Care and Feeding

“I Don’t Care”

It’s all my son ever says about school. How can I get him to take it seriously?

Bored teen.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Cultura/Seb Oliver/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 teacher, Texas
Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut

My son is 15 years old and in eighth grade. Since about fourth grade, I have struggled to get him to do schoolwork and take it seriously. We would have World War III in the house because of the fits he would throw doing homework. As he got older, he got good grades in subjects he liked, and Ds and Fs in subjects he didn’t. When I talk to him about his grades, he tells me he has problems concentrating.

His teachers tell me that when he should be working, he just sits there not really doing anything. Recently a teacher called me and said when he should have been in his seat at the start of class, he was standing drinking water. She asked him to sit, he replied that he was drinking his water, continued to stand, drinking, and then she saidhe belched really loudly a few times.

She took him into the hall to discuss his behavior, and they also discussed his grades. His response: “I don’t care.” I have had a few teachers tell me this is his response to them when they speak to him about his grades.

He tells me that he promises he will do better in ninth grade. I am always available to help him, though he rarely asks for any. When he does, he mostly wants me to give him the answers, and then gets mad when I won’t. I’ve tried punishing him for doing poorly in school—loss of electronics, no friends over, etc.

None of this is working, and I am at a loss. I always did great in school and college—it was important to me. It is so frustrating to see him do this. I can’t make him care. Do you have any advice of how I can help get him on track? He’s very smart, he just doesn’t apply himself.

—At a Loss

Dear At a Loss,

That sounds really tough, mama. I feel for you.

I have two thoughts: Your son might need to find something that motivates him, or he might have a learning disability.

The fact that he says he’ll care in ninth grade shows he has an understanding of credits, GPA, and so forth, but his plan is suspect. Each grade level gets harder, and if students haven’t established good organization and work habits in middle school, they struggle mightily in high school even if they now realize it’s the real deal.

So what might motivate him? What is he interested in? Are there any sports or clubs he could join? Passing classes is a precondition for participating in high school extracurriculars. For many students, sports and clubs are their primary motivators. An added bonus is that students make new friends, which is especially important for freshmen.

Some parents offer a tangible reward for meeting academic goals, but this approach is controversial, and experts like Alfie Kohn argue that it actually backfires in the long run.

I find that success is the best motivator. I do believe that most kids want to be successful, even if they profess to “hate school.” His belief that he can get his act together in high school makes me think he has a desire to do better. Try helping him to set realistic, achievable goals. Then spend time reflecting on his progress—what went well? What didn’t? Where did he succeed? What can he continue doing and what should he change?

You mentioned that you have tried punishing him to no avail, so I would focus on helping him identify positive motivators. But personally, I do think it’s OK to set some structured expectations around electronics if you haven’t already. These do not have to be framed as punishments but rather a set of expectations you have for earning a privilege. These should be reasonable and achievable. The two of you could negotiate a contract together to agree on fair terms. A valuable part of his goal-setting is eliminating barriers.

However, your son might have ADHD or another learning problem, which would explain his difficulty concentrating and odd behaviors. Sometimes protesting “I don’t care” is a way to cover up insecurities about academic struggles. Keep in mind, even “very smart” kids can flounder in school. If he does receive a diagnosis you can move forward with a plan that would help him learn to cope.

Best of luck! I know this must be very difficult for you, especially as a parent who took pride in academic achievement. But remember—it’s not all up to you. You are right that you “can’t make him care.” Do your best to help him, of course, but also realize that it’s not all on you. This is his education.

—Ms. Holbrook

I have a ninth grader who suffers from depression and anxiety, which her teachers know. How much interaction should I have with her teachers regarding assignments, tests, and projects, and making up work that she misses due to her illness? I want her to handle this on her own, which she does successfully … until she doesn’t.

To give you a recent example: She had group projects in two classes. Her groupmates contributed very little, if at all. Because she was not pleased with the final product, she chose not to hand in these projects, which brought her grade way down. But the choice to not hand in the project was born out of her issues with anxiety and perfectionism. Is it appropriate for me to speak with the teachers about the “why” of why they were not submitted? Would it be appropriate to suggest an alternative to group projects for her going forward, or to put her with more high-achieving students? Or is that overstepping, and should I let her advocate for herself?

