Care and Feeding

Is Smaller Better?

My daughter’s math class is intimate, but she’s grouped with special ed students. Is this bad?

Girl writing out math problem in collage.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and Ridofranz/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
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut

I recently attended my fourth grade daughter’s fall conference with her teacher. The year is going great, and the conference was very positive. My daughter loves math and seems to be doing quite well this year. She tested in the 94th percentile in math on her state standardized tests last year, which really boosted her confidence.

For fourth grade they’ve broken the kids out into different math groups, and some kids go to other classrooms for math. All of the groups learn the same material. My daughter does not go to another class for math, and stays with her regular teacher. Her teacher noted that she has really gotten to have a lot of 1-on-1 time with the kids in her math group this year because there are only 17 kids in her group, and she has another teacher in the room to help her. This all sounds great, right?

It turns out the second teacher is one of our learning support services paraprofessionals, and she is in the room because they placed all of the grade’s IEP students in this math group, along with a handful of non-IEP students.

My question is whether this is a common practice? Should I be concerned that my kid who loves math and is trying to excel in that area is in a class with mostly kids who may be struggling and require extra support? Or should I be happy that she’s in a smaller group and perhaps getting more instruction? For what it’s worth, the other math classes have 30 students, whereas my daughter’s has far fewer.

—Looking for Clarity

Dear Looking,

What you’re describing sounds like an inclusion classroom, which is common practice. In fact, I teach inclusion classes!

The success of an inclusion class will depend on a number of factors, such as the preparation and support the teachers receive as well as the ratio of special ed to general ed students. One thing that stood out to me is that you described the class as having a majority of students with disabilities, which is not an ideal inclusion arrangement. At the same time, I’m wondering if your accounting is exact—really, you should not know which students have an IEP and which do not, because that information is confidential in order to protect students’ privacy.

If a majority of the students in the class receive special education services, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are all struggling math students. In fact, some of these students may, like your daughter, excel at math. They may simply need extra time to complete assignments or someone to read word problems aloud, for example. The teacher will not be able to give you information about the other students in the class due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Therefore, you will have to consider how your own daughter is doing. Since she likes her math class and is performing well, I am inclined not to worry. The fact that there are two teachers for 17 students is a definite plus. In addition, inclusion classrooms can have benefits for students with and without disabilities. She may learn more than just math this year.

—Ms. Holbrook

Enjoy Slate’s Holiday Advice From the Experts series from our beloved advice columnists. Keep your sanity intact this holiday season with Jamilah Lemieux’s self-care tips. Nicole Cliffe presents classic gifts for children of all ages. Teacher Carrie Bauer recommends educational gifts your kids will actually enjoy

I recently read a response in this column to a parent of a seventh grade student whose teacher regularly gives worksheets with spelling errors on them. Ms. Bauer’s advice was to encourage the student to have patience/let this issue slide. I felt that this advice made sense. Clearly the student already has good spelling skills or they wouldn’t have recognized the errors, and I agree that spelling should not be used as a shaming tool.

This brings me to my dilemma. My daughter is in third grade and was recently diagnosed with dyslexia. As you can imagine, spelling is a significant challenge for her. She requires direct spelling instruction and correct modeling. However, she regularly comes home with things she has copied from the board into her agenda that are spelled incorrectly. When I reviewed the personal dictionary her teacher was creating for her to help her when writing in class, every single word her teacher had added was spelled incorrectly. Even worse, when I work with my daughter at home, or make corrections to spellings her teacher has modeled for her, she gets upset and tells me that since this is how her teacher does it, this is how it should be done. How do I address this? I don’t want to shame the teacher, but one of her responsibilities is teaching my child how to spell, and she the teacher herself obviously struggles in this area.

—Spelling Struggles

Dear Spelling Struggles,

As we’ve discussed in this column before, a good rule of thumb for parents is, “Always communicate with the teacher first.” But there are exceptions to every rule, and this might be one of them. It’s really hard to tell a teacher tactfully that she’s a bad speller.

