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 firstname.lastname@example.org or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut
Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina
Brandon Hersey, second grade, Washington
My daughter is 7 years old and is about to start third grade. She is a delight—kind, joyful, and she has an incredible imagination. She’s also precocious. She taught herself to read before kindergarten at age 4, and in first grade she figured out multiplication and division on her own. She picks concepts up easily and makes connections with little prompting.
So what’s the problem? Her second-grade teacher, who we have a good relationship with and who also taught my more talkative/social son, expressed concern to us about how my daughter had a tendency to isolate herself in the classroom all year long. The biggest issue she has is that my daughter did not like group or partner work and always chose to work alone if given the option.
My daughter’s complaints about group work range from being frustrated that the other kids either don’t understand the assignment as quickly as she does, that they want to choose the wrong answer and won’t listen to her, that they ask her a lot of “annoying” questions, or that they are a distraction. It does not sound like she takes this frustration out on her classmates, thankfully.
I’ve talked to her about this as best I can, but honestly, I see where she’s coming from. I agree that she needs to get along with her classmates, of course, but the issue is not that she’s being rude or mean to anyone, she just prefers to work alone. She’s also the youngest in the grade and maybe a bit behind in emotional maturity. I’ve wondered if she isolates herself so she doesn’t end up getting mad and exploding at someone, as she’s also fairly intense.
I know the teacher is only raising these concerns because she has her best interests at heart, so I feel like I should do something more. But how can I help her with this? Is there anything I can do to get her off to a better start this year, since I know that group work will not be going away? She gets her loner tendencies from me, so I feel incredibly guilty every time the teacher brings it up. Many thanks.
—It’s OK to Be an Introvert, Except When It’s Not
Dear It’s OK to Be an Introvert, Except When It’s Not,
I’m going to make a few suggestions, but first I’ll address the most important part of your letter: You should not feel guilty because your daughter is an introvert. As parents, we often attribute any struggle that our child is having to our own bad genes and/or failed parenting, and we just as often pass all the credit for our children’s successes onto them.
After all, in your letter, you say your daughter taught herself to read and figured out multiplication and division on her own. You wrote that she picks concepts up easily and makes connections with little prompting.
Don’t you think you had a lot to do with that success? My guess is that you read to your daughter on a daily basis. You’ve likely provided her with a print-rich environment that allowed her exposure to the written word. You’ve probably taken her to the library often. She’s probably also in a highly verbal environment, where she hears polite, interesting, and engaging conversation often. And I’ll bet she sees adults reading books in her home. Not to mention what I’m sure is a loving home.
Congratulations. You’ve done a masterful job at supporting your daughter and allowing her to excel in school. The very best thing you can do for your daughter is to release any guilt you’re feeling about her introverted tendencies.
Also, there is nothing wrong with being introverted. Like reading, multiplication, and division, your daughter will need to figure out how to navigate this tendency so that she can be a more collaborative, cooperative person, but for all that she may need to figure out, there is also enormous value in being happy alone. The desire to work in a focused way for a long period of time without the assistance of others is a skill many students must learn but your daughter has seemingly mastered. With this challenge comes some significant advantages as well. Feel good about those.
In terms of helping your daughter become more comfortable working with others and perhaps fostering stronger bonds between her classmates, my suggestion is to try to involve her in activities that demand collaboration and cooperation while also being less academically rigorous and absent of any correct answers. The theater, for example, is a place where many introverts thrive. Whether she’s onstage, building sets, or running tech, many of the people who I work with in theater today—onstage and off—are incredibly introverted but have found a place to come together for a common cause. Sports are also a great place for kids to learn to work together. If she’s resistant to sports, see if there are alternative sports in your area. I’ve had students find success with unusual sports like curling and badminton, which require enormous amounts of teamwork. Scouting and dance might also be activities to explore.
I’d also suggest finding a way to get your daughter to volunteer with children younger than herself. One of the best ways to teach a child patience, flexibility, and a willingness to suffer fools gladly is to give them the opportunity to help other children learn. When your daughter begins to feel the joy and pride in knowing that she has taught a first-grader to read better, she may be more willing to extend that kindness to children of any age.