—Parent of a Perfectionist

Dear Parent of a Perfectionist,

Rather than reach out to her teachers yourself or ask your anxious ninth grader to advocate for herself (which it sounds like her illness doesn’t always allow her to do), there is a third option, and it’s the one I think you should take. Your daughter is likely eligible for a 504 plan. I think you should reach out to her guidance counselor, the school psychologist, or the school’s special education chair to ask about how to initiate the process for creating one.

If you aren’t familiar with 504 plans and their function, let me tell you a bit about them. A 504 is a formal plan to ensure that a student with a disability receives the accommodations they need to be successful in the academic environment. The term “disability” in this case is relatively broad; it can apply to many different issues that impact a child’s functioning, from ADHD to diabetes to anxiety. The 504 plan is developed with input from multiple people: you, your daughter, your daughter’s mental health provider, and both special and general education teachers and specialists at school. If she qualifies, your daughter’s plan will specify the ways her mental health diagnoses negatively impact her school performance and identify specific supports to alleviate those impacts. Once a 504 plan is implemented, it is a binding legal document that will be reassessed and updated every year, and its recipient is entitled to the accommodations it outlines for the rest of their school career.

I think this is your best course of action because it gets everyone involved in her academic career on the same page. It standardizes the expectations for how teachers will approach her particular needs. For example, the interventions you suggest—alternatives to group projects or to be paired with select peers—are pretty significant academic modifications, and if you reach out to all of her teachers on a case-by-case basis, you may well encounter some resistance. You don’t want her academic success to depend on a series of individual judgment calls; it’s not really fair to her or to her teachers. The process of developing a 504 plan will identify the level of support that’s most appropriate for her. While you may find you need to remain watchful that those supports are being faithfully implemented, it will prevent you and your daughter from needing to reestablish the terms of her needs with every teacher every year. Good luck!

—Ms. Bauer

I am hoping you can weigh in on when my daughter should start kindergarten. She’s turning 5 in June. When she does eventually enter kindergarten, she will attend the Jewish day school in town. It’s a really sweet and nurturing program, but small—really small (six to 10 kids per grade). My question is about whether or not to hold her back for an extra year, or to start kindergarten when she is 5.

Most of the girls she is close with in our community are slightly younger and will be in the year below her if she starts right at age 5. She may, in fact, end up being in a class with only boys. I don’t really think it’s such a big deal for my daughter to be in a class with all boys at age 5, but it might feel tougher for her at age 10.

Also, her sister is 3.5 years younger than she is. If we keep our older daughter back, she and her sister will have more of a chance to spend time in school together.

Our 5-year-old daughter is an easygoing, extroverted, and pretty happy child. We have consistently gotten feedback that she’s very easy to manage and gets along well with classmates. Her verbal skills are super high, her motor skills are average, and in terms of gross motor she’s pretty cautious and slow to advance. All that being said, I do think she’s the kind of kid who would be fine either way—I’m just not sure how to think about what’s best for her.

—Does She Stay or Does She Go?

Dear DSSoDSG,

My gut tells me she should start kindergarten. I don’t feel like that’s the only possible correct answer, and if you say she’d be fine either way, she probably would, but weighing the options, I’d say she should go. It seems like the major reasons you’re considering holding her back are so she can have more girls in her class, and to be with her sister. Those are nice sentiments, but I don’t think they outweigh the benefits of starting her at the expected age in kindergarten.

By starting kindergarten next year, at the expected age, she’ll be in an enriched environment that really plays to her strengths. Verbal skills correspond directly to reading comprehension skills. She will also be socializing with more peers in general. Kindergarten will also give her some structure to work on her weaknesses. Kindergarten is the first year you do much writing, and that will strengthen those little fine-motor muscles in her hand. Teachers will be able to monitor and push those gross motor skills with recess and gym time and movement activities in the classroom.

To me, pushing a child to grow is the priority, so I say if she’s emotionally able to go, then she should go. Your priorities may be different—perhaps you want her to feel more secure with her social bonds—so you may opt to hold her back, and that’s OK. But if you’re not sure, I’d lean on the side of sending her because it honestly sounds like your daughter is going to flourish in school, and there’s no need to delay that.

