Care and Feeding

Should My Child Have This Much Free Time at School?

He reads entire novels—long ones!—while in class. What’s going on?

A boy, head in his hands and pencil in his right ear, stares at a huge book open in front of him.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by 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:

Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut
Katie Holbrook, high school, Texas

My oldest child is in third grade. He’s in an established gifted program at our public elementary school and gets perfect grades (knock on wood), but he seems to have a lot of time to himself. Yesterday, for example, he read Mr. Popper’s Penguins and at least one Calvin and Hobbes treasury at school, start to finish, on his own time. (I thought he may have skimmed these books, but he seems to remember them in detail.) Taking lunch and specials out of the mix, he would have been in his classroom or at recess for a maximum of five hours. He said that “of course” he also did school work.

This is just one day. He has read many, many novels and nonfiction books on his own this year. He got through Jurassic Park in the fall, and showed me all the charts and graphs he’d carefully made tallying numbers and species of dinosaurs and eggs. I hear from his teacher that he’s no trouble to have in class, other than when he is absent-minded during transition periods. My son does not have close friends at school, only acquaintances he observes very carefully. He sits alone at lunch and reads during recess. No one in his class is as interested in reading and academics as my son is, and I worry that this will be isolating for him in the long run, though he seems happy enough day to day at this point.

Is any of this—his free time during school, his social isolation—a problem, or should I be thankful that we don’t have larger troubles? I am involved in our local schools, and I know families with much bigger concerns than these. I do know that my kids are in one of the most academically rigorous schools I was able to find locally—any significantly different options would be about an hour away, and would require changes for our family. I would consider doing this, if it’s important, but I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for or how to specifically identify and articulate my son’s needs. I’d really appreciate any perspective. Thank you!

—Too Much Free Time

Dear TMFT,

Hmm. First of all, I sympathize—that uneasy “nothing’s exactly wrong, but something doesn’t seem quite right, either” vibe is one of my least favorite parenting feelings. It’s a hard place to be, and I feel for your uncertainty.

On one hand, much is going well here. Your son is academically successful, emotionally content, apparently motivated to complete his work, eagerly and independently exploring his burgeoning interests. His teacher is unconcerned. Yet your radar still pings. And I understand why—the parts of his school experience that give you some pause give me some pause too. You mention potentially switching schools, but based on some of the details you’ve taken care to include—the volume of his reading and his capacious memory, the charts and graphs he created in response to a story, the solitary nature of his days at school, the “acquaintances he observes very carefully”—I wonder if the real heart of your nagging concerns isn’t so much about the system, but your son’s development. And since you’ve said you’re not quite sure how to identify his needs, that should be your first step. Before you can make a plan to better address his skills and challenges, you need to better understand what exactly they are.

I’d start with your pediatrician. Ask to discuss your son’s social habits and behaviors; they’ll probably offer you some initial screenings as well as their input. The results of that conversation will be by no means conclusive but will give you a good starting point. Maybe some next steps will be identified right away, but if they aren’t, and you’re still getting that prickly “something is unresolved” feeling, I’d ask for a conversation with your son’s teacher and simply share what you’ve told me: You’re not sure what to make of your son’s social isolation and abundant time for in-school reading, and you’d like their input. What’s the quality of the classwork he’s doing? What is his participation during instruction like? How do his social skills and interactions compare to those of his peers? These are the questions I’d ask. You might ask for the school psychologist or counselor to be looped in, too—it’s not uncommon for student support staff to have a casual meeting with a student, or conduct a few informal observations, in order to get a better sense of a child who’s been brought to their attention.

Maybe, based on all those perspectives and your own judgment, you’ll conclude that your son is a bookish, dreamy introvert. Maybe you’ll decide an evaluation is in order; it could uncover that your son has some gifts, or perhaps some challenges, that haven’t been previously identified. In either case, you can then work with the school on next steps and stronger supports for whatever his needs turn out to be.

It’s hard to trust your gut when you don’t know exactly what it’s telling you. But I trust your sense that your son needs something more, or something different, from his current school experience, and you should too. Just start by doing some investigating and see where it leads. Good luck.

