

And while shame is often an unavoidable and even useful aspect of many punishments (when Johnny is called to the principal’s office, everyone knows what that means), it should not be the main thrust of the consequence.

There is a line between shame and humiliation, and it’s an important one. Students can feel ashamed for their behavior and resulting consequence, but they should not feel humiliated. In my mind, this teacher is using humiliation to punish kids, as well as targeted isolation and hunger. Hell, I’m angry sitting here writing this reply.

Since the administrator has already been involved, and the behavior is so egregious, I think your situation warrants a meeting with the teacher’s superior. In this meeting, I would make it clear that this teacher’s behavior will not be tolerated, and that not only do you want it to stop immediately, you want assurances that your child will not be treated any differently because you have taken this action. I would also insist that it stop for all children because your child should not be forced to witness his classmates be humiliated, either. I would also insist that a follow-up meeting be set with the administrator one month from now to review the changes in behavior that your son has reported and his overall feeling about school.

Good luck.

—Mr. Dicks

I really appreciate whatever thoughts you have.

Several years ago my son had a terrible year, and we decided to move him to a small private school. It is a major financial sacrifice, which may be one reason I’m looking to improve my experience.

Most of the time, we love the school. Whenever there is any kind of issue, however, the school tends to respond oddly. Because the school is small, there are many gaps in official procedures. For example, when we were new, a girl hit my son repeatedly with a stick, bruising his arm, and the staff member who addressed it reprimanded him for provoking her. (Her parents were going through a messy divorce, and the staff gave her a lot of leeway.) My son was so ashamed he didn’t show me the injury for several days, and when he did, he cried about how he was made to feel it was his fault when all he had done was walk past her. I brought it up with the staff member, then the classroom teacher, then the principal, all of whom responded that the school would never shame a child for getting hurt. But that is what happened: Multiple children and adults saw the event. I have seen this happen over and over—the school dismisses actual concerns while repeating that the school would never tolerate that behavior. Sometimes issues seem to get resolved behind the scenes, but the experience of raising concerns is so fraught that it makes it necessary to do a cost/benefit analysis before saying anything.

We recently had an issue and decided not to bring it up because we’ve been working with a teacher on our son’s academic progress, and we didn’t want to have to pause that to deal with more of this cycle with the administration.

I would like to help them become more open to communication and feedback, especially because they have been working on retention, and I know several families who have left due to feeling dismissed when they bring their concerns forward. Do you have any advice?

—Tired of Feeling Dismissed

Dear Tired,

This sounds like a tough situation. I’ll be honest, the fact that multiple families have already withdrawn due to experiences that mirror your own is a red flag to me; it sounds like this response is entrenched in the school culture, and if repeated previous attempts to address it have been unsatisfying, I’m not sure how optimistic you should be about the likelihood of change. But since you love the school otherwise, and it sounds like your preference is to preserve this relationship, I’m going to approach it from that angle, too.

I’m really curious about the school’s response to the way their staff member handled your son being injured by another child. For multiple people to validate and confirm your son’s version of events, while multiple staff members insist that it never would have happened that way, is quite a discrepancy. So, my advice—if you haven’t already done so—is to document everything related to issues like these before you approach. Take care to ensure that the documentation is as useful and effective as possible. In order to maximize its impact, documentation should be irrefutable: a completely neutral re-telling of observable events. Include only what was seen and heard, with no subjective interpretation or connotative language, and as few drawn conclusions as possible.

For example, if I were to take the scenario you describe with your son and revise it for documentation purposes, I would avoid word choices like “shamed” or “reprimanded,” as they ascribe an intent to the staff member. The same goes for phrases like “all he had done was walk past her,” because it implies victimization. I know those might seem like obvious and justifiable interpretations, but your goal is to start with provable facts that cannot be argued, spun, or denied. Effective documentation might say something like, “Son crossed paths with Girl. He was in proximity to her but did not address or engage with her. She picked up a stick and hit him with it repeatedly until Staff Member intervened, at which point Staff Member said … ”

When you’ve recorded the facts of the situation, you can open a conversation with the school. Be mindful about your framing, and begin on a positive note before introducing your concern. The direction the conversation takes next will be very instructive, I think. If they attempt to negotiate or dispute even the straightforward details of your account, I think you can be pretty confident that your feedback on those details isn’t going to land. If everyone agrees on the facts, then you can share your interpretation and experience of those facts (the trusty old “when Staff Member said X, Son felt Y” framework). If your feelings are met with denial or a brush-off, I think you’ve got one last decision to make: You can either accept the response as a tacit indication that they have no intention of taking your concerns to heart, or you can tell them you feel they’re dismissing your concerns, and see where it goes.

