Care and Feeding

The Big Bad Bus

I’m terrified to send my daughter to public school. How can I get over my anxiety?

A woman looks distressed with a yellow school bus behind her.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock, Denisse Leon/Unsplash, and liza5450/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
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina
Brandon Hersey, second grade, Washington

After a long, gut-wrenching talk, my husband and I have decided to enroll our daughter in our local school for second grade. Up until now she’s been home-schooled but I’m the primary teacher at home, and I am chronically ill, with two other small children (4 and 6 months). My husband is convinced that I need this off my plate, and my daughter is thrilled for the adventure but … I’m not. I’ve always wanted to home-school my children and be the co-op mom but that’s not able to happen now. I had a really bad school experience, and I’ve always been afraid she would have the same.

I guess my question is: How do I be a public school mom? And how do I get over my own guilt and terror at sending her to school?

—Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Bus?

Dear Who’s Afraid,

I’d like to set your mind at ease: Public schools are not terrifying places! In fact, public schools are filled with professionals who love children and are passionate about education.

You asked how to “be” a public school mom. First, you need to deal with your own fear and find a way not to broadcast your anxieties to your daughter. She’s excited! This is an adventure! Put on a brave face and do your best to share her excitement.

Second, support her teacher. Read all communication the teacher sends home, attend parent-teacher conferences, and schedule a meeting or phone call if you have concerns. I’m guessing that, as a home-schooling mother, you have your own philosophy about education. If you find yourself questioning the teacher, avoid sharing your opinion with your daughter. Seek out more information from the teacher.

Third, support the school to the best of your ability. You have two younger children and a chronic illness, so you probably cannot volunteer on a regular basis (no guilt there—I have yet to volunteer at my daughter’s school because I’m at work all day). Join the PTA and sign up for its mailing lists. This is a great way to meet other parents and find ways to get involved.

Finally: the guilt. Why do you feel guilty? Is it because you are disappointed that you have had to change course? Or is it because being a “co-op mom” made you feel superior to “public school moms”? Perhaps you feel guilty because you had a bad experience and you fear you’re sending your child into the lion’s den? I obviously don’t know anything about your daughter’s new school, but I can say that in recent years, educators have become more aware of the importance of social-emotional learning. Many schools have SEL curriculum and schoolwide programs aimed at fostering a positive, welcoming school culture.

I realize that parenting is anxiety-provoking. I feel guilty all the time but not about sending my daughter to public school. Please keep in mind that more than 50 million American children attend public school and their parents love them as much as you love your daughter. Going to school is a normal part of childhood for the majority of American children (and a privilege denied millions of children around the world).

There may be some bumps in the road as you and your daughter adjust to this new routine. Take heart: Most kids are very resilient. I predict she will adjust quickly and thrive.

—Ms. Holbrook

My partner and I both work, so our 3-year-old daughter has been in day care since she was 5 months old. Since she was a year old, she’s had daily meltdowns at drop-off that broke my heart, but I figured it was a normal developmental stage. Last year, she would tell me she had a good day at school when I pick her up, but in the mornings she would consistently say she didn’t like school and didn’t want to go back.

We recently started a new school year in the 3-to-5-year-old class, and the situation is the same. She’s more verbal now, though, and yesterday she was able to tell me that she doesn’t like school because there are too many kids, and it’s too noisy. She’s definitely an introvert (very like me), and I definitely can empathize with being overwhelmed and exhausted by busy social situations. 

Do you have any advice for how to make this better for her? Reasonable accommodations I could ask of her teachers? We’re expats in a low cost of living country and have a nanny, so staying home with the nanny is theoretically an option, but she’s a smart girl, and while our nanny is great, I don’t feel that that provides enough mental stimulation and learning for her. 

Any advice would be appreciated. I want my kid to enjoy school!

—Learning Should Be Fun

Dear Learning,

I really appreciate the frame of this question: You’re talking about how to make the situation better, how to accommodate her situation. That shows me that you’re in the right state of mind, so you’re off to a good start.

