Care and Feeding

Sticks and Stones

My second grader has fallen in with a bad crowd, and I don’t know what to do.

One boy tugging on the arm of another boy, who looks unhappy.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and LSOphoto/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 or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:
Matthew Dicks
, fifth grade, Connecticut
Cassy Sarnell
, preschool special education, New York
Carrie Bauer,
middle and high school, New York
Amy Scott,
eighth grade, North Carolina

My second grader is having some schoolyard difficulties. He likes his teacher, and he’s doing well in class. But for a couple of months, he’s been telling us that recess is awful and that he and his friends are being picked on. We’ve consulted his teacher, and from what we can tell, there is some mutual “picking on” going on between some new friends of his that he’s made this year and other kids on the schoolyard. I acknowledge that my child, even though he’s not causing it, is somewhat caught up in it. The whole thing is causing him to get increasingly angry and frustrated. It is also causing him to act out at after-school care, which is a problem.

I don’t know his new friends, and I don’t want to alienate him from kids he cares about, but I also don’t want him getting a bad reputation by association. Mainly, I want him to be happy and safe at school. Any ideas?

—My Kid’s Not the Problem—But It’s Still a Problem

Dear My Kid’s Not the Problem,

This is a difficult situation. It sounds as if your son has made some friends who aren’t making good choices on the playground, which can cause a great deal of stress for a child who wants to make the right choices but doesn’t want to lose his friend group in the process.

In a perfect world, you’d tell your son to find some better friends, but this isn’t a possibility for most second graders. When your child is older and more confident, he can begin to make some of these tough decisions, but at this point in your son’s life, acceptance and friendship are critical, so asking him to ditch his friends and search for kinder, gentler children is probably unrealistic.

What I find most interesting about your letter is that you don’t know his new friends yet. I think that getting to know them might be very helpful. Invite them over for a play date—individually or in a group. Getting to know his friends—and hopefully their parents in the process—might help you offer some advice in navigating this challenging situation, and at the very least, it might allow your son to speak about the struggle with greater specificity.

I know that, personally, when I can tell my son that the playground bully’s parents are going through a difficult divorce, or that the annoying kid in class is struggling with a learning disability, or the mean kid in the cafeteria is mean to everyone, it sometimes makes it easier for my child to see past the behavior or find new avenues to make changes. How much you tell your child depends on many factors, including your child’s age, maturity, and ability to be discreet.

For example, I might tell my son that a child’s mother was recently deployed overseas or that his grandmother passed away last month, or I might be more subtle and less specific, simply telling him that the child in question is going through a lot at the present moment. All of this might help your son to feel a little less alone with this problem, and sometimes that can be enormously helpful.

I’d also make it clear that while your son is more than welcome to maintain his friendship with these kids, he should not engage in these nonpreferred behaviors himself and should either distance himself from the group at these times with a well-timed excuse (“I need to use the bathroom” or “I wonder what the score of the soccer game is now?”) or attempt to redirect the group’s behavior with an alternative activity (“Hey! Anyone want to play tag?”). Role-playing these scenarios with your son can be enormously beneficial when these situations arise and he’s on his own. Good luck!

—Mr. Dicks

I have twins who are in kindergarten. A is adjusting well, although it’s still a very long day for both boys—the bus, then school, and the bus home has them tied up from 8:15 until 4:30. B, however, is having a much harder time. He frequently cries before school and says that it’s “boring” and that they “tell him what to do.” He says he’d rather be building with Legos or playing. Both boys were in a Montessori-type preschool for two years, so I think it’s possible the structure is chafing to B. The teacher is also brand-new—new to school and to the profession. I know it’s only kindergarten, but friends are suggesting everything from “put him in a different school!” to “pull him out and unschool him!” Who can I ask for help? Do I wait it out and see? How will I know if I should seek alternatives?

—It’s Only Kindergarten!