If raising concerns continues to feel this fraught and unsuccessful, I think you have some tough choices to make. Is loving almost everything about the school enough to make up for feeling like you can’t address issues honestly with them? Are you on the same page, values-wise, with a school that rejects feedback? Are the benefits of this major financial sacrifice worth the drawbacks? You and your family are the only ones who can make those choices. Good luck!

—Ms. Bauer

Dear Ask a Teacher:

My fourth-grader’s school has a program addressing executive function for the kids in preparation for the move to middle school. They brought in a local expert to speak to parents; I cried though the entire presentation, recognizing myself in everything he was saying. Sure enough, months later I was diagnosed with ADHD-Inattentive Type. I haven’t had much success navigating what this means for myself, but I’m more worried about my kid. I’ve described to him the problems I had in school, and I’ve suggested we work together and use these techniques to help both of us. Instead of encouraging each other, however, we’re two motionless lumps on the couch. I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression my entire life because my self-worth was tied to my school performance, and I hate to think of him heading down that same path. But I’m failing him, and I’m at a loss for how to help him when I can’t keep my own head above water. How do I motivate him when I can’t motivate myself?

Thank you,
Barely Functioning

Dear Barely Functioning,

Before I dig into advice for your son, let me say you are not failing your child. You’re doing your best with the resources you have, you’re reaching out for help, and you’re going to talks by local experts. That’s not failing him. Parents are human, and they have flaws and needs just like children. It’s OK for you to need help in this area. Let me add that if you have the option to seek help for your newfound diagnosis, or your anxiety and depression, you should consider it. You deserve support, too.

Now, as for motivating your son, there are options. Children with executive functioning deficits and ADHD benefit from highly structured schedules, so draft up daily routines for the morning and afternoon/evening. A good rule of thumb is to break up the less-preferred activities—like homework, chores, or hygiene activities—with more-preferred activities like snack or screen time. You can also use timers and something people in my field call pre-sets to practice time management. (Pre-sets are little warnings before a transition—”three more minutes;” “two more minutes;” etc.) For example, for a 10-minute break, set a five-minute timer, then a five-minute timer, and a two-minute timer to help prepare your son to start work. I find 20 minutes of work and then 10 minutes of break to be a very effective schedule for students like your son. Keeping one’s attention sustained during work can be challenging, and breaks can help him process what he’s just read or studied.

Having a fidget might help as well. Fidgets these days come in all different shapes and sizes: little toys you can roll around or squeeze or press in your hand, those spinners that were big two years ago, cubes with different functions on each side, or a little ball of putty you can squeeze and shape. Back when I was a kid (and I’m willing to guess this was the case for you too), people told me I was “squirmy,” but it turns out that some people do retain information better if they have something to do with their hands while they’re studying. Often, kids with executive functioning issues are in that boat—having something to do with their hands frees up their brain to focus on the task at hand instead of the cool texture of the fringe on the carpet or whatever they find to fidget with instead.

Another option is to add to his schedule. As I said, highly structured schedules help, and often, home is not the best place to create a structured schedule. Enrolling him in after-school programs like sports or study groups may help him learn the time management skills he needs. If afterschool programs are free, and transportation is not an issue, this may double as help for you, as you’ll have more time to take care of yourself before he gets home. If that’s not an option, you two can go to the library together and “study.” Even if your own “study” time is spent catching up on emails or reading, the atmosphere in the library might help you both feel productive.

If none of these work, my last piece of advice is corny but important: You’re not alone. Neither of you are. So if you’re having a hard time motivating yourself, or motivating him, reach out to your loved ones, your support system, the friends of his parents, or to the school. Someone will be able to help you help him. It sounds like you’re already on the right track, going to talks and getting the diagnostic information you have. If your son has executive functioning issues or ADHD, you should ask about a 504/IEP if he doesn’t already have one—but that doesn’t mean you can’t ask for more help. There might also be a support group in your community for parents of kids with ADHD, or for parents who themselves have ADHD. Reach out, and you’ll find lots of resources around you to help you and your son get through middle school.

—Ms. Sarnell