I see three possible ways to move forward: You could schedule a conference with the teacher, share every single thing you think she does right, and then slip in that, because of your daughter’s disability, you’re worried about misspellings on the resources that she brings home. You don’t need to let on that it’s her spelling that’s problematic—just that the “dictionary” is. (Why is a teacher creating a personal dictionary for a third grader anyway? That’s not to say it’s not a good resource. But why is the teacher rather than the third grader writing the words? Maybe you could suggest that either your daughter prints the words “for extra practice” or that she be given a computer-generated copy of them. Printed materials are usually easier to read for people with dyslexia anyway.)

The second option is for you to call the principal and explain the situation exactly as you did: that normally you wouldn’t get involved, but this is an area where your daughter really needs top-notch modeling. Share that you don’t know how to approach the teacher about it without hurting her feelings, and ask if the principal could bring the issue to the teacher’s attention.

Your last option is to deal with the issue at home. Since your daughter doesn’t want to listen to you, defer to artificial intelligence. Require your daughter to type the words into a doc and correct any word with a red squiggly line or look the words up in an online dictionary (good habits to get into for folks who will likely have lifelong struggles with spelling).

Whatever you choose to do, don’t worry too much. Some of the smartest people I know are atrocious spellers. They read fine; they have great critical thinking skills. They just know to run spell check regularly.

—Ms. Scott

My 5-year-old son is what some would call an “independent learner.” He hates for people to see him fail. This was fine when he was learning to ride a bike, and he took it to the other side of the park and taught himself. Or when he went to the backyard and taught himself to pump his legs on the swings. The problem is that now that he’s in kindergarten, there are a lot of things he just won’t be able to teach himself. I have been trying to help him learn to read his sight words and sound out simple words, but he just won’t try. The same goes for writing letters properly. He says he does them “his way,” and he won’t practice the correct way. I’ve bought him workbooks that use arrows to show the correct way to write letters so he can learn on his own, but he is disinterested. We have set up homework charts with the promise of “prizes,” but it has very little effect. How do I help him?

—Mom to a Perfectionist

Dear Mom,

I appreciate your positive framing there. It’s important for your son to learn to be self-motivated and an independent learner. In some ways, it’s healthy to have a fear of failure. I admire his tenacity and his ability to solve problems on his own. After all, he must be troubleshooting while he’s teaching himself to bike ride alone on the other side of the park.

Now that I’ve given your kid some praise, I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a bit. Your son’s fear of others noticing any failure has turned him into the sort of person who would rather do things wrong than receive correction, and it sounds like he refuses any attempt to teach him. He’s not currently able to accept the fact that someone else might know better than him. Yes, he’s 5, and that’s not that egregious for a 5-year-old’s behavior. We usually call it stubbornness. But—and this is something I often have to point out as a preschool special ed teacher—what’s acceptable or even cute at 5 is often not acceptable or cute at 15. I taught a kindergartner once who liked to give hugs to strangers. At 5? Cute. At 15? Downright creepy. Your son would rather struggle on his own than accept learning from someone else. At 5? Impressive and makes for sweet stories. At 15? This could really set him back.

You’re doing the right thing in trying to intervene now. In reality, I’m sure your son falls somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. My first instinct in how to help your son is to address his fear itself. Kids often have a fear of others catching them being wrong—in developmental psychology, it’s often described as a conflict between autonomy and shame (think about potty training as the most obvious version of that conflict). In your son’s case, he’s often using the proclamation of doing it “his way” to protect him from the shame of being told he’s doing it wrong. What you need to do is get at is where the shame is stemming from, rather than correct the autonomy.

When I taught middle school, we often talked about creating “a culture of error”—a fancy way of saying we wanted to encourage kids to make mistakes, because kids learn from mistakes. In fact, some research suggests that kids learn better from working through mistakes to correct them, rather than from simply being told the correct answer without working through it on your own.