Dear It’s Only Kindergarten,

In general, it’s a big adjustment to go from preschool—especially a child-driven preschool model like Montessori—to a typical public school. Even if you put your child in the average play-based preschool, the recommendation for most curricula is a minimum of an hour of play per day, and an even mix of child-led and adult-led activities. At best, your kindergarten can do a maximum of an hour of play per day, with less gross motor time (recess/gym/physical activities), a higher ratio of adult-led to child-led activities, and higher demand (aka “harder” work) during the adult-led activities. I’ve taught both preschool and kindergarten, and I did my best to hold a high standard for my students in both settings while simultaneously respecting their need to be kids, but kindergarten teachers fight a bit of an uphill battle on that front.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the first person you should talk to is B’s teacher. I know I give that advice about every problem, but there’s a reason for that: If your kids are at school 30-plus hours per week, their teachers see them almost as much as you do, and they get to know them very well. B’s teacher can give an honest assessment of how he is doing while he’s at school. Some kids, like some adults, like to complain. They like the drama of saying they hate school. It’s possible your son is fine when he’s there, but wants to whine for your attention. On the other hand, it’s possible your son truly is bored and chafing against the rules.

You’ll know you need to seek alternatives after you talk to your teacher/school and you get a better sense of what’s going on in the classroom. Pulling a child out of school or moving them is generally a more extreme solution than simply working with the school to find a solution, and home schooling is a full-time job that is honestly not easy either. If you can find a way for your school environment to adapt to the needs of your son, that’s better. Assuming you’re at your local public school, if the teacher can’t adapt to his needs, then there is a larger problem that may require bigger solutions like an individualized education program or behavior intervention plan. That said, my guess is that at worst your son needs “a little extra love,” so to speak, and I’m sure his teacher can help by providing it if you discuss the issue with them.

—Ms. Sarnell

My 8-year-old daughter is in second grade. While she is extremely smart and loves art, science, and music, she can be a difficult kid to teach if she’s not fully interested in the topic. She can be manipulative by playing dumb and getting others to “help” her or even do her work for her. She gets easily frustrated when she doesn’t understand something, too.

We’ve been very lucky and have had two previous teachers who were able to bring out the best in her and keep her interested in class. This year she has a newer teacher who didn’t tell us about her having any problems in class until we had our first conference at the end of the grading period with her last month. She said our daughter wasn’t completing assignments in class and was not paying attention to instructions. It also seems that she is falling below in reading; all of her assessments this year have her consistently falling behind. She started the school year at a mid–second grade reading level, and now she is testing at a mid–first grade level.

I immediately contacted the teacher to find out what we can do to help our daughter. She gave a detailed response about practicing letter sounds, spelling, and reading. We’ve done that, and our daughter blows it out of the park every time. She’s reading to us at home and acing all her spelling words when we give her a practice test. Apparently she is not showing the same aptitude when she takes the tests or does classwork at school.

The teacher has said that other students have had trouble with a new testing system in the school, but since that’s not going away, I want to figure out how my kid can navigate this system and meet the standard. The teacher is going to break up the time she’s taking the test to see if that will help.

I have talked with my kid’s doctor about her lack of focus, and the response has always been that she’s just being a kid. I don’t want to push for medication or a diagnosis that isn’t there, but I also don’t want her to have issues in school. How can I help my daughter do as well on her work at school as she does at home? How can I help her focus during class?

—Regressing Reader

Dear Regressing,

So here’s an unfortunate truth: Most teachers are woefully undertrained in the most current research on effective reading instruction. According to this 2018 report by the National Council on Teacher Quality, while 40 years of research have fairly conclusively identified the soundest strategies for teaching children to read, “only 37 percent of teacher preparation programs in the nation appear to be teaching these methods.” Furthermore, the report found that only 11 states require elementary and special education teaching candidates to be sufficiently tested in their knowledge of the science of reading in order to obtain certification. In her 2018 audio documentary “Hard Words,” Emily Hanford reports that “the prevailing approaches to reading instruction in American schools are inconsistent with basic things scientists have discovered about how children learn to read. Many educators don’t know the science, and in some cases actively resist it. The resistance is the result of beliefs about reading that have been deeply held in the educational establishment for decades, even though those beliefs have been proven wrong by scientists over and over again.”

