Care and Feeding

My Son, the Math Genius

I’ve got a crazy idea for how his school can better meet his needs. Should I propose it to his teacher?

Photo illustration of a boy looking bored in class in front of collage of paper and color blocks.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Monkeybusinessimages/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:
Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York
Katie Holbrook, high school, Texas
Brandon Hersey, second grade, Washington
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut

When I married my husband about a decade ago, he was a widower with a 13-year-old son, “Toby.” Toby was extremely precocious and intelligent, and my husband, raising him alone, quickly grew frustrated with the level of his math instruction at school. Having the means to do so, he had Toby educated at home by private tutors. Toby has grown up to be a really lovely young man and is now about to receive a math Ph.D. from a prestigious university.

Notwithstanding this good outcome, I made sure that before we had our first child that my husband and I were on the same page that he or she would—barring very unusual circumstances—have a “normal” in-school education. Our son is now in third grade and thriving. He seems, too, to have gotten the “math gene” that his father and half-brother have. He adores Toby and one way they have bonded is that Toby has indulged his interest in math, with the result that my son is now way, way ahead of his school curriculum. He spends a chunk of time in class and at home on math work and homework from which he derives no benefit. He’s a pretty easygoing kid, and while he therefore doesn’t complain to his teacher, he does let us know he’d rather spend the time on more challenging math.

I have an idea, and I’m wondering if you think would be appropriate to propose to my son’s school or if you think I should let it go. Toby is eager to take charge of our son’s math education. Toby would do the instruction a few times a week at home. We propose that the school let our son work quietly during in-school math instruction time on material Toby gives him, and that it excuse him from the normal math homework. We’d be happy to share updates or portfolio material with his teacher periodically to demonstrate what he’s up to. Does this sound crazy?

—Mom to a Math Whiz

Dear MtaMW,

Based on your description of your son’s skills as “way, way ahead,” and your willingness to intervene when it wasn’t your original preference, I’m assuming that you mean your son is not just bright and high-performing but truly gifted, with conceptual understanding and ability leaps and bounds above third-grade expectations. If that’s the case, I understand why you’re seeking ways to adjust. Most teachers do their best to differentiate their instruction as much as reasonably possible, but frankly, “as much as reasonably possible” is still relatively limited. It’s challenging to develop meaningful, ongoing curricular modifications for students performing much higher and much lower than average—especially when you’ve got both ends of the range all in one classroom. So, it’s definitely reasonable to find ways to accommodate your son’s capacity.

However, the plan you’ve proposed—while not totally crazy, per se—is probably not where I’d start. For one thing, it’s a tenuous, temporary solution to a permanent issue. While Toby and your son are enjoying the tutoring sessions now, changing their nature from “enriching, extracurricular brother bonding time” to “full-time independent study that will replace your son’s participation in the core curriculum” will ask a lot of Toby. In order for this to work so smoothly that your son’s teacher and the school will be comfortable with signing away their ownership of his education, Toby will need to be his teacher, not his tutor, with all the work that entails. He’ll need to design and produce a complete, functional substitute curriculum that your son can tackle productively and entirely independently for about 45 minutes every single day. And he cannot miss more than a couple of appointments with your son—like, ever.

While you say Toby’s eager to do it, this arrangement seems like a lot to ask of an adult with his own life who is presumably about to enter the job market—and that’s just this year. Your son’s math talent isn’t going anywhere; what happens in fourth grade, and then fifth, and then middle school, where your son will have separate classes (and where I think the administration is very unlikely to entertain this arrangement)?

Another consideration is that this is a pretty dramatic opener for what sounds like your initial approach to the conversation. If I were you, I’d take a few steps back, think bigger picture, and include the school in developing a plan. First, I’d get in touch with your son’s teacher and ask for their observations on his skills and performance. You really want to make sure that you’re starting on the same page about his “math gene” and how well it’s currently being served in the classroom. I take you at your word that your son is dramatically advanced in this area, but it’s also not terribly unusual for parents to make assertions about their kids’ abilities that are, ahem, not supported by their performance on classwork and assessments. So I’d start by making sure the data they’ve collected is aligned with your impressions.