There are a few things you can do to try to help. Before I begin listing them, let me be clear: I would not expect you to solve this problem on your own. Collaborate with the classroom teacher on each of these ideas and find the one that fits your lives and your daughter the best. You should also make sure that the classroom has a plan for when it’s too loud for her. My recommendations assume that there is one, but if there isn’t, you can work with the school to create one. Most preschools these days do have a “quiet space” or “calm down corner” where kids who feel overstimulated can go. If your school doesn’t, you can ask about creating one. I worked in a classroom where we had a girl bring a pillow from home so if she felt frustrated, she could scream into it. Maybe your daughter has a stuffed animal you’re comfortable sending in so she can hug it when she feels anxious.

One option you can try is to tell your child a social story. Social stories are little stories we tell kids that describe a situation they might find themselves in. There are plenty of websites full of social stories about pretty much any topic, but you can also make your own. Yours might have pictures—real ones instead of cartoons, if possible—of her morning routine, a few of her favorite parts of school, and one or two of her least favorite parts, as well as strategies for what to do in those situations, and then end with a bus ride home. The text may read “Every day, Suzy wakes up, gets dressed, and eats breakfast. Suzy also takes the dog for a walk. Then, Mommy takes her to school. At school, Suzy loves to do arts and crafts and play on the playground. She also loves circle time. Sometimes at school, it is very loud and crowded. When it’s loud, Suzy’s head starts to hurt. If it’s too loud, Suzy can go to the calm corner and lie on the beanbag. That feels better. At the end of the day, Suzy goes home and plays with the neighbor. What a great day.” A social story gives kids a script for a situation, including good parts and bad, and reminds them that a bad situation can be changed.

In addition to social stories, you may find some books about school that include characters who are stressed at school. Many stories include similar themes (Wemberly Worried is the first one that comes to mind) but have the benefit of giving the same or similar advice in different ways. The more approaches you try, the more likely it is that the lesson will stick. It’s why most instruction in early childhood is taught through multiple modalities.

If a calm corner isn’t working, or the sound is really bothering her, the next step is to get her some headphones. Most schools that work with special ed preschoolers have sound-canceling or sound-dimming headphones. You can work with the classroom teachers to teach your daughter to put them on when she feels overwhelmed, or for the teachers to ask if she wants them prior to loud activities. For some kids, the sound is too overstimulating, and they really do need the headphones, just like some adults are light-sensitive and bring sunglasses everywhere.

This brings me to my final suggestion. If your daughter is truly having a hard time coping with the regular noises of the classroom/school environment, and you have tried these other options and it’s not showing signs of getting better, you may consider doing an evaluation for occupational therapy. Sensory processing issues are more common in kids than you might think, and typically go hand in hand with some deficits in fine motor skills. An occupational therapist will be able to help your daughter with sensory processing, self-regulating (emotionally and physically), and those fine motor skills. Plus, OT for kiddos is so fun! They get to jump on trampolines, engage in “sensory play” (sand, play dough, slime, shaving cream, etc.), do arts and crafts, and play with puzzles. My students universally love OT. And if your daughter is sincerely not able to regulate her sensory system now, it is better to address it in preschool than later in life. If you decide to get an OT eval, I would check in with her teachers for their advice on how to proceed.

I put these suggestions in the order I would try them. But you know your daughter best, and at this point, her teachers should have a pretty good grasp on her. Talk to them about what they’re seeing and what you’re seeing, and collaborate on what tends to make her feel safe and calm. Working as a team, you should be able to find some solutions that can at least begin to address her needs so that she feels comfortable, safe, and happy at school.

—Ms. Sarnell

My 11-year-old daughter started school recently. Early this past summer, she and I were downtown when she pointed out two teachers from her school walking hand in hand. She said that these teachers had always seemed particularly close at school but she hadn’t realized that they were dating.

She now has both of these teachers this year. On the first day, the male teacher shared with the class that he lives with his wife, three young children, and a menagerie of pets, while the female teacher explained that she lives alone with her two cats—much to my daughter’s shock. They teach together, although they are supposed to be teaching different subjects separately. They have adjacent rooms and have gone so far as to convince the school to put windows in between their classrooms, so that they can teach both classrooms at once. My daughter says that most of the time (nearly half of her school day, with the two classes put together!) is spent listening to the male teacher lecture, while the female teacher sits at her desk. They have gone so far as to briefly hug and hold hands in front of my daughter and a few other kids.

