Care and Feeding

Should My First Grader Join a Learning Pod?

Boy holding a paper airplane
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by tylim/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.

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I have a rising first grader who is at medium risk for COVID complications. We have already taken the district’s option to opt out of in-person school. We are looking for options to ease our schedule (two working-from-home parents) and give our child some social development. One option is to form a learning pod with a few other kids from their class to have smaller exposure than the full class, and hire a teacher to facilitate and expand virtual learning provided by the school. The group would rotate homes, have class outdoors (weather permitting), and the kids would wear masks indoors. Pros: Kids from school all at the same pace, and my impression is that many parents from our school are doing this. Cons: My kid doesn’t love wearing masks for extended periods; play would still be limited to what’s safe and relatively distanced; and the group of parents is fine, but there might be some drama that I just don’t need.

A second option is my kid spending the day with their beloved music teacher, who home-schools her kids. She has offered to take my child on; we would be in a bubble together, and we are on the same page in terms of the level of precautions we take with this virus. Pros: No masks, no COVID-related limits on play, no foreseeable drama, so I think it would be less stressful. It’s a smaller group than option one, so that lowers our chance of virus exposure. Cons: Even if they keep up with school assignments, my kid would go into second grade not having interacted with anyone in their class/grade/school for 1.5 years (we’re assuming a vaccine won’t be available this academic year but would love to be wrong!).

The financial costs to these arrangements are similar. My mental health would be better with option two, but I can handle option one if I need to. What’s better for my kid? Is the social angle with the small group, and knowing they’ll be at the same pace as others in their class, worth the stress?

—Option One or Two?

Dear Option One or Two,

I think you answered your own question. Option two is the better choice for you and your kid.

First, masks vs. no masks: Not having to wear a mask is a huge bonus. Rising first graders are tiny people. Tiny people often won’t wear masks or won’t wear them correctly. Sometimes they’ll swap with a friend or use them to carry snacks or caterpillars, less than sanitary stuff.

Second, potential drama vs. beloved music teacher: No brainer.

Third, limited play vs. unlimited play: The financial cost is similar, but—you know this—unlimited play is worth a million dollars.

Fourth, more exposure vs. less: You say your kid is at medium risk. COVID-19 is not something to gamble with. Go with less.

Fifth, socialization with classmates vs. socialization with music teacher’s kids: Your child can solidify their friendships with classmates when scientists develop a vaccine.

And (maybe most) importantly, parent stress vs. better parent mental health: You are a person whose needs should be taken into account. Even when the ledger is skewed to the other side, parents should consider what will be least stressful for themselves. All the social and educational benefits don’t outweigh a parent who can tend to their child’s needs because their own are being met.

Option two, for the win.

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

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My younger son, going into seventh grade, did not enjoy the transition to online school back in the spring. I believe it was a combination of no interaction with teachers; being asked to watch lots of instructional videos for each assignment; difficult concepts, especially in math; and that it would take him all day to complete the assigned tasks.

My husband and I both work from home right now, and we took turns helping him with questions. He gave it a solid month, but by May my husband and I essentially stood behind him trying to keep him focused. He would become frustrated and angry, even throwing things, breaking things, crying, etc. That also led him to put off starting work until later and later in the day, which snowballed into him being angry that it was 6 p.m. and he was still doing work.

We all agree that his workload was insane: The district said it should only take 30 minutes per core class, but each of those would take him hours. One of his classes even provided helpful suggestions on how to manage the work, but he used them for a week and gave up. My husband and I started off positive and encouraging, but after a while, we got frustrated too, from having to nag him every day to start his assignments. School starts in a couple of weeks, virtually again, and we are worried about this cycle of frustration starting up again. We will work on our side to be positive and encouraging, but we don’t know how to start off on the right foot and keep going in the right direction. Do you have any recommendations?

—Frustrated Parents

Dear Frustrated Parents,

I’m sorry. This sucks, all of it. It sounds like your spring was brutal, and if you are anything like me, the idea of a semi-normal return to school and work in September was the life raft you gripped with both hands through March and April. I know I had to take a few beats to wallow in the grief and rage of losing it, and you might too—and so might your son. The difficulties he experienced in the spring are, from what I’ve heard, not unusual. Group adherence to the structure, norms, and expectations of the school environment is powerful for kids, and the absence of that cohesion, momentum, and accountability left many of them struggling to function. He’s probably sitting with his own sense of loss and dread at the thought of repeating the patterns of the spring, too. So that’s my first bit of advice: Let it be terrible for a bit before moving on to solutions, and let it be terrible for him, too.

But it’s solutions you came here for, so here’s what I’ve got. First, I would try to approach with a sense of tentative optimism. Anecdotally, I think a lot of districts and teachers have truly committed to making meaningful and substantive improvements to virtual learning, and for many students, their experience this fall will be more interactive, specific, and engaging than the do-it-yourself bundle of videos and worksheets that they received while their districts were in crisis mode. Certainly, that will not be true everywhere or for everyone, but I do think you can hope for, and expect, better.

It’s not clear to me from what you wrote whether his assignments were objectively impossible to complete in 30 minutes per class even if he were focused and efficient, or if it was his emotional response that dragged the work on so interminably. If it’s the former, be communicative with his teachers. Give the feedback; ask for help.

