Care and Feeding

Should That Teacher Have a Kid on His Lap?

Something doesn’t feel right to me.

A girl reading a picture book sits on a man's lap.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo 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.

Is lap-sitting with a teacher OK? Recently I volunteered at my son’s school for a few hours for an assembly. He is in kindergarten and is my oldest. I was looking around at all the kids watching the program and noticed a child who appeared to be a first grade special-needs student sitting on the lap of the school’s only male teacher. It was clear the kid wanted to get up and run around and was having trouble paying attention. The teacher returned him to his lap several times in a playful way and was holding him still with his arms much of the time, even massaging the student’s shoulders a few times. It was similar to the cuddly way a parent might treat their own child, but this was a student and a teacher. Is that typical behavior or is it inappropriate? My alarm bells were going off, as I would never want my son to be touched by a teacher in a similar way. But maybe I watch too much TV and am overthinking it because it was a man? And if it is appropriate, do I say anything? And what do I say, and to whom? It was in full view of many other teachers and the principal.

—False Alarm?

Dear False Alarm,

No, I don’t think that what you’ve described is OK.

Here are a few things I know: There are times when little kids—kindergarteners and first graders—will plop themselves in your lap, usually because they have established familiarity with you or are in need of some extra TLC. Even though I have never taught these lower grades, this has happened to me many times, at assemblies, in the cafeteria, and other places where I come into contact with these younger students. In every case, I say hello to the student, ask if everything is OK, and gently transition the child to a spot beside me as quickly as possible. As a male teacher, I feel added pressure in these circumstances simply because of stigmas attached to this kind of behavior.

The early elementary teachers I spoke to this week (including my wife, who’s a former kindergarten teacher and now teaches third grade) use similar strategies. None of them permit students to sit on their laps. There are state, district, and school-based codes of conduct that govern what an appropriate touch from an adult might look like, and the specificity of these codes varies, but the rule of thumb is simple.

Teachers and other school employees should avoid touching students whenever possible. A handshake, a high-five, a pat on the back, or even a hug if the child consents and it seems necessary are all perfectly acceptable, but any other touching should be avoided unless it’s being done to prevent a student from harming themselves or others and the teacher has been properly trained. I also know that when it comes to restraining children, the guidelines are exceptionally specific and training is required. (I have needed to restrain students in the past who meet this criteria, but in these cases, sitting on my lap has never been a part of that restraint.)

I spoke with Erica Newfang, a school psychologist who works with elementary-age children every day and is the best school psychologist I have ever known, and she said that while she offers affection to kids who need consoling, like putting an arm around them or offering a quick hug, “I have one or two who try to sit on my lap, but I don’t allow it. I feel like it’s a boundary we need not cross. And as a means of containing kids, there should be and are better strategies.”

To me, that’s really it: It’s a boundary we need not cross. Even if done innocently and with the best intent, it’s not necessary and should not be done.

I think that a conversation with the principal is definitely in order. If you can get a copy of the code of conduct for your state, district, or school to determine if the behavior you describe is specifically forbidden, that might bolster your confidence going into the meeting. But I also think you can simply make the argument that you would not be comfortable having your own child treated this way and you don’t think this should be an acceptable strategy for any student in your child’s school.

Frankly, it’s probably going to help the teacher in question by eliminating any potential problems that he might have in the future.

Good luck.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

I have an almost 3-year old daughter who has so much energy. She is a naturally happy kid who has always loved school. For the past two weeks, however, anytime she gets to the school premises, her mood changes and she breaks down into tears when she has to enter her class. She screams and cries terribly, saying, “I don’t like this school!” I asked her teacher if there’s anything she knows of that could account for this change in my daughter’s behavior, and she seemed offended that I would ask and dismissed my question. What could be wrong? I am very worried.

—What’s Going On?

Dear WGO,

I can’t be certain, but given the timing of the change, my guess is that the problem isn’t school, but winter break. All children go through a regression when they experience an extended break—some elementary schools refer to this as the “summer slide” because it’s most pronounced following the long summer vacation, but for younger children (and older children with special needs) it can be more pronounced. I’m not saying that she regressed in her emotional status or her ability to enjoy school, but rather her behavior.

It’s not even that surprising, really: She went from being able to spend every day home with more individualized attention and lower demands, possibly even more time with family, to being back at school where demand is higher, individualized attention is lower, and she has less time with her preferred adults. I am also sometimes cranky when I have to come back from a really nice, relaxing break. The difference is that as an adult, I know I have to put on my Adult Hat and get back to work. Your daughter isn’t even 3 yet! She doesn’t have an adult hat. But she can complain.

I find it a little odd that her teacher took offense at your question, but I wouldn’t sweat it too much. If you’re really worried, you can explain the situation again. Instead of framing it as “Does my daughter actually hate school?” you could try something a bit more diplomatic, like: “My daughter didn’t have issues at the start of the year. I can see the honeymoon period is over, and she’s having a hard time now. What should we do about it?”

There are lots of ways to ameliorate this sort of thing. For slightly older students, I often suggest they take the bus (if that’s a possibility) instead of being dropped off by a parent. Having a distinct, independent experience arriving at school tends to start the day on a better note for students with some separation anxiety. I’ve also found it helpful to put up some pictures in the classroom of parents or family—when kids are having a bad day, or particularly miss their loved ones, these photos can provide some comfort. Ultimately, whatever the root cause of this new mood change, it’s an important learning opportunity! Your daughter can work through this and develop emotional coping skills as well as some early self-advocacy skills, as long as you and her teachers can work together to set up an opportunity to do so.