Next, I’d find out what options are already out there. How has your school worked with other learners in need of significant acceleration? For example, could your son join a fifth grade class during their math time? Could he potentially be bused to the middle school in his upper elementary years to continue advancing his math learning? This path would keep him included in a classroom community and under a teacher’s management, which, to me, is more aligned with the “normal” education you value.

If the school’s got no suggestions, though, by all means, explore with them how your son’s work with Toby can enrich his time in the classroom. For the reasons I already explained, I think a full-scale excusal from instruction might be a tough sell, but I cannot imagine they’d say no to substituting his homework assignments with work from Toby, for example. You might also propose that your son touch base with his teacher and complete a few practice problems in order to demonstrate mastery and consistency with their curriculum’s instructional methods before turning to his challenge work.

Also, though—your son’s going to be a-OK if you do nothing at all. In writing this column and in consuming parent media and in having teaching and parenting conversations, I notice this anxiety around maximizing our kids’ potential. It seems like a potent combination of fearing the consequences of leaving any developmental stone unturned and feeling guilt over deliberately choosing “merely adequate” when “optimal” is available. I want to remind you: You are already responding to your son’s learning needs. You’re already nurturing his skills and offering him a wonderful enrichment experience. It’s OK if his third grade math class is boring and a breeze. He’ll be great, regardless. I am giving you permission to choose merely adequate, if you want.

—Ms. Bauer

I have a recurring issue that comes up at my son’s elementary school, and I’m not sure if or how to bring it up with administration. For a number of years, the state I live in has been cutting back on funding for public education. While I have sympathy for how difficult this is, my son’s school is raising funds in a manner that I find inappropriate. For the past two years, our elementary school has partnered with a local megachurch to host an end-of-year fair at our school. The church brings in games and face painters and bounce houses and the whole deal, but they also put on a small religious play about Jesus, and host a table to talk to kids and their parents about the church and Jesus.

The school frames this festival as a schoolwide festival, teachers and administration encourage kids to go, and it is held on the school grounds. I happen to be Jewish, but even if I were Christian, I feel it is wildly inappropriate for this to be happening at a public school. My son only has about a year and a half left at this school before moving on, but I still feel a need to address this so it doesn’t continue to spread and to let them think this is OK at a public school. How can I approach this without also having my son be that kid with that mom who ruined the fun for everyone else?

—Ms. Church and State Aren’t Getting Wed on My Watch

Dear MCaSAGWoMW,

I should begin by saying that I do not have the expertise to know whether or not this fundraiser is illegal. The ACLU and Anti-Defamation League have helpful information on their websites explaining the separation of church and state with respect to public schools. Americans United for Separation of Church and State has an online form where you can submit violations to its legal team for consideration. However, you should carefully consider whether you want to open the school to legal scrutiny. That said, legal or not, I agree that this festival is inappropriate: The school is encouraging families to attend an event where the hosts promote both their religious beliefs and their church. That sounds like an endorsement of a religion to me.

Your first step is to discuss this with the principal, since they are ultimately responsible for all major decisions at the school. I recommend meeting in person, which is harder to ignore than an email. If you get a cool reception or find that they won’t meet with you, you can take your concerns to your school board representative.

I don’t think there’s a way to approach this without being perceived as “that mom.” There are going to be people who disagree with you. At the same time, there are probably parents who sympathize with you and might even be willing to join you. If you discuss the issue at a PTA meeting or another parent group, you may find such like-minded parents.

As for your son, you’ll need to talk with him about why this festival is a problem and why it’s important for you to say something. Perhaps you can read some books that help open up the conversation.

