Care and Feeding

My Son Is Really Struggling in School

Should he stay back a grade?

A boy puts his head down on his desk.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos 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 or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

I’m facing a bit of an issue with my son and need some insight. He is special needs (he has ADHD, anxiety/depression/emotional issues, absence epilepsy/Jeavons, and cognitive and motor delays) and is finishing up fourth grade at our local elementary school. He has an IEP and is in a general education classroom with daily resource room time along with weekly occupational therapy/speech. He is emotionally and intellectually two to three years behind his peers. Every year they tell us he will continue on to the next grade, usually with more resource room time or more accommodations and that repeating a grade would be detrimental. They cite studies and information, which we’ve abided by with some hesitation, due to some issues with bullying and the fact he’s not mastering the basics before moving forward.

This year is different, and I’m having some thoughts. Fourth grade is the last grade in his school before moving to the “lower” middle school, which houses fifth and sixth grades, that involves moving between classes.

We started distance learning the second week of March, and I’m currently responsible for his regular classroom duties, plus getting him to do his resource room work and weekly OT/speech work. It has been rough since I also have a 2-year-old. Every day my son cries and complains that everything is too hard.

I’ve expressed concerns over the class load and his teacher just says, “Do the best you can.” My son has also expressed anxiety over going to another school next year—especially without a proper ending to this school year. He says he doesn’t want to go to the new school and that he’s afraid of fifth grade.

Every time I bring up the possibility of him staying in fourth for another year, his teachers remind me how detrimental it is. But I don’t think he’s ready for the jump to middle school. He says he wants to stay in fourth. He doesn’t have any strong peer relationships to help him through. I am not a teacher, and I usually default to what they think is best, but I don’t want to push him forward and have a depressed, overwhelmed kid who can’t handle all this change. Please help.

—Keep Moving?

Dear Keep Moving,

My response—almost automatically—would be to promote your son to fifth grade. I would cite the same research that your son’s teachers are citing to demonstrate that retention almost never helps a child in any way.

I would also advise that you not allow your son’s desires or his struggles with learning at home influence your decision. I teach fifth grade—the last grade of elementary school before my students move onto middle school. If asked, at least half of my class would express a desire to be retained. Change is hard for many kids, and often, it must be forced upon them so that they will learn to accept and perhaps even embrace change in the future.

I also know that many of my students, as well as my own children, have struggled with their learning during this time of quarantine, and I’ve come to understand that the behavior, effort, and response to their learning is vastly different at home than at school. When I watch my son, for example, wander away from his work and complain about the difficulty of his assignments, I know that this is not something he would do in the classroom.

It’s a simple fact that children behave very differently at home than they do at school, and quite often, they save their worst for their parents. I would not view your son’s behavior over the past few months as an indication of his ability to learn.

All that said, this is an unprecedented time in education. Your son—already two to three years behind is peers—has missed three months of learning in a typical school environment, and it sounds as if his challenges are profound. If ever there was a time to retain a student, this might be it.

I’m not recommending retention, but I’m recommending that you sit down with the team and discuss the fact that these are unusual times, and the research that is often cited might be slightly less relevant now given the unique circumstances. While I can’t say that I would recommend retaining your child, I think it’s worth a serious conversation given the circumstances.

If the decision is made to retain your child, I strongly advise that you avoid allowing your son to believe that his complaints played any role in the process. The last thing you want it to reinforce the idea that scary things, difficult transitions, and leaps into the unknown can be avoided with the correct number of tears.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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I am an English tutor at a national chain that’s recently moved to online instruction. It hasn’t been an easy transition, and we’ve lost a lot of clients, so now we mostly just have test prep students, but we’re losing those too. I really enjoy working with my students, most of whom attend the local public high school, and I really feel for them when it comes to online schooling—most of them are bored and isolated, as their school is mostly just having students turn in weekly assignments without much instruction. They’re also very stressed.

I really want to help my students, who seem like they could benefit from some extra support and guidance, but I don’t really know where to start. More than that, I am really feeling the pressure to encourage students to keep buying more and more sessions to make up for the lost revenue. I’ve never felt amazing about my job because test prep is so fraught, but at least before, I felt like I was helping kids, too, generally—now I feel a little like I’m scamming folks. I’m really lucky to have a job right now, though, and more sessions = more income. Any advice on how I can stop feeling so terrible about this gig, and maybe even help some kids, too?

—Torn About Test Prep

Dear Torn About Test Prep,

I feel you: I teach a “tested subject,” which means my students must pass a state-mandated standardized test as a graduation requirement. I hate it. Standardized testing is absolutely the worst part of my job, and if it became the whole of my job, I would be miserable.

As a tutor, the extent to which you can support and guide stressed out teens is somewhat limited. You can be a listening ear and an encouraging voice. Help them put the test in perspective: The SAT is important, but it’s only one factor colleges consider; they have plenty of time to prepare; and while some colleges are very selective, most colleges admit most of the students who apply. You can also highlight for the students how much they’ve grown over time, which is sure to be very motivating.