Before you do any of that, go reward yourself for doing such a masterful job at parenting and please leave that guilt behind. Conduct a ceremonial burial of it in the backyard if necessary, because it’s unwarranted and unneeded, and you deserve better.
We live in a small school district where it seems like everyone grew up and never left except for us—we’ve been here about a decade. We purchased our home as a compromise location between our jobs at the time when we didn’t have kids, and our friends, families, day care, and work are all out of county. Basically, we don’t have any connections here except our immediate neighbors and, now, our kid’s school.
I joined Facebook because I was told I had to do it to get info about the school from the Home and School Association. I recently posted a question about the school schedule and mentioned that an upcoming change, if true, would be inconvenient. Some of the responses were helpful but overall there was an aggressively negative reaction to my question. I responded to thank everyone who replied, but a member of the HSA board responded again even more aggressively and attacked me for criticizing the HSA on their Facebook page. I replied to her, pointing out that I hadn’t criticized the HSA, that most of the posts on the page were about scheduling, but that her comment was an example of why new families don’t feel like they can ask questions here. Then I sincerely thanked her and everyone involved for their dedication to the HSA.
The entire post was removed within 10 minutes. Apparently, my not-criticism followed by criticism was too much for them to handle. I’m an adult and don’t have two seconds’ worth of concern about these women. However, I mentioned it all to a co-worker who is familiar with the area, and she is now convinced that I’ve doomed my rising first-grader (and presumably younger child) forever. My first-grader is a sweet well-adjusted kid who gets along great with everyone, but my co-worker told me that this type of HSA is so powerful that he’ll be intentionally given the worst teachers. She also told me that it doesn’t matter if the moms don’t know me personally, they’ll remember him and I’ve tagged him forever. I’ve apparently ruined his social life.
For what it’s worth, I’ve volunteered at multiple events and donated things whenever requested. Despite doing that, I don’t know anyone. They have their well-established cliques (they’re all related or BFFs since elementary school), and they’re only so welcoming (that is, barely tolerant) even to someone who is there taping up stupid holiday decorations with them on a Friday night.
I think this is insane. Does an HSA really have that much power? Would grown adults really take out their disdain for me on my son? Has there been a suspicious lack of birthday invitations? Have I doomed my children forever? Should I form a rogue PTO consisting of nice people? I was told to rat these women out to the principal … unless she is one of them. I don’t know if she is.
Should I be worried that they’ll see this and know it’s me and NOW I’ve doomed him forever? I need some perspective. Please tell me that the people running these schools are professionals.
—Living With Grown Up Mean Girls
As I’ve said before in this column, I am generally optimistic about schools and the people who work in them. I believe that most teachers, administrators, and involved parents are flawed but well-intentioned, and aspire to serve kids. That said, I’m going to level with you: Schools can also be incredibly petty places, rife with cliques, gossip, grudges, and power struggles. It might be just a dash of drama or it might be a morass of toxicity, but I’ve never seen a school system entirely free of it. In my experience, you usually do have control over how much to engage, and keeping your nose clean and minding your own business is entirely possible, if that’s what you prefer. Unfortunately, it sounds like you unwittingly wandered into the hornet’s nest.
To your first set of questions, which I read as basically boiling down to “is this a thing?,” my answer is … yes and no. In schools and their attending organizations (such as the PTA, the school board, or, oh Lord, the union), you often may find a person or group of people who thrive on having a “don’t cross him/her if you know what’s good for you” reputation and relish throwing their weight around a bit. That indeed can be a thing. So on one hand, yes, it’s possible that your comments have angered some people who fancy themselves power players or gatekeepers, and that may entail some whispers. On the other hand, no, I don’t think the principal is going to actively conspire with the HSA to blackball your 6-year-old for life because someone got mad at you on Facebook. There may well be some gossip about you, but I’d be surprised if that translated into deliberate, long-term punitive action against him.
