Care and Feeding

My Daughter Needs More Challenging Work at School

Should she skip a grade?

A girl raises her glasses while sitting cross-legged and holding a book.
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 or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My question involves looking ahead to the next academic year. I have reason to believe that my school district will opt to “socially promote” all students to the next grade, simply because factoring in multiple learning environments and online access issues while grading could put too many students at a disadvantage, which I understand.

If this is the case, would it be shortsighted to consider having one of my children skip a grade? She is currently in second grade, but she has been working above level for most of the year in most areas. My concern is that next year she’ll have weeks of wasted school time while students who were running behind are caught up to a level that she’s already passed. The schoolwork she’s completing now (most of which seems like busy work) is already causing her to lose motivation to do her work as well as she’s capable of. If you think that’s a bad idea, do you have suggestions for how to keep her engaged with school?

—To Skip or Not to Skip

Dear Skip,

I am almost always opposed to students skipping grades. While keeping children engaged and progressing academically is important, the social development that a student undergoes is just as important, and skipping grades can create problems in this regard, both in terms of a loss of a year of socialization and the disparity in age that results.

Your child will be in school for at least 13 years and probably many more. This relative sliver of time in the grand scheme of her education is not meaningful enough to risk all that comes with skipping a grade.

Skipping a grade would also artificially abbreviate your daughter’s childhood. It means that she loses a year at home by leaving for college a year early, and it means she launches her adult life a year early too. Childhood is far too precious to shorten it by a year in order to maximize academic progress.

I suspect that most students and teachers feel that much of the learning taking place over these past three months has been, to some degree, busy work. When you can’t teach a student side by side and be available to assist in ways small and big, the learning must be highly accessible and well-suited for independence, which is not always the best way to challenge a child. My students have made solid academic growth during this pandemic, and those especially suited for independent study or those with parents able to fully assist in the learning have done well. But even in these cases, parents and students recognize the limitations of this kind of learning.

Rather than trying to keep her engaged in school, I suggest keeping her engaged in learning. As long as she is accessing her mind to learn something new, that new thing can be almost anything. I have students studying iPhone photography, coding, sign language, cooking, gardening, and mythology at the moment. These students are pushing themselves beyond the curriculum, and I offer them ideas and support to pursue this learning. They are not advancing across the mathematics curriculum or extending their understanding of U.S. history, but they are learning, thinking, and problem-solving. That should be the goal. My suggestion is to find something your daughter loves and find a way for her to learn or advance this skill.

My friend, for example, had his daughters open their own Etsy store online in order to sell the beaded necklaces they make. The girls designed the site and learned to upload inventory, track purchase and costs, and more. He did this because his daughters expressed interest in entrepreneurism.

Find something that your daughter is excited or curious about, and allow the enthusiasm to grow from there. It’s a far better way—and perhaps the best way—to engage your child in learning.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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My daughter, who turned 4 at the end of February, is about to complete her first year of preschool, and she has had some trouble adjusting to it. While she’s been home since mid-March due to COVID-19, her teachers have told us that when school was in session, she sometimes would run around the room screaming when she felt frustrated. (This apparently occurred more during transitions or if she was struggling with a task.)

This behavior is obviously disruptive to the other nine students in her class as well as to her teacher. The classroom does have a corner that students can opt to utilize to calm down, and apparently my daughter occasionally used that. But more often than not, her teacher’s tactics to get my daughter to stop were to tell her that if she didn’t stop screaming she would have to go home, which worked.

I don’t feel that my 4-year-old being told she’ll be sent home is appropriate. I also don’t like it because I think eventually my daughter won’t stop when she’s told this, and … then what? How do I address this with the school in the fall? What should I do to advocate for my daughter?

—Empty Threats

Dear Empty Threats,

I do not understand teachers who think “If you do X, you will be sent home” is an effective tactic. It’s not. Think about the behavior contingency that the child is learning: If I do X, I get to go home from school, where demand is lower and one-on-one attention likely higher. So every time a child wants to escape from a demand or wants more attention, they’re going to emit that behavior. Furthermore, even if the child does not want to be sent home (which is what we want), if a teacher dangles that threat over a child’s head, it means their authority comes from a child’s fear of parental interception, rather than any authority of the teacher’s. That’s bad classroom management. As teachers, we want (or should want) kids to listen to us because they trust us, or they want to please us, or because they know we are here to help them. Not because, if they don’t, Mommy’s going to get mad.

The other problem with this tactic is that your daughter is not being taught to deal with her frustrations, regulate her emotions, or approach a task that seems difficult, all skills she will need to cope with life.

So: What to do? You’re right not to approve of this, and you should address it. I know I say this often in this column, but the first step is (and always should be) talking to her current teachers directly. While I normally tell parents to hear the teacher’s reasoning out first, in this instance, I think the teacher is so wrong you have a right to call them out on it: “I agree that she can’t run around screaming, but threatening to send her home is not reasonable.” If that feels too aggressive, you could try: “I see how this behavior is inappropriate and disruptive, but I want to make sure she is learning coping skills she needs so that she doesn’t have to resort to tantrums when things get difficult. What can we do together to help her build those skills?”

If the teacher does not respond well to that, I would ask for a meeting with the teacher and whoever else at your school handles behavior management—the principal and any psychologists or social workers or whatnot. If her behavior is so bad that sending her home truly is their only recourse (which I sincerely, sincerely doubt!), then you’ll need this team’s help to arrange for a behavior assessment and any possible therapeutic interventions.

To be clear, it really doesn’t sound like your daughter needs therapy or a special preschool. It sounds like she needs to be taught how to deal with difficult things without throwing a fit. Hopefully arranging this sort of a meeting should help spur everyone to address the behavior more appropriately.

Finally, whether you are able to suitably advocate for your daughter with just the teacher, or if you have need to involve her superiors, make sure that threat is no longer used. You do not want to see what happens if the threat stops being effective at getting her to behave. It won’t be pretty, so make sure it doesn’t get to that point.

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

I am a senior graduating from college in a few weeks. During my time at my university, I was helped profoundly by the administrative assistant in my academic department. I don’t think she knows how much she affected my life, but I faced a number of obstacles during undergrad that hampered my academic progress, and she was so helpful (in ways faculty often weren’t) in guiding me through university bureaucracy to still finish my degree on time.

I’d like to send her a token of my appreciation, but given that I am no longer on campus and she is working from home, I’m not sure what’s appropriate. Originally, I had planned on dropping off flowers and a card at her desk the last week of school. But since we never knew each other very well personally, it seems awkward to ask for her home mailing address to mail a present. At the same time, it strikes me as weird to send something like a gift card via email. Is there any small gift you think might be appropriate, or should I just stick to a nice thank-you email?

—Seeking Inspiration

Dear Seeking,

Congratulations! How lovely that you’re thinking of this woman who helped you get your degree on time.

I’ve gotten a million gifts over the years—coffee mugs, wall hangings, jewelry, Christmas ornaments, treats, gift cards, cash, and lots more—and I’ll tell you there’s nothing that I appreciate more, or that moves me more, than a heartfelt thank-you letter.

The best letters express sincere appreciation and offer specific examples of things I’ve done that helped the student. They talk about how my actions helped at the time and what ramifications they’ve had on the student’s future.

Simple but so meaningful.

I think an email is wholly appropriate in this socially distant time. If you want to attach an e–gift card for a restaurant that’s offering curbside pickup or delivery, she’d probably appreciate it—because who wants to make dinner again—but I don’t think it’s necessary.

I have no doubt you’ll take your degree and what you’ve learned from this woman about helping others and make the world a better place. What a way to honor her.

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

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