—Ms. Bauer

I’m writing to get your take on what to think about as I weigh options for elementary school for my kids. I’m the mom to two boys: Sam, a typically developing 3-year-old, and Michael, a 4-year-old with Down syndrome who is hard of hearing (his hearing is fully corrected by hearing aids) and communicates with a combination of spoken English and American Sign Language. Our school setup for preschool is perfect. My boys attend a school that is a public-private partnership. On the public side, it’s the Preschool Program for Children with Disabilities campus for preschoolers who are Deaf and hard of hearing; on the private side, it’s a private preschool and day care. Each class has a combination of public and private students, and the classes are co-taught by public Deaf ed teachers and the private gen ed teachers. Through this magical situation, both of my kids are in a fantastic school that meets both of their needs.

As we start to think about kindergarten, we plan that Sam will attend our well-respected local neighborhood public elementary school where we know many families.

At Michael’s last admission, review, and dismissal, we casually mentioned that our plan for Michael is that he will attend our neighborhood elementary school as well. His teachers seemed surprised and stated that most of the kids who are Dear or hard of hearing from his current school go to a different elementary school that has a Deaf education program. This school would be similar to his preschool, in that classes are composed of both children who are Deaf or hard of hearing as well as typical students, and are co-taught by Deaf ed and gen ed teachers. The school has speech therapists on staff, and it’s a normal part of the day for the Deaf and hard of hearing kids to do extra speech and communication activities. This school does not have as strong a reputation as our neighborhood school, but we’ve met some teachers from this school who are enthusiastic about the program.

I am not sure how to proceed. Should I keep my boys together and put them in the neighborhood school as I originally planned? I know that if I send Michael here, he will need a paraeducator, ideally one who can sign, and I will likely have a battle to get him appropriate time with speech therapy. Or should I send them to separate schools, as Michael’s teachers suggest? A third option could be to keep them together, but at the school that is less well-respected but can better meet Michael’s needs.

My long-term goal for Michael is that he is a valued and productive member of a community who can communicate with others. Both of the school options listed would provide an inclusive education, but they will provide different kinds of inclusion with different supports.

—Which School? Which Inclusion? For Whom?

Dear WSWIFW,

I love this question because I can answer it as a teacher and a parent. I, too, am the mother of a boy with Down syndrome. He has a typically developing brother. They’re 5 years old. Until August of last year, it was medically and developmentally important to have them in different child care and pre-K situations, but this school year I managed to get them into the same preschool (different classes).

Let’s start with the teacher stuff. What you’re asking is a question that parents and educators have been asking for generations. What setting best serves the student’s needs? Disability advocates have long fought for inclusion, for services and therapies, and for placement in the “least restrictive environment.” These are best practices to ensure a free and appropriate public education for both exceptional children and mainstream kids.

So, what’s appropriate for your son? Does he need a lot of instruction in ASL? At what age did he get hearing aids? When he got them, did you notice a change in his desire to use or his facility with ASL vs. spoken language? Is he equally adept at and happy to use both? Do you think it will be helpful for him to continue to use both? Or is the goal to get him using primarily spoken English? If the plan is for him to stick with both, the deaf/hard of hearing school is definitely set up to help him in a way the neighborhood school is not.

But—and this is not less important—what do YOU need? Parenting is hard. Parenting a kid with special needs is hard. Would not having to battle for speech therapy services free you up emotionally to handle the other challenges of your life? Or would (I’m assuming) a shorter commute to the neighborhood school ease your stress? How about having one drop-off and one pickup? I can speak from experience: Having both my kids in the same school is a game-changer. What a relief. Plus, sometimes a teacher will text me pictures of them holding hands and playing together at recess, and let me tell you, it’s a dang delight.

One option you mentioned was putting them both in the deaf/hard of hearing school, which has a poorer reputation. Please don’t believe it before you investigate. Take a tour. Reach out to parents who have kids there. And I’ll tell you, as a teacher, I put much more stock in teachers’ opinions than in a school’s general reputation, which can be shaped by so many illegitimate factors. If the teachers who work there say it’s good, it’s probably good.

In sum, the answer to your A-B-or-C question is D. Do some more research. Think about your daily life, and practice psychically removing different obstacles. What feels best? What feels easiest? If you get two different answers to those questions, pick the one that feels easiest. Life is hard enough.

