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 firstname.lastname@example.org or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
I’ve got a moody sixth grader at home. Getting her to do her school work is no problem. The problem is that she’s done after a couple of hours and has been spending most of her time watching The Office on Netflix. She’s not really open to any of our suggestions to do something else. Any thoughts on motivating her to read or do something active? She’s typically an active and social kid but is lost without soccer or in-person contact. And she’s not really a reader (unless required by school).
—Not Mentally Equipped for This
Dear Not Mentally Equipped,
I’m a 35-year-old with access to a car, a bank account, and a mature set of coping skills, and in the past eight weeks, I’ve spent a not small percentage of my available downtime sprawled on the couch, half-watching old seasons of Survivor while tapping at a mindless paint-by-numbers app on my phone. I feel for your daughter, and I really think her choice of self-soothing strategy is OK. While the initial shock and alarm sparked by school closures and physical distancing mandates may have subsided by now, plenty of people aren’t finding the situation itself any easier or more comfortable. Everybody’s lonely, bored, and anxious, kids included, and if she’s spending several hours a day successfully and uncomplainingly completing assignments before retreating into the pleasant escape of a funny television show, I think you’ve got ample evidence that she’s doing fine, and you’re in a position many parents would envy.
If you do want to propose an activity, I’d try to frame it as an invitation and an extension of her current interests, rather than a correction. “Hey, since you’re enjoying The Office so much, would you like to try watching Parks and Recreation, listening to the Office Ladies podcast, or reading this oral history of the show?” “I could really use some fresh air, and I’d love to spend some time with you. Will you come for a quick walk with me?” I think it’s OK to nudge a little—the powered-down stasis of the blanket nest can be hard to break without some prompting—but I wouldn’t push it into argument territory. You might also try an honest conversation about how she’s coping and how you are. Give her space to process her feelings to you, and let her hear you process yours. You signed your letter “Not Mentally Equipped for This”—I think you can tell her that you’re feeling that way! I know that I feel a little better every time another person affirms that they, too, are feeling lost and bereft as they try to figure out how to steer their families through this. Feeling validated might be really comforting.
Do keep an eye out for red flags that might signal a decline in her mental health, such as sleeping a lot more or a lot less, neglecting personal hygiene, loss of appetite, or withdrawing entirely from family life. Other than that, though, I think she’s muddling through, as we all are.
—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)
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My son is in fourth grade at a lovely private school. He switched to the school this year from another private school because the culture at the previous one didn’t seem like a good fit. More days than not, he would come home anxious and depressed and have tantrums. When he started the new school, his mood seemed better for a few months, but then devolved rapidly. He’s seen a few therapists for generalized anxiety and was working with a tutor on focus and executive skills. (He’s never been formally diagnosed for ADHD, but we strongly suspect he has it.)
When quarantine started, he had a few weeks of home school, meaning I’d assign him projects to work on each day in his usual subjects. We used the Pomodoro Technique (25 minutes on, five-minute break, then a 30-minute break after four cycles), and he could select which assignment to work on in whatever order he chose. He thrived. He was happier than I’ve ever seen him. No tantrums, no fights, no tears. It was like a miracle.
But his school recently started more intensive virtual learning. He’s expected to be on a video chat with his class at least three times a day, and his assignments are more similar to “regular” school. All of a sudden, our carefree optimist has reverted to an anxious, whiny pessimist. The tantrums and tears are back.
A lot is going on, but we suspect that the biggest change from last week to this one is that he can no longer control what he’s working on. When I gave him school assignments, I would let him pick which figure from history he could write about, for example; at school, that is typically assigned to him. In general, he thrives best when he can provide input—he’s less likely to complain if he has two to three options for dinner or can pick which chores he’s supposed to do.
Are we off-base in thinking that the lack of control is behind his anxiety? There aren’t many other factors that are different (our home setup is the same, the amount of time we spent with him on schoolwork is the same, and quarantine hasn’t changed).
Second, if we’re right, what can we do about it? My partner is inclined to think that he has to adjust to not having control because that’s going to be true for the rest of his life. We had accepted that he’s just a downbeat kind of person, but the last few weeks have shown us that he can be anxiety-free, and I don’t want to lose sight of that. Permanent home schooling isn’t an option for us, but are there other ways we can approach his school about accommodating him? Will we seem crazy if we do?
—The Burden of No Choice
Dear Burden of No Choice,
Let me start off by saying that I am not a school psychologist, nor do I have the information needed to determine if the level of autonomy in your son’s school day and/or the structure of his environment is playing a role in his anxiety, but here is what I believe:
Children are often happier when given choices, which is why teachers often use choice as a motivator in the classroom. This can be as simple as handing a student a sheet of two dozen math problems and asking them to solve any six (when all you wanted them to solve were six) to permitting kids to choose their writing topics, subjects of study, and even the day’s schedule. To this end, I think that informing your son’s teachers that he thrives when given autonomy over his learning, schedule, and environment is an excellent idea. Teachers are constantly looking for motivators.
That said, expecting the school to provide your son with the level of autonomy that he is enjoying at home is probably unrealistic and not beneficial to your son’s long-term growth. I also believe that your partner is correct in that your son will need to learn to be productive and happy when his choices are more limited. It’s a simple fact of life that we can’t always choose the course of our day or the specific parameters of our work. There comes a time when you don’t get to choose your dinner or the topic of your essay or the time when you will take a test. This is an important part of growing up.