So what to do now? From your telling, this does sound like an overreaction on their part. But I’m also going to level with you again: You sound quite disdainful of your school community! Clearly, you’ve felt unwelcome among these other moms, and that sucks. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t dread and recoil from that “no one likes me or wants me here” feeling. But I’m also going to float the possibility that you’re telegraphing how disconnected, and maybe judgmental, you feel about this small-town school.
I’ll tell you from personal experience: Most of my teaching career has been spent in large schools in very large urban districts. When I transitioned to a very small school in a very rural, tightknit community much like the one you’re describing, I experienced a bigger culture shock than I ever could have anticipated. I was unprepared for the importance of shared history, the vast network of long-standing and interconnected relationships, the permeability of the boundaries between school and home and the community at large. I was teaching in a school a quarter of the size of my previous workplaces, yet I felt more acutely like a stranger than I ever had before. Despite the fact that you’ve lived in the area for 10 years, I think you’re having the same discovery now.
Here’s my advice: Don’t form a rival PTO. Don’t “rat them out” to the principal. If the Facebook kerfuffle was a misstep, those actions would be taken as shots fired. Instead, I think you need to focus on relationship building. Yes, I would try to make nice with the HSA, despite the fact that they haven’t historically been nice to you. “Like” lots of comments in the Facebook group, continue to volunteer, maybe send an email to the leader of the association apologizing for the misunderstanding. But you should also invest in the larger community. I would be willing to bet that there is at least one sport in your town that is A Big Deal; go to some games and cheer. Learn who the coaches are. Attend the school musical. Go to the chicken BBQ fundraiser or the spaghetti dinner or the book fair. One social media scuffle probably isn’t going to be a very big deal; floating untethered on the surface of a community where social relationships are clearly of great importance might be.
Finally, if you read this and blanch at the idea of trying to put down roots in the way I’m suggesting, have you asked yourself what you’re still doing in this town at all? I mean that very sincerely, with no snark. You sound neither happy in nor the least bit committed to this particular location, and your kids are very young. Why not revisit the compromise you made a decade ago, when your lives were different? If you were closer to those key touchpoints of a family life—friends, extended family, work, child care—the inclination to invest might come more naturally and feel a lot more appealing.
My 14-year-old son is going to start high school this September. He is autistic and has a learning disability, therefore he has an IEP. Up until now we’ve been satisfied with his education, but we are having some last-minute second thoughts about the high school he is supposed to attend according to our public school district’s boundaries.
When we first learned in June that he was supposed to attend this high school (High School A), my husband and I immediately requested a tour of the campus, to help familiarize our son with the school. We were told they didn’t do that—that we couldn’t disturb classes. We explained we didn’t need to see classrooms, we just wanted to see the layout of the school, find out where the important buildings were, nurse, cafeteria, gym, etc. The assistant vice principal, who is also the person who handles all special needs students at the school, grudgingly agreed to a tour after school let out for the summer.
We showed up for the tour, after confirming with her in writing the date and time, and guess what? She wasn’t there. We managed to get a tour with another individual who didn’t really seem that interested in helping us. Her idea of a tour was to stand in the middle of the campus and point to buildings, not walk to them.
My husband and I are wondering what we are getting our son and ourselves into. We thought if we could get through this tour with the vice principal, then we hopefully wouldn’t have a need to deal with her much. But the attitude from all the staff while we were there was disheartening. It felt as if having a special needs student didn’t align with their standards for their school.
Our dilemma is, do we send him there and hope for the best? Or do we send him to the other school (High School B), which has a more welcome atmosphere but is in a questionable part of town? Also, sending him to High School B will require me driving him to and from each day. We live 20 miles from either school, but the district will only provide transportation to High School A.
We want to make the right choice for our son. He doesn’t have a strong opinion about either school. I realize we may be helicoptering right now, but we don’t want our son going to a school that will only tolerate him, not welcome him with open arms.
—You Are Not Good Enough for Our Son
My gut feeling is to go with B. I think atmosphere can tell you A LOT. The “questionable part of town bit” doesn’t raise any alarms for me—I live in a questionable part of town; my son goes to school in a questionable part of town; I’ve taught at schools in questionable parts of town. “Questionable” usually means “poor,” and poor people are just trying to live their lives like everybody else. Also, if you’re dropping your kid off and picking him up at school, his exposure to the town will be limited. Unless the kids regularly leave campus, why worry about it? If this school feels good to you, that’s what you should focus on.