—Ms. Scott

My child’s first grade class has been described as “rambunctious” and a “handful.” Her teacher does an amazing, awe-inspiring job handling the students and making it look so easy.
But now the teacher is on maternity leave. Obviously, we’re very happy and excited for her (really!). Yet, it seems like things are not going well for the long-term substitute, and she is struggling.

Our 6-year old sources say lessons are being skipped because they “ran out of time” and that the classroom has devolved into general chaos. Recently, the class was visited by the principal to help get the kids back on the right track. So, here’s my question: How do I address this? Ordinarily, I’d email the teacher with my concerns and to get more information. Is this still where I start? Do I give up because everyone is doing the best with the resources they have? I hate to think of this teacher struggling if there’s something more that can be done.

—I Think She’s Drowning.

Dear Drowning,

Taking over a class of students midyear is challenging for even the most experienced and skilled teacher, and if the students are especially challenging, this can create a less than effective learning environment in even the best cases.

Unfortunately, kids thrive with routines and expectations, and when a teacher leaves, those routines and expectations are inevitably altered, thus causing problems. If the students already struggle with behavior, a new teacher is going to have a difficult time reining them in.

I think it’s a good sign that the principal is involved and aware of the situation, and if this is the case, the teacher isn’t fooling herself, either. She probably knows that she’s struggling and is probably working very hard to rectify the situation.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with emailing the teacher, but I would ask your questions from a place of concern and caring, acknowledging that your information comes from a first grader, whose perspective may differ from reality.

You can try something along the lines of: “Johnny tells me XYZ. I don’t know if this is true given the fact that he hides his green beans under his plate and thinks I don’t notice. But whether it’s true or not, I imagine it’s really hard to take over a class midyear. Is there anything I can do to help, or anything I should know in terms of Johnny? I’d like to support you in any way I can.”

Not only will this present yourself as an ally, but you’re much more likely to get an honest assessment of the situation if you approach her with an open heart and mind.

—Mr. Dicks

I’m the father of a 5-year-old daughter born in September. She missed the cutoff to begin kindergarten last year, so she did another year at an education-focused day care in their “private” kindergarten.

Both my wife and I were expecting to put her in kindergarten at our public school in the fall. At the teacher conference, her teacher began with, “Well, obviously X is going into first grade … ” which threw us both for a loop and has reignited the K-vs.-1 debate in our house again.

I fully acknowledge that I’m overthinking this decision, but I can’t help but feel like this decision influences the rest of her school-aged life. I have no doubt that academically she’ll be able to keep up with the older kids, but what about socially (being the youngest kid vs. the oldest kid, being able to do things such as drive, vote, develop, etc.)? What about athletics? Would it give her an advantage to be a year more mature? If we keep her in kindergarten, will she be bored and unchallenged in her academic life and act up? If we start her in first grade, will she be able to keep up in middle and high school as well as she will in elementary? Will she have to work harder to keep up with the older kids, versus naturally being able to be ahead with kids younger than her?

Any guidance is appreciated.

—K vs. 1

Dear K vs. 1,

Are you talking about sending your child to first grade at this private school? Personally, my answer would be a resounding “hell no,” as I look forward to the days I no longer pay for day care and preschool. Of course, I’m also an advocate for public schools.

If you’re talking about sending her to first grade at the public school, this confuses me a bit—if she’s too young to start kindergarten there, won’t she be too young for first grade as well?

But perhaps sending her to first grade at the public school is indeed an option. If she’s especially precocious and eager for challenge, this might be what’s best for her. However, are you confident the curriculum at your day care is consistent with that of the public school? I’d suggest meeting with a kindergarten teacher or guidance counselor to make sure she is ready—first grade is much more academic than kindergarten.

My advice? Stick with your original plan and put her in kindergarten. Not because being older will confer lifelong advantages (the research on that is murky), but because she will be in the same age cohort as the majority of her peers, and it correlates to the (albeit arbitrary!) age cutoff imposed by the district. The challenge of kindergarten is not just academic: she’ll be navigating a new environment and making new friends. Surely there will be kids who, like her, were born in September, as well as kids who have also attended preschool.

I realize this feels like a momentous decision, but I assure you that as a high school teacher, I have never noticed a difference between the students born in the fall and those born in the summer. By the time they are in high school, this doesn’t seem to matter at all.

—Ms. Holbrook

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