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 email@example.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
My 7-year-old is entering second grade in the fall and is an enthusiastic reader. In the past few months, she has gotten in the habit of reading the same books over and over, even though she has new books available. In particular, she keeps rereading the Bone graphic novel series, the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary, and the first two books of the Harry Potter series (I won’t let her move on to the third unless we read it aloud together). Her teachers have made recommendations for similar books that she might like, and she dips into them briefly and then goes back to her favorites. Should I keep pushing her to expand her horizons, or just be glad she likes to read?
—Wanting to Raise a Reader
Oh, this is an easy one! Both, but mostly the latter. Just be glad she likes to read. She’ll move on once she’s ready.
Kids love repetition—watching the same movies, singing the same songs, and, yes, reading the same books. They’re hard-wired to prefer familiarity, probably an evolutionary thing that helps keep babies close to their caretakers.
But repetition also helps kids learn. One study showed that hearing the same words in the same story helped more than hearing the same words in different stories.
In addition, the books you mentioned have layers—complex themes, characters, conflicts—so rereading them is necessary for understanding and deep analysis. I promise she’s not just settling for what’s easy or familiar; she’s getting something new each time she reads them.
At the same time, it can’t hurt to suggest new books every once in a while. Something else will catch her fancy, and then she’ll read it … probably a hundred times.
—Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)
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My kids attend school in a small, underfunded school district. When the pandemic struck, the district reached out to families and asked questions about computers and internet access at home. Four weeks after schools closed, their school starting emailing “choice boards” with basic activities that were optional to complete. (For example, my kindergartner could sort their shoes into different types as a “math” assignment. My fourth grader was told to make a Facebook status for a character in a book for “reading.”)
There was no additional teacher instruction for the entire year. I assumed that this was the standard across the entire district, and as a family, we have purchased and implemented a few different curriculums to prevent my kids from losing ground. I recently found out that the other three elementary schools in our district were all providing video instruction and distance learning to their students. I went from feeling that the district was doing the best they could in a difficult circumstance to having the awful feeling that my children will be behind all their peers across the city. I really want to reach out to the principal, because I feel like he set up his students to fail.
What is the best way to phrase this? I know this is a difficult time, but I’m genuinely angry because I feel he’s dropped the ball. Am I being out of line?
—Left Out of the Learning Party
Dear Left Out of the Learning Party,
When I first read your question three days ago, I was furious on your behalf. Outraged and appalled. You are not out of line at all. Had I written my answer three days ago, I would’ve suggested charging into the principal’s office and letting him have it.
Having the benefit of time and reflections, my answer has changed a bit. I’m still exceptionally angry on your behalf. I’m appalled that your children were denied instruction and treated so inequitably. This is a horrendous situation.
But I suggest a more strategic response. Rather than unleash your verbal ire and potentially establish a long-term, adversarial relationship, I suggest you play the long game. Your goal should be to let the principal know how upset and disappointed you are and demand an explanation but to do so in a measured, calculated way.
Tell him that you’ve learned about this disparity in instruction. Describe your feelings of anger, disappointment, and confusion. Demand an explanation. But hold your temper.
You can’t recover the previous three months of instruction for your child. But you can let the principal know how upset you are, in the hope that he feels compelled to do better in the future. He may see the light and change his ways, but he also may make improvements simply to keep you satisfied. As unfortunate as it may be, the squeaky wheel often gets the grease, even in education. Efforts are often made to convert dissatisfied parents into satisfied parents. Parents who express their displeasure in a direct, unapologetic, but polite way are often viewed in a far more positive light than a threatening, shouting, ranting parent. If you approach the situation with a degree of politeness and decorum, this principal may be more inclined to be helpful in the future.
Marching into the principal’s office and dressing him down would undoubtedly feel good, and from the sounds of things, he deserves it, but it makes no sense to burn a bridge that might prove helpful in the future.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
My son will turn 5 near the end of June, so he is slated to start kindergarten in the fall. He’s normal to slightly small size physically, but he is very outgoing and extremely curious academically. He’s been in day care for years and he likes people and school. For these reasons, I had already been through the mental debate and decided it was fine for him to go ahead and start this year even though he’ll be on the young side.
Can you teachers really tell around middle school or high school which kids (maybe boys especially) are the younger ones? And do you think it makes a big difference, or does it totally depend on the kid? Now there’s the added wrinkle of COVID-19. It seems that at most he will be doing two days a week of in-person instruction in the fall, and possibly all year, and I am skeptical that he will have a good kindergarten experience. Would it then be worth repeating kindergarten the following year if we’re back to all in-person instruction, or would he be bored to tears with the curriculum by then?