How can you stop feeling so terrible? Well, the SAT is sort of a scam, but it’s an admission requirement for most colleges right now. If nothing else, you can console yourself with the fact that you’re helping students gain admission to college. Perhaps you could also volunteer your tutoring expertise for free to a student whose family cannot afford to pay for the service? If you reach out to the counselors at the local public high school, they could probably connect you with a motivated student.

One possible silver lining of all of this? I know the job market is terrible right now, but perhaps these feelings of yours could be the motivator you need to examine your life, your skills, and your long-term career goals, and you can do some thinking about a possible career change. Good luck!

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

Last year, my son’s seventh grade math teacher was constantly frustrated with him because his work was inconsistent. He understood the material when it was presented and could engage with the material, but he would often fail to turn in assignments. This was true even when the teacher saw him working diligently on the assignment in class. He has had the same math teacher this year, and the teacher made an important discovery: My son has a lot of gaps in his knowledge that are mostly fifth grade math standards.

Fifth grade was a bad year for him at school, so it seems reasonable that my son figured out a lot of workarounds and shortcuts to help cover up these issues. His teacher was helping him fill in some of these learning gaps pre-pandemic, but obviously his teacher’s ability to do that has changed. Do you know of an inexpensive assessment that could help me figure out what his gaps are? I’m less concerned about the gaps themselves, and I more want my son to feel like a confident math student.

—Playing Catch-Up

Dear Playing Catch-Up,

I checked in with some elementary teachers I know, and yes, I can point you toward some diagnostics that provide reasonably accurate assessments of students’ skills. However, I’m a little puzzled about why you’d need them. Even if your son’s teacher has limited time and ability to personally instruct him, it sounds like that teacher has a strong understanding of your son’s needs. If you haven’t already done so, I think the information you’ll get by reaching out and asking about which concepts to focus on will be much more personalized and targeted than what a computer assessment can provide. You could also ask for the teacher’s observations and feedback about your son’s habits and performance as a learner overall, because, to be honest, it sounds to me like there’s a bit more going on than residual deficits from his rough year in fifth grade. (In particular, the observation that he seemed to be processing and understanding his work in the moment doesn’t quite square with the explanation that he has foundational gaps in his knowledge. I’d talk to his teacher about that some more.)

That said, if you’ve already tried communicating with the teacher and it hasn’t been helpful, try IXL or MobyMax to pinpoint the skills where your son most needs improvement. Both sites also have tools for him to practice those skills once you identify them. However, I’ll add that you’ll see far more growth if he can work with someone who can talk him through the process of solving the problems; practicing without correcting the underlying misunderstandings is more likely to frustrate than to help. For that, my colleague also recommended the supports provided by Great Minds’ Eureka Math curriculum. You can find parent tipsheets, homework helpers, and grade-level road maps.

Good luck! Continuing to slug away at distance learning is no easy task for anyone, but it’s a tremendous challenge for kids who already needed academic support. I wish you the best.

—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)

I recently qualified to teach English abroad as an English language teacher. By recently qualified, I mean I qualified on March 3. Unsurprisingly, I’ve been unable to work since then! I intended to do some online tutoring to keep my skills fresh, but my laptop broke a few days after I qualified, and the one I ordered has gotten lost in the postal system. I’ve got a job waiting for me abroad, but obviously that wait might go on a fair bit longer. Do you have any suggestions for how I can keep my skills fresh—or at least stop them from atrophying too much—while I wait for international travel to be safe again?

—Almost Teaching

Dear Almost Teaching,

Oof, you’re in a tough spot! I hope by this time your computer situation has resolved and you’re able to connect to the internet. There are a million online teaching resources, and my first recommendation is to look around. When I’m looking for inspiration for how to tackle a new unit, I typically Google my subject, topic, and grade level, sift through until I find something appropriate, and then revise it to suit the requirements of what I’m teaching. Of course, there are dedicated teaching websites and Pinterest boards, but I’ve never found one that’s so extensive or expansive that it satisfied all my needs.

You mentioned online tutoring. I wasn’t sure if you meant you were going to get tutored or you were going to tutor others. There are a number of websites, like VIPKid, that pair English-speaking teachers with students around the world. One of my friends does that, and she says it’s fun, she makes her own schedule, and the pay is pretty good.

Whether your computer has arrived or not, one thing I recommend is to look at everything around you through the lens of a lesson. When I taught English abroad, some of my favorite lessons were based on segments from news magazine shows like 60 Minutes or 20/20. My students found the segments’ length (10–20 minutes) reasonable, and the enunciation of the anchors and correspondents was very clear, making it easier for English language learners to understand. The segments also focused on one topic, which allowed us to work on specific vocabulary. And finally, the stories were memorable and provided us touchstones we could reach back to in later lessons.

Another thing I did was share favorite songs; we would examine phrasing and vocabulary and idioms. And I didn’t have access to a kitchen, but I’d sometimes show students a recipe of a common American dish. That led to discussions of flavor, texture, ingredients, taste, and culture, not to mention imperative mood.

My most successful lessons start with a standard I’m trying to teach, and then I ask myself what kind of experience the students could have to learn it.

Whatever happens, your drive and passion are evident, and you’re going to do a great service to your students. Bon voyage!

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

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