I’m not going to lie: This might be an uphill battle. The church certainly could host a fundraiser without the play or the booth, but if it views this festival as part of its evangelical mission, it may refuse to remove the religious component. Since the school needs the funds and the church is successfully raising money, the principal might be reluctant to end the relationship. You describe it as a “megachurch,” which means they have thousands of members, some of whom probably have children attending your son’s school. I don’t think one meeting with the principal will do the trick. You will have to organize. I encourage you to bring ideas to the table! And be willing to help. Brainstorm an alternative fundraiser that you could host. Communitywide yard sale? Silent auction? Bingo night? Or, perhaps you could serve as the chair of a volunteer task force to design a new fundraiser?

I know this is difficult! I admire you for taking a stand. The separation of church and state is a foundational American value—one that is fundamental to democracy. That starts in our public schools. I’d love for you to write back and let me know what happens.

—Ms. Holbrook

I’ve been an elementary school classroom volunteer for several years. The kids I have been assigned this year are an exceptionally energetic bunch. Recently, when I couldn’t get their attention, I slammed my palm down loudly on the table. This had the desired result of getting their attention. I’ve heard nothing about it from the teacher, but I wonder if it was a bit much. Was that OK?

—Self-Doubting Volunteer

Dear Volunteer,

Trust me, as a teacher with 20 of the most energetic 7-year-olds this planet has ever known, I have been in similar situations more than once. What’s important to remember is that educators are human beings first, and we all have limits. That said, as educators we are responsible for teaching our kids about more than just the Three R’s. We also have to model how we handle situations of great frustration.

So to answer your question: It wasn’t too much, and it’s likely another person would have had a similar response. If I were you, I would view it as a learning opportunity. Take a moment to apologize to the class, and have a conversation with the students about how you could have responded differently in that situation. This will build further trust and respect amongst your student, and give them perspective for how to respond appropriately when they become frustrated.

Hope this helps!

—Mr. Hersey

I have two daughters who are eight months apart in age. I’ve kept them in separate day care and preschool classes, but kindergarten approaches. According to the age cutoff date in our state, they belong in the same grade. Do I hold the younger one back to create more distance? If I put them together, does it seem like artificial twinning? (I didn’t plan to have two the same age!)

Both girls are adopted—we’ve never done a “big sister/little sister” label with them. They get along well (right now) and have very different personalities. We take them to some activities alone, some together.

Selfishly, I want them in the same grade. (Ideally different classes, different teachers, but that won’t always be possible in the same grade.) I don’t want to have to do kindergarten two years in a row when I don’t have to do so. (Really, I don’t want to do any grade two years in a row.) But I also don’t want to create problems or shortchange either girl in any way. Does this matter at all?

—Forcing Twindom

Dear FT,

No, I don’t think this matters one bit. Lots and lots of twins, and even triplets and quadruplets, do exactly what you are describing, and there is no evidence that it is detrimental to them in any way. If we don’t worry about actual twins sharing a grade, why would we worry about your “artificial” twins doing the same?

I strongly believe in making things logistically easier for families. Less time schlepping kids around and coordinating schedules means more time for families to spend time together. If this makes it easier for you to manage your life, I think it’s a great idea.

That said, I don’t think it’s great to have them in the same classroom in elementary school when kids spend all day together. I have witnessed this more than once and seen how poorly this can go, depending on the children.

Sometimes they don’t get along, and that can make things challenging. Sometimes they get along too well, which can also be problematic, especially when their mission is to destroy the world in tandem. I’d make every effort to keep them in separate classes throughout their elementary school career.

But once they reach middle and high school, occasional classes together won’t be a problem at all. This can happen even when kids are in different grades. Your daughters will either be incredibly close and share a friend group or develop into very different people and operate in entirely different circles.

I’ve seen both of these things happen often, and it works out just fine.

—Mr. Dicks

More Advice From Slate

My son is 6. Among other things, he loves fairies, unicorns, stories about girls, and the color pink. Good for him, right? My son and my daughter have both been brought up to know that everything is for everyone. Only trouble is the other kids haven’t been brought up that way. What should I do?