What’s the culture of error like at home? Do you make mistakes in front of your son? When you make mistakes, how do you respond? Everyone makes mistakes, but it’s entirely possible that your son doesn’t recognize yours. Try to either purposefully make mistakes, or point out your mistakes to your son, and work through them together. “Oh, no, Mommy put twice as many tomatoes in this recipe. What should we do? Should we double the recipe? Should we scoop some out? What do you think?” etc. It may sound a bit silly, but your son will learn the lesson better the more obvious you make it. Try to find a way to (politely) ask the teacher how she handle mistakes in the classroom? I often made errors in basic arithmetic when demonstrating math to my middle schoolers so that they would notice and call me out on it.

Social stories about making mistakes and learning from others may often help. Social stories are a tool often used to help kids with autism spectrum disorder navigate social situations, but all kids use them (think of Hands Are Not for Hitting, a popular book series in preschools everywhere). Make learning from others and being vulnerable common topics of discussion so your son can normalize that behavior.

Your son will most likely resist some of this. I would be unequivocal in those situations. “I know you said that the word is peg, but it says dog. D-oh-g. Dog. It is OK to make a mistake as long as you can learn from it. We can try it again later.” This whole his way stuff is a way of avoiding the issue. Don’t accept it. You can offer to invent a language with him that follows his spelling rules, but he needs to understand that certain things (math, reading, spelling, etc.) are not going to be his way. Indulging his stubbornness isn’t going to make him a better reader.

—Ms. Sarnell

We are moving out of state, and our eldest child is in the first grade. Over the next couple of weeks, we have meetings lined up at the elementary schools in the neighborhoods where we are house hunting. Maybe it’s because there’s too many decisions to make in the next six to eight weeks, but I’m coming up short on good questions for the principal. If you were in my position, what would you look for in the new school, and what questions would you ask?

—Short on Questions

Dear Short,

If I were moving to a new state and had the opportunity to choose a school for my kids, my questions for the new school would center around three core principles:

1. What is this school all about?

What do I mean by this? If you were to ask this question of someone in the school where I teach, the answer would amount to something like, “We celebrate the voices of all children. We encourage them to become good citizens through positive reinforcement.”

Another school’s focus might be on high academic achievement or student democracy or STEM or an integration of the arts in all curriculum. It doesn’t really matter what the school is about, but it’s important that the school be about something. When a school has an identity, it gives the kids something to get excited about. When a school has no guiding principles, each school day can start to look like the next. I would be looking for a school with vision and purpose.

2. The curriculum

Specifically, ask who is designing the curriculum, and when was it last reviewed? My wife once taught in a school where she determined the entire curriculum for her class, which was fine because she’s an excellent teacher who was willing to work long hours at the time, but ideally, you want a school to possess curriculum designed by experts. The math curriculum should have been designed by a mathematician, preferably by a mathematician at a company whose primary mission is to design curriculum. Often, schools and districts are designing their own curriculum, and when this happens, the results are not always good.

3. How do you support struggling students?

Even if your children seem well prepared for school and are unlikely to need support, the day may arrive when one of them needs assistance for academic or social/emotional reasons. I would ask how these kids are supported, and I would demand specifics.

I would not concern yourself too much with the administrators. You can fall in love with a principal only to watch her leave one year later, then suddenly, the whole reason that you’ve chosen the school is out the window.  The same goes for the personnel. As someone who has been teaching for 21 years in the same school, and for 18 of those years, in the same classroom, I can assure you that people come and go, but certain core principles of a school are more permanent.

—Mr. Dicks

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My daughter is a freshman in high school, and she recently got an assignment in life sciences that seems inappropriate. The assignment is for the kids to identify someone in their family who died of cancer, and then students are supposed to research that kind of cancer and create a poster presentation to display for the entire school. This seems like a terrible idea, and an invasion of privacy. Should I talk to the teacher?