Rest assured that if your son continues to reject restrictions and parameters, this doesn’t mean he will fail in life. Instead, he will likely gravitate toward occupations that allow for greater degrees of freedom, and this is normal. When a reporter once asked why I became a teacher, I talked about my love of children, my belief in public schooling, and my desire to do something positive with my life. My wife quickly added, “And he can’t stand it when people tell him what to do.” It had never occurred to me, but she was correct. Teaching affords me enormous degrees of autonomy. I’m also a writer, which similarly provides me with control over many aspects of my work life.
I would also not assume that your son’s anxiety right now is necessarily tied to the issue of autonomy. During this unusual time, your son is free from dealing with classmates, teachers, frequent transitions, and a variety of other factors that exist in a traditional school setting, any of which could just as easily be contributing to his anxiety. I would suggest that when we return to school, you meet with the school psychologist to discuss what you’ve seen and try to hone in on the underlying causes of your son’s anxiety.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
Over the past several weeks, I’ve read your advice about home schooling with interest and appreciate the empathetic advice. My daughter Sonia is in first grade at a Spanish dual-language school. This is her second year at the school, and she has made slow but steady progress. My husband and I are excited for her to learn Spanish and are committed to the school.
The problem is that neither one of us speaks Spanish beyond the very basic high school Spanish we took 20 years ago. From my observations, we are one of the few families at school who don’t speak any Spanish at home, and we are struggling with home schooling. Eighty percent of her instruction is in Spanish.
I talked with her teacher briefly, but she just gave reassurances that Sonia will be fine and that they are doing the same types of assignments the students worked on all year. It is not going well from my perspective. Sonia breaks down in tears daily, then shuts down because she says she has no idea what is going on in the classroom chats or assignments. If it wasn’t for Google Translate, I would have thrown in the towel by now.
Any advice for us? I’ve thought about asking for English assignments but hate the idea of giving up and for Sonia to lose the progress she’s made over the last two years.
—¡Ayúdame por favor!
I’m glad you’ve found our previous advice helpful! As I’ve said in this column before, now is the time to go easy on yourself: Ultimately you should continue to try your best and do what works best for your family in these extenuating circumstances. As an educator I would not view asking for the assignments in English as giving up, especially since your family doesn’t speak Spanish at home. Right now, your daughter still needs to practice skills such as reading, writing, and math regardless of whether she works on these skills in Spanish or English.
In this new normal, many parents have become their child’s primary teacher, and if the language barrier is limiting your ability to support her basic instruction, you should try and reduce that barrier. You can always supplement her learning with dedicated Spanish instruction through a number of online resources if you’re worried about her falling behind her classmates. Also, let me add that while you may think every student is practicing at home with fluent Spanish speakers, my hunch is that your daughter is not alone. Teachers know and understand that these times are not normal, and they will be working with students once they’re back together to account for any learning loss that might occur this spring. I hope this helps!
—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)
I’m curious to get your perspective on what you view as the appropriate duration of online classes for pre-K students? And why?
—How Long Can They Last?
The standard rule of thumb we preschool teachers use to determine attention span for children is approximately two to three minutes of their attention times the age of the child. So, for your average preschool class, which is a mix of 3- to 5-year-olds, I would expect the classwide attention span to be in the range of six to 15 minutes, averaging at about 10 minutes. Now, that 10 minutes applies to their attention on a particular task or activity. A teacher can probably do a 20-minute large-group activity and have all the kids engaged if it involves a mix of listening to a story, singing songs, answering questions, incorporating some kind of movement, etc., and be fine in a typical preschool class working with mostly typical kids. In my self-contained special ed classroom, with a group of kids who all struggle with large-group activities, we were working on them maintaining their attention on a 10-minute activity back when we had in-person school.
Our current distance-learning situation complicates things a little. On the one hand, kids like screens. Screens are what behaviorists call a natural reinforcer, which is to say kids like looking at them inherently without being taught to like them. Once, when my class had a delayed pickup due to a snowstorm, and I unexpectedly needed to keep them contained for an unknown duration, I popped on YouTube and played songs for my kids. They were able to sit in relative calm for more than 20 minutes—these same kids who, when we’re doing large-group instruction, struggle with that 10-minute mark. That said, an online class is going to be harder. My playing YouTube doesn’t put cognitive or behavioral demand on these kids, but that is what I’m shooting for during a large-group circle, where I’ll ask them questions and they must produce answers.
When I teach in person to a large group, my face and affect are highly animated, and I have lots of little tricks for getting the kids’ attention (a favorite: I can take their hands and put them on the arms of my glasses, which brings their visual attention to my face and helps them to hear and process what I’m saying). Over a screen, my face may be pixelated, and my voice may be less clear. I cannot engage in physical or tactile cues. Not to mention, between the little square with their own face on it, the faces of their peers, and the general distractions at home, they have a harder time focusing.
I can’t give you a precise number, but I would say in general teachers should be aiming for shorter lessons. Fifteen minutes total for the online lesson is a good place to start, and then if the teacher knows the students well and knows they can push it, the teacher can increase incrementally just like we do for in-person school, by adding one additional element to the lesson at a time.
—Ms. Sarnell (preschool special education teacher, New York)
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