—Ms. Sarnell (preschool special education teacher, New York)

We live across the street from a public elementary school and have always planned to send our child there—it’s truly diverse along multiple metrics, which is very appealing. Our child is supposed to start kindergarten in the fall, so we recently asked to sit in on a kindergarten class. We were completely taken aback to observe that a substantial amount of the instruction seemed to take place on screens (both an interactive-touch smart screen and individual tablets) and that there were many, many screens throughout the school. The principal told us about half of kindergarten instruction (up to two hours a day) is on a screen of some sort and that screen time increases as the children progress through grade levels, up to having their own laptops in fifth grade.

In our home, we’ve observed a negative correlation between screen time and our kid’s ability to pay attention and be pleasant; as a result, we’ve kept screen use limited—our kid gets maybe an hour a week, total, of watching television programs, and no tablet or computer time of any kind. (Yeah, I know we sound like Luddites, but it has worked really well for us.) After asking around, the local Montessori schools seem to be the only ones that limit access to screens for elementary-aged kids. I knew there would likely be more screen time at school than at home, but hours a day feels excessive for a 5-year-old. Is this the new normal in public schools? Is private school our only option for limiting school screen time?

—Where’s the Blackboard?

Dear Blackboard,

This may be the norm for the school across the street from your home, but it is not the new normal in most public schools. There are many days in the kindergarten classes in my public school where students would not be using screens at all, and my own children, who go to school in a different school district, didn’t start getting regular exposure to screens until second grade. By third grade, they have their own Chromebooks, but even then, these are used primarily for writing and research.

When it comes to access and use of screens, schools and school districts have enormous differences in philosophies, and considering that the iPad was released less than eight years ago and took much longer to become a tool used by students in most schools, I think it will be a while before any longitudinal research is available to guide educators in terms of screen time.

Anecdotally, I can tell you that the students in my fifth grade class who have limitations on screens and don’t yet own phones tend to be the students in my class who enjoy reading the most and are the most attentive and focused, but this may simply be related to the boundaries that their parents are setting for them throughout their lives.

I think you’ll find that different schools and school districts have different philosophies related to the integration of technology in the classroom, and that, within those schools, teachers will also have a variety of philosophies, and I suspect that the same is true for private school as well.

I am a teacher, for example, who limits screen time in class, knowing full well that my students have a lifetime of screens ahead of them, but some of my colleagues make great use of laptops and iPads throughout the school day.

It might be worth talking to some families in your community to see if technology in the classroom has been an issue, to get an additional perspective. Depending on what your research yields, I think you have some navigating ahead of you in terms of finding a school whose education philosophy matches yours. Rest assured, though, that the fact that you’re considering these issues and treating screen time with such diligence and thoughtfulness in your home bodes well for your children’s future, regardless of what happens in school.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

After going through four different mental health providers over the past two years, hours of formal psychological testing, and six months of weekly therapy, we have some vague idea of what’s going on with our 16-year-old son. (He’s been pretty uncooperative about the process, so everyone we’ve interacted with has given us varying diagnoses.) We feel confident he has social anxiety, and we’ve seen that since elementary school. We’ve never addressed it formally with the school, and he’s had no accommodations. He has probably had some mild depression off and on over the years. But we’ve also recently been told that he is on the autism spectrum with Asperger’s. He went to therapy for this for six months, but when the therapist decided to talk to him more explicitly about Asperger’s, he became infuriated and refused to go to therapy anymore.

So I have no desire right now to go to his high school and ask for an IEP or special accommodations, because I’m sure he’d be angry about being labeled. But I’m worried we are shortchanging him. One obvious sign of his Asperger’s is that he is refusing to do homework “because it’s stupid and I know this stuff.” I don’t want him to be excused from doing his homework, but I also wonder what we could be doing differently to support him. He passes his classes because he aces his tests. His grades go way down because of his lack of assigned work, so he gets by with C’s.

He’s already suggested that he’d like to stay home for college, and he seems pretty animated about attending the local community college. We are happy he sees a future. What should we do to help him?

—How to Support When Support Isn’t Wanted?

Dear HtSWSIW,

I think you need to let yourself off the hook! You’ve sought out mental health services; you’ve done psychological testing; you’ve put him in therapy. In sum, you’ve done what can be reasonably expected of any parent in your situation. There’s no other executive action you need to take.

Instead, I’d ask him what he wants and needs. Your conversations might go something like this:

“It seems to me like you suffer from [depression, social anxiety, etc.]. Is that right? I want to support you. How can I help? Is it something you’d like to address with medication, therapy, or another method?”

“You seem to be angry about the autism diagnosis. Is that right? Why?” (And then don’t try to tell him why he shouldn’t be angry.)

“You pass your classes with C’s because you ace the tests. That seems satisfactory to you. Is that right? Can you see any benefit to getting A’s by doing the homework?”

Perhaps you’ve already had these conversations, in which case you can make a choice: Have them again, or let him experience the natural consequences of his choices. Based on my experience in teaching, parenting, and life, I’m a fan of natural consequences, early and often.

—Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)

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