My daughter, a levelheaded girl, seems perplexed and disturbed by this behavior. I know the principal’s style well, and I know that she would likely tell me that my daughter is imagining things.

My question is what, if anything, should I do? This is not behavior I want modeled for my preteen daughter!

—Leave Kids Out of Your Hanky Panky

Dear LKOoYHP,

Wow. Yeah, you need to go to the principal. Even if the principal doesn’t believe you or your daughter, it could plant a seed, and in the future, they may notice things to which they had previously been blind.

I see two problems here. First, their public display of affection, innocent as it is, is still inappropriate. I’ll occasionally hug a colleague if there’s a reason to celebrate—new baby, graduation, etc.—but I don’t go around greeting my co-workers with hugs. And holding hands?! No. Not ever. Even if they were married, no. Imagine a corporation in which a couple of married employees walked the halls holding hands. It would be weird. Unprofessional.

Second, they are not doing their jobs! Extended lecture is not an effective teaching strategy for 11-year-olds (indeed, it’s ineffective for most ages). Neither is sitting at one’s desk. You’ve probably heard the adage that a person’s attention span is their age in minutes, therefore 11-year-olds should be changing activities or seating or media or something every 11 minutes. This doesn’t happen during an extended lecture. Also, when my students are working on a project, I’m watching over their shoulders, offering help and guidance. Middle schoolers cannot be trusted to stay on task. They need to be monitored, prodded, and redirected. A teacher can seldom do that from her desk. Moreover, while team teaching and collaborating between teachers of different subjects are both great practices, that’s not what they’re doing. Team teaching would mean both teachers were involved in every lesson. Collaborating would mean they found a curriculum overlap, divvied up the lessons, and taught their respective lessons to both groups.

We don’t know what arrangement this man has with his wife. Maybe they have an open marriage. Maybe they’re polyamorous. Maybe he’s cheating. It’s not your place to intervene based on their romantic situation. But their behavior is inappropriate for the workplace, and it seems they’ve configured their classrooms in a manner that best serves their relationship—whatever that may be—rather than the students.

Raise your concerns with the administration. This is not OK.

—Ms. Scott

To get Slate Care and Feeding columnist Jamilah Lemieux’s perspective on this letter, click here.

My elementary school is asking my permission for them to create a “G Suite” account for my kindergartner, so that he can receive assignments, submit work, and generally work online at school. We have successfully kept our kid pretty analog so far (I mean, he’s 5, so it hasn’t been a huge challenge). While I don’t have any really well-thought-out objection, I can’t help but feel that this is intrusive and inappropriate for a kid who can’t read yet. Is this really standard educational practice nowadays? Will he really be missing out if I withhold permission? Will I be “That Mom” if I say no? (Should I save my fire and be That Mom over lockdown drills?)

—A Luddite

Hi Luddite,

As a teacher, I am a big proponent of reducing screen time as much as possible. It pains me when I go to restaurants or parks and see kids with electronic pacifiers missing out on the world around them. It’s also concerning to me to see how poorly various technologies are being implemented in schools.

Yet I remain cautiously optimistic about technology in the classroom, because it’s most often used as a tool and not a toy. I use G Suite as a resource in my classroom all the time, mostly through Google Classroom. I’ve found it to be great for making paperless homework assignments (though I rarely assign homework), sharing enrichment activities that support what we are learning in class, and communicating more easily with parents. However, I don’t require families to sign up. I think of it more as an extension of our classroom that families can access if they choose.

I would give the school permission to create a G Suite account for your child. My guess is that with students at this young age, the teacher will use G Suite’s features, including Google Classroom, very minimally—less for teaching any material and more for practical matters like posting assignments. As technology and online resources become more accessible in schools, it’s almost inevitable that most kids will be expected to use the resources at a young age. Typically, whatever account your child sets up initially is the account and system your child will continue to use throughout high school, so getting started now means your son will later be more proficient and independent in managing the electronic aspects of his education.
I don’t think it would hurt to be hypervigilant of how the school and your son’s classroom utilize these tools to improve your son’s learning, though. I suspect that this won’t be the case, but write back if the class’s use of G Suite becomes a problem.

—Mr. Hersey

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