—Ms. Sarnell

I wrote to Ask a Teacher in the late fall about my son, a kindergartner who was being chided by his teacher for overly silly behavior. We took Mr. Dicks’ advice and implemented a behavior management plan that involved writing down the sections of his day on a notecard and awarding him stickers when he successfully accomplished his learning task for that portion of his day. It has been a motivator to him to make better choices behavior-wise, and the teacher told us that she’s seen tremendous growth in him, though he still exhibits some “silly” behavior, usually during lunch and recess.

We also decided to have him attend weekly occupational therapy sessions for the last four months to work on his social skills since his teacher and the principal suggested it after our meeting in the fall. He’s been making great progress in OT, and we had reports that all was going well at school.

Yesterday his teacher (and the principal) met with us to “invite us to give him the gift of another year in kindergarten,” so that he has the opportunity to mature and work on his social/emotional skills. They said that it was totally up to us (this is a private school). One thing that they pointed out was that our son was unable to make positive choices when influenced by other children. They said that in the past few weeks, there had been two instances where another child told him to be mean to another child in class. Our son complied and was disciplined with a timeout in the principal’s office (he said something mean and kicked a child’s shoe). The child that told him to do it was spoken to but not sent to the principal’s office. They also said that he isn’t communicating appropriately when he is frustrated, and that he doesn’t take pride in speaking to the entire class when given the opportunity.

We were very surprised to hear this. While they haven’t insisted that he repeat kindergarten, they are encouraging it. They’ve also said that he would be academically fine in first grade. My thought was that if he truly needed to be retained we’d put him in our public school, so that he could have a new teacher. The dilemma we are having is that our daughter, who is in third grade at the same private school, loves it there and does not want to leave. She’s very sensitive, and I think it would be a difficult transition for her. It would be very difficult logistically to have children in two different schools with two different break schedules. What do we do? Switch both children to public school? Have my son stay at the private school and move on to first grade? Retain him in kinder for another year with the same teacher. Would it be better to have someone who knows him teach him again? For the record, I really like his teacher, but I’m not 100 percent convinced that she is the best match for him.

—At a Loss

Dear At a Loss,

I’m so happy to hear that my first bit of advice was helpful. I would not retain your child. The vast amount of data shows that retention does not work—there is no correlation to increased student learning, and it does not help children long-term. In fact, retention has a strong negative correlation to student achievement. While there are many studies that you can find on this topic, this website is particularly useful in that it aggregates thousands of studies into a single table and is updating constantly. The table lists 252 influences on student achievement: Retention demonstrates a negative correlation, coming in seventh from the bottom in terms of impact on student achievement.

The behaviors you describe also sound like the behaviors that one might expect from a typical kindergartner. My wife, a kindergarten teacher, concurs.

Your son’s inability to make positive choices when he’s influenced by others, for example, is called peer pressure. It’s something most students struggle with at some point in their lives. If high school students are routinely succumbing to peer pressure (and they are), how could anyone possibly expect a 5- or 6-year-old boy to be confident and mature enough to deflect peer pressure when it rears its ugly head?

He isn’t “communicating appropriately when frustrated”? This is a struggle that many people will have for their entire lives, adults included. Most people struggle with effective communication when frustrated. Of course your son is struggling with this issue. He’s a kindergartner.

And I have no idea what “he doesn’t take pride in speaking to the entire class when given the opportunity” means. Not to be an asshole, but I would love to ask your son’s teacher and principal what method was used to evaluate your son’s level of pride when speaking to the class. Was his internal pride score a standard deviation lower than the class average? Also, when did it become an expectation that students will feel pride during public speaking? Public speaking scares the hell out of most people. Children, too. Expecting a child to feel pride in speaking to his classmates is ridiculous, and it’s an even more ridiculous reason to retain him for another year.

Your child does not need the gift of another year of kindergarten. He needs the gift of first grade. Like all kids, he will mature with time. His behaviors will improve. He will be become more skilled at handling challenging circumstances.

He sounds like a typical kindergartner to me, learning to navigate the complex challenges associated with peer pressure and finding better ways to respond appropriately when frustrated. These are struggles that we would expect to see in a kindergarten student. Send him to first grade. Keep your daughter right where she is. Keep doing the things that you are doing.

Best of luck.

—Mr. Dicks