—Maybe Not Decided
While I can’t speak for middle or high school teachers, I can definitely tell who the younger students are in my second grade class. I had a student this year who was quite the handful, mostly because his maturity level was closer to that of a first grader. While he eventually came along, the beginning of the year was a big challenge—it was tough to get through a lesson without a distraction from him derailing the learning of other students. That said, it doesn’t seem like your child has the same issue, and based on what you’ve said, it doesn’t seem like being on the young side will make a big difference for him.
But I hear your concern around what learning will look like post-pandemic. Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell what this upcoming year, or even the one after, will look like academically, as schools attempt to reinforce academic skills that may not have been adequately absorbed by students.
The best advice I can give you is to go with your gut. You could certainly hold off on kindergarten for a year. Given what school reopening plans will likely look like next year, I doubt he will miss much. Most kindergarten classrooms focus on concepts like counting to 100, simple addition and subtraction, and learning sight words. That content can be easily taught remotely with a little parental support. But in my opinion, the real learning in kindergarten happens through personal interactions among students, and that can’t be achieved through distance learning. There’s a case to be made that waiting a year would offer him a possibly more enriching kindergarten experience.
I would also ask your son what his opinion is and take it into consideration. If he’s ready and excited to begin kindergarten, you could try it for the first couple of months and see how it goes. If it doesn’t work for him, you could then transfer him back to his preschool environment and start fresh in kindergarten the following year. I have had several students start the year at my school, and then drop out around December for various reasons. While this definitely isn’t my recommended path, it’s not uncommon and could be a viable solution for your family in light of these unique circumstances.
My normally bubbly, energetic, lover of learning, always willing to help out almost 9-year old has become an absolute bear these last three weeks. She always enjoyed books we’d read together during the summer, was an avid reader, enjoyed various sports, and was always very loving. Now she’s angry all the time, refuses to participate in anything around the house, lashes out when she hears the word no, storms out of the room if she doesn’t like to hear what is being said, instinctively blames us for everything (particularly things that she has done like leave her towel on floor), is so incredibly condescending, and is downright rude.
We’ve tried taking away TV, Zooms with friends, the ability to play with the neighbors, tablet time, family game time. Nothing worked. We’ve tried calmly talking to her, reiterating that negative talk won’t be tolerated. We’ve even given her less restrictions in hopes that she’ll lash out less. Nothing is working. She refuses to talk to us. We’ve still allowed her to attend summer camps (which are different then her normal camps, because all those were canceled), and she has started one sport (but she refuses to practice for another sport) in hopes that having activities and a sense of normalcy will help. It hasn’t. I feel like this quarantine is breaking her. We are at our wits’ end, and I’m terrified that if schools don’t back to normal (in person all day) in the fall, we’ll lose her forever. It is taking a massive toll on my marriage. Besides therapy (which we don’t have the funds for), what can we do before it’s too late?
—I’ve Had It
Dear I’ve Had It,
It’s hard to diagnose the problem from a distance, but my gut tells me that you may simply be dealing with a new and unfortunate developmental stage in your daughter’s life, probably exacerbated by the pandemic and all of the associated changes in your child’s life. It’s not unusual for children at your daughter’s age to begin pushing boundaries and finding it difficult to control their emotions as they become more independent human beings. You may even be dealing with some early onset puberty. Raging hormones and such.
Unfortunately, my suggestion is to ride it out as best you can, maintaining reasonable expectations but also affording her the freedom and privacy to retreat to her bedroom and disappear for as long as she wishes. You could also consult your pediatrician for advice. Doctors aren’t therapists, but they often have excellent advice in circumstances such as these.
I have some standard advice that I often give to new parents, and it might apply to you, too: Your child will adopt some incredibly annoying and frustrating behaviors over the years. The good news is that almost all of them are temporary. The bad news is that they just keep coming.
The more concerning aspect of your letter is the massive toll that your daughter’s behavior is taking on your marriage, because this is most assuredly not the only time in her life when your daughter is going to challenge you. I’d encourage you to support each other in all parental decisions and maintain a unified, team approach to managing behavior.
Remember: Your child is someday going to leave your home and start her own life, but ideally, you and your spouse will be together forever. Your spousal relationship is almost more important than the relationship you have with your daughter, because it will ultimately affect the happiness of everyone in the home. Be good to each other, even when living with a small, hopefully temporary demon.
Perhaps the toll on your marriage is pandemic-related as well. While my wife and I have saved an enormous amount of money during the pandemic by not requiring babysitters, we also know that we haven’t actually left the home and enjoyed each other’s company without the kids in what feels like decades.
This can be hard on a couple. Also completely expected given these unprecedented circumstances.
Once again, be good to each other.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
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My daughter is a freshman in high school, and she recently got an assignment in life sciences that seems inappropriate. The assignment is for the kids to identify someone in their family who died of cancer, and then students are supposed to research that kind of cancer and create a poster presentation to display for the entire school. This seems like a terrible idea, and an invasion of privacy. Should I talk to the teacher?