Next, try to capture a little bit of that freshly-sharpened-pencils-and-blank-paper September energy. You might have to tread a bit carefully, because your average seventh grader is going to balk at efforts that land as too effortful, but a bit of reinvigoration and fresh-start tone-setting might help, just as it does at the beginning of any typical year. Could he get a few new outfits? Would he like to choose a few decorations for the space he usually works from, or pick a new seating arrangement? I’d think about what you’ve done to mark the occasion of a new school year in the past, and try, as much as you can, to give him some continuity by replicating those small acts of celebration.

Finally, you should talk as a family. I think a bottom line that you can all agree upon is that something needs to change, because the way spring unfolded didn’t work. Not for your work needs, not for your household peace and relationships with each other, and not for his own well-being. A seventh grader is old enough to self-reflect with at least moderate success. Ask him to do some pondering in advance—what made distance learning so grueling for him, and what might help?—and then schedule a family meeting. Bring snacks. Bring some paper to take notes. And then try to problem-solve together.

Try to keep the conversation’s focus to what you each can control. Listen to his ideas, and come prepared with a few suggestions of your own: A layered schedule with frequent breaks for enjoyable activities? Incentives for positive choices like starting schoolwork without a fight? Removing yourselves (and maybe some of the emotional charge) from the situation and letting his chips fall where they may? I would come up with a plan A and a plan B together, and “removing yourselves from the situation” should stay on the table as plan C, with “talking to a therapist” as a possible subpoint of that plan. You know that it’s untenable for everyone to spiral downward together every day, and I’m sure it’s really hard to watch him experience these big feelings and battles with himself, so at a certain point, if nothing improves even with all your efforts, it might be time to dial in some outside support. I think you’ll be able to sense when that point is. Good luck.

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

I have always been pretty loosey-goosey about child development and academics outside of school, assuming that my 6- and 4-year-olds would get most things they need from play, reading, and one-on-one time with their parents.

My 6-year-old started her kindergarten year last year in a language immersion school, where the teacher speaks a target language I do not know. My approach remained pretty loosey-goosey during the school year—we’d occasionally go over the vocabulary PowerPoints the teacher sent home, but again, I mostly followed my kiddo’s lead after school (lots of reading, cooking together, and playing).

Then, of course, quarantine started. We slogged our way through looonnnnng Zoom meetings (I thought it was important for her to keep hearing her teacher speak the target language), and I let her pick and choose assignments she found interesting. It certainly wasn’t the typical last quarter of school, but I still felt fine about it.

School is approaching, and I’m suddenly starting to get really anxious about her retaining the language skills she learned early in the year (especially because it’s looking like she may not get in-person learning this fall!). But she shows basically zero interest in anything in her target language—not books, not cutesy YouTube songs, not an app she loved during the school year.

Do I continue my generally loosey-goosey approach to academics, or is there something special about language immersion that means I should push her a little more? (Her teacher has sent home all sorts of activities and has expressed that it’s very important that we continue to read and work in the target language, but … it’s summer! We want to swim and make homemade popsicles!)

—Summer Is Fleeting

Dear Summer Is Fleeting,

I’m with you. Swimming and homemade popsicles sound like an excellent way to spend a summer day.

While I would continue to invite your daughter to engage in her target language through videos, music, and gentle reminders about her favorite app, I would not pressure your daughter to engage. It will likely do more harm than good in terms of her enthusiasm for the language, and will only serve to spoil these last precious days of summer.

In the age of COVID-19, I think these relaxing, carefree summer days are more important than ever. The school year is going to be a challenging one for everyone concerned, regardless of what models of learning are used. Let her final lazy days of summer be spent with fun-filled family time that makes your daughter happy.

Making popsicles and swimming are just as important as her target language, and maybe more so.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

I have a son who is almost 2 years old. I know that it will be years before he goes to kindergarten, but I am wondering what skills teachers expect incoming kindergartners to have, and what my husband and I can do to make sure my son has those skills by the time he gets to kindergarten?

—Never Too Soon

Dear Never Too Soon,

You say your son is almost 2. I read that as “not even 2.” Not even 2? I get that kindergarten can be stressful—I started my teaching career in New York City, which has kindergarten entrance exams—but seriously. In double his lifetime (almost 4), he will still be a year away from kindergarten if not more. So maybe slow your roll a little bit.

What you should be doing is letting your toddler be a toddler. He’s probably just coming into language (saying sentences of two or more words and following simple directions), beginning to grasp his own autonomy (saying no—and, by the way, get used to that! The so-called terrible twos are, in my experience, way worse at age 3), and showing early gross motor development (imitating adults or other children, running, kicking a ball). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a very nicely organized website with developmental milestones. The most important things to focus on right now are fostering his independence, helping him to develop those gross motor skills, and building a positive relationship with him. You can start planting the seeds for a love of learning at this age, as well as music, scientific curiosity, etc., but all that is secondary to letting him begin to express his own curiosity and interests.

As for kindergarten—what will his teachers expect? Honestly, nothing special. We don’t have a federal universal preschool requirement, and the smaller universal pre-K programs (like New York City’s) are relatively new, so kindergarten teachers walk into the classroom on day one with the expectation that their kids have never even been away from home before. They start with the most basic rules of school, like learning how to sit and wait, listen, follow instructions, and spend time with their peers.

If you live in an area where most parents do send their kids to preschool and you aren’t planning on it, there are standards for preschools as well. Sort of like the Common Core but aged down. You can Google them for your state—here are New York’s. Most of these skills, you’ll notice, are similar to the milestones for a 5-year-old, at least in terms of social-emotional development, gross and fine motor, and language. Which brings me back to my original point: Your son is a year old. Let him be a toddler first.

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

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