All that is to say: I think your daughter’s teacher is doing the best she can with what she knows, but it also wouldn’t surprise me if she’s lacking the knowledge and skill to diagnose and correct whatever is hindering your daughter’s reading performance. To help me advise you, I talked to a colleague who’s the most effective early elementary reading instructor I know, and her take is that you need more information. As of right now, it’s hard to know if the root cause of your daughter’s declining performance is a matter of reading skill, the learned helplessness you’ve previously observed, or the attention issues you asked her doctor about.

My colleague suggests examining what reading assessment the school is using. There are many out there, and some assessments tend to issue “false positives” early in the year, giving an optimistic score that’s a bit inflated from the child’s true ability, while the design of others rewards kids who are skillful computer users or simply good guessers. No test is flawless, and digging a bit into the one your daughter is taking might yield some information about how to interpret her scores.

It’s great (really!) that you’re working to support your child at home, but my colleague asks whether you are certain that your practice is appropriately challenging. She noted that often, with the best of intentions and a desire to keep reading sessions positive and successful, parents don’t hold the bar high enough while helping their kids. For example, by 8, practicing letter sounds is a fairly remedial skill—how’s her facility with grade-level sight words? How much stamina and independence does she demonstrate in reading Level 2 books aloud, and how much do you jump in to help her? Or is the problem not really rooted in decoding at all, but in comprehension? (And, of course, if even the people explicitly tasked with teaching kids to read don’t have enough training to do so, you, her presumably non-educator parents, can’t be expected to. Don’t feel bad about any of the efforts you’ve made so far, even if it turns out they need tweaking.)

You said your girl can be a challenging kid to teach. What made her last two teachers successful? Some kids with an easily defeated or helpless streak blossom under lots of gentle encouragement and support, while others take advantage of a nurturing approach but rise to the occasion when held to high expectations with a firmer hand. What do you think brings out the best in your daughter, and is it possible her teacher may need to change up her tactics?

To help you answer these questions, I’d ask for input from your school or district’s reading specialist. You might even want to request a meeting with that person and the teacher together. You can say what you’ve told me here: Your daughter’s school performance has been concerning for a while and hasn’t improved despite your various interventions. You’d like to gather more information and try to course-correct now because the curriculum will only grow more demanding (and will assume more and more reading fluency) as she progresses through elementary school. Hopefully the reading specialist will have additional insight about the issue and about whether it’s simply a behavioral concern that needs better management or if further testing or support might be in order. I wish your little reader much success.

—Ms. Bauer

My eighth grader’s math teacher, Mr. C, left me a voicemail today. Due to my son’s current grade in algebra I (honors math in our district), he would like to discuss my son repeating pre-algebra. My son has a 68 with semester finals coming in the next couple of weeks, but got A’s and B’s in pre-algebra last year.

I’m completely taken aback. I know my son has struggled to grasp the concepts as Mr. C has taught them, but he usually manages to bring his grades back up with my husband’s help (usually reteaching him the material). Yes, we should have been better about getting him a tutor or extra help. But honestly I’m pretty confused that Mr. C is immediately suggesting he repeat pre-algebra (where he had a 90 percent average), instead of getting him a tutor. I could understand better if this were the second or third week in the school year, but the year is almost half over.

I’d rather ask him to be switched to a different class and be supported with tutoring. If he fails, fine. There’s summer school or he can retake algebra I as a freshman next year. Right? I guess my questions are: Does it make sense to demote him? And is Mr. C’s recommendation gospel, or can I ask that my son be switched out?

—Surprised and Confused

Dear Surprised and Confused,

That is truly weird. Why would the teacher suggest repeating a course in which your son already showed mastery? He’s not blowing the roof off algebra, but does the teacher have any data to support his assertion that your son doesn’t comprehend pre-algebra skills?

Definitely inquire about this issue. Call the teacher and ask for more information, such as why he thinks demotion is the solution.

I’d also ask about in-school tutoring to support him in his current class. If support is not available and you are financially able, hire a tutor to help him a couple of times a week and see if that helps. Another option is a study buddy from his class. Does he have a friend or acquaintance who seems to be confident in the material? Could he invite that kid over for a study session?

If, after speaking to the teacher and/or trying the above strategies, you still feel that your son would be best served in another class, you can always ask. Administrators are loath to switch kids’ classes upon parent request because of the floodgates that would surely open, but the worst that can happen is they say no.

Good luck!

—Ms. Scott

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