And I’m with you about School A—I don’t like the treatment you got there. First of all, the school should absolutely have let you tour when classes were in session. That is the time to get a sense of the place. Would you visit a museum in between exhibitions? Would you join a church after sitting in the pews for 10 minutes at 2 p.m. on a Thursday? Of course you want to see a school when student work is posted on the walls, when teachers are teaching and students are learning, especially when your kid has an Individualized Education Program. By definition, he is exceptional, so even if they have a dumb policy of not giving tours during school hours, they should’ve made an exception.
The fact that they missed an appointment and then weren’t welcoming … these are additional red flags to me.
I realize school is about to start any day now, but can someone put you in touch with the exceptional children facilitator? That’s the person who will probably have the biggest impact on your son, considering that they push in to classes, pull students out, and work with core and elective teachers to ensure compliance with the IEP. If you had a good interaction with the EC facilitator, I might give the school another chance.
Also, you need to think about logistics. You said you’d have to drive your son 20 miles to School B. I’m assuming you’d have to drive home, another 20 miles, or to work, which is how many miles? And then would you do the same thing in the afternoon to pick him up? That’s a lot of car time. When I was shopping for my home, my friend who studies behavior science told me that people in the market to buy a house tend to make the mistake of overestimating “flair” that doesn’t make much of a difference in their day-to-day lives, e.g., a hot tub, and underestimating things that will have a huge impact, e.g., commute time. Is that trek to School B going to be too draining?
Maybe there are ways of reducing the commute. Are there other kids in your neighborhood with whom you could arrange a carpool? Could you and your husband trade off?
Remember you’re likely committing to this arrangement for four years. They say, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” They have different strengths and weakness like neurotypical folks, but often people with autism can struggle with changes to their routine. If that’s a characteristic of your son, don’t gamble. Pick the one you’re more confident you can stick with for his whole high school career.
My son is about to start first grade at our well-regarded local public elementary school. Overall he has done well both academically and socially. He’s a “quirky” kid but has made some good friends. He struggles with anxiety and perfectionism, but my husband and I have been working on that with him, with periodic consultation with a child psychologist. We all knew the kid was really smart, but his end of the year assessment after kindergarten showed that his reading level and sight words are both already at end-of-second-grade levels.
My question is: What do we do now to help him flourish? He’s already been assessed for the school district’s gifted program. I want to be a good advocate for him in his education, and I want to foster his natural curiosity and intelligence and make sure he has what he needs to develop a true love of learning. But I also don’t want to reinforce the anxiety issues by pushing him too hard.
As a bit of background, I was also a really smart kid who was put in (relatively ineffective) gifted programs throughout public school. I got good grades, but I was also terrified of making mistakes and afraid to try new things because of the possibility of failure. In graduate school I finally started addressing all that and have made lots of progress, thanks in part to the work of researchers like Carol Dweck and Brené Brown. I really don’t want to repeat the pattern! Any ideas from a teacher’s perspective?
—Recovering “Smart Girl” Mom
Thanks for reaching out. This can be a difficult line to walk. I think the key is to find academic topics that interest your son, where study can be self-guided. I was a similar student who loved reading but struggled with academic anxiety. When I was in the third grade, my mom, an AP history teacher, wanted to find a way to pique my curiosity without inundating me with more schoolwork. She knew I had an obsession with superheroes, so she introduced me to what I consider the original comic book heroes, Greek gods. I was instantly enthralled with the fantastic stories of characters like Zeus, Icarus, and Odysseus, and soon was begging my mother to take me to the library instead of the comic book shop.
Developing my love and knowledge of Greek mythology made me a more creative writer, built my vocabulary, and developed my intellectual curiosity. I think the key for your son is finding his Greek mythology. Kids are naturally curious, and once you zero in on where his main curiosities lie, you’ll be able to easily expand those interests into other spaces. Hope this helps!
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