Care and Feeding

My Child’s School Has Outsourced All Teaching to an Online Program

Girl looking bored in front of a laptop
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos 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 askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Due to COVID, my child’s public school in Hawaii is all online this fall, which is understandable, and I’m all for it. However, during distance learning my child has to use a program called Acellus to learn on their own. A teacher comes on for 30 minutes at the beginning of class to take attendance, then leaves for the rest of the day, and then jumps back in 30 minutes before class ends to make sure work has been turned in and to say, “See you tomorrow.” And just like that, class is done. My niece who goes to the same school doesn’t even have a teacher that reports in every day. In fact, my niece hasn’t seen her teacher at all. I’ve asked other parents in the school about this, and they’ve all had the same experience—either no teacher or just a very quick check-in and checkout, with the kids left to do their work entirely on their own.

I’ve contacted the school, but the people in the office I’ve spoken with all tell me that distance learning will provide no live instruction. I’ve asked for the principal, but he’s not there and has not called me back. I really don’t want to be That Parent, but I’m really worried about how my child will learn. Are there any other options to voice my concern to the school?

—The Teacher Is Missing

Dear TTIM,

It is unusual that students are getting so little interaction with their teachers. I wonder if there is a teacher shortage in your area? Or if a significant number of teachers don’t have child care? If I were you, I would schedule a phone conversation with your daughter’s teacher to learn about the rationale for this model. She may be more forthcoming over the phone than in email.

It’s also very strange that you can’t get the principal to take your calls. Certainly these are challenging times, but school leadership should be communicating the plan with families. If your school has a PTA, that is a venue where parents can band together (virtually, of course) to redress their concerns. You should also contact your school board representative—and encourage other parents to do the same.

I personally have no experience with Acellus, but a cursory Google search gives me the impression that it is a questionable program. Unfortunately, it is also widely used in your state. Parents may need to voice their concerns with a higher authority, like your state Department of Education and members of Congress.

In this instance, I don’t think you’re being “That Parent.” You’re advocating for quality education for children at your school. I fear this may be an uphill battle, and for that I’m sorry. In the meantime, do what you can to get books in the house and encourage your daughter to read every day. Her online program may be subpar, but reading is always beneficial.

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

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I have a 7-year-old boy who shows a lot of the classic symptoms of ADHD. He’s unable to sit still or quietly, has so much energy, has a lack of focus, constantly interrupts me, etc. We’re doing remote learning this year, and it’s already a battle every day. He has two 30-minute classes each day, and I have to sit with him to make sure he pays attention, isn’t causing distractions, etc.

We’ve been working with a therapist to work on self-soothing strategies and ways to get energy out productively, but it’s really difficult as that is also remote and it’s almost impossible to get him to talk to her and listen at all.

I brought this up with his doctor a couple of months ago, and they said they could see some of the symptoms (as he was going absolutely insane during the appointment), but that in order to diagnose him, they would have to have a note from his teacher about how his behavior was affecting him and/or disrupting the class. But since there’s no in-person school for potentially the whole year, I don’t really know what to do. I am working full time from home and managing his schedule on top of that. Every day is a struggle that often results in tears or tantrums. I feel like I’m going crazy, and I don’t know what to do at this point.

Is there another way to convince the doctors to maybe try treatment? Is it bad to consider medication for a 7-year-old? I don’t really know what to do, but it does seem to worsen as time passes rather than improve. Any suggestions?

—Yearning for a Diagnosis

Dear Yearning,

You have a couple of options that will likely work.

First, if your son was in school prior to the pandemic, his teacher from last year could provide you with the requisite note, if they noticed the same things then that you are seeing now.

If that doesn’t work, I think your son’s current teacher will still be able to comment on this, even though school is virtual this fall. As a teacher who taught virtually last spring, I could identify the students who struggled with attention, and I could absolutely identify the students for whom their attention and behavior affected their learning. You’re not asking the teacher for a diagnosis—just an acknowledgment that it appears as if your son’s struggles are affecting his learning.

I’ll also add that you may want to get a second opinion. While a teacher’s input is almost always used as a part of a diagnosis, it’s not absolutely necessary, and in these unprecedented times, accommodations should be made given the unique circumstances. We can’t allow students to go without the assistance they may need simply because of the pandemic. I consulted with a handful of administrators and school psychologists, and they agreed. Best practices dictate the inclusion of teacher input in any potential diagnosis, but it’s not required. Perhaps the laws in your state are different than mine, but it might be worth checking with another doctor.

Best of luck.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

My brother and sister-in-law have two sons, 4 and 5, who I babysit often. My older nephew can be a handful. He throws fits, refuses to eat anything, and generally doesn’t listen to them. Recently he’s begun hitting other children in day care when they don’t want to go along with whatever he’s doing. He now has a therapeutic staff support worker that sits with him for some of the day, and he says it’s because he’s “bad” and the other kids don’t like him. He’s smart as a whip and is already reading independently, but socially he’s just not there yet.

Here’s the thing: When he comes to my house, he doesn’t act like this. I’ve set very firm expectations right from the start that fits and hitting will not be tolerated, and he will eat at the table with us or go home hungry. He listens. We play, sing songs, run around, and then he helps me clean up the toys, eats his dinner without complaint, and typically has a great attitude about all of it. Meltdowns are pretty rare. His parents also use an experienced sitter who agrees with me that she has not seen the issues to the extent they describe.

My brother has confided in me that he’s begun taking him to a therapist who has diagnosed him with autism and oppositional defiant disorder. They plan to put him in a special school for kids with behavioral issues when he begins kindergarten this fall, and they refuse to consider letting him start next year. I’ve worked in the child development field for almost 20 years and do not agree with this diagnosis at all. Aside from occasionally ignoring you when you call his name while he’s playing, he displays none of the indicators for autism.

My brother and sister-in-law both work crazy shifts for their jobs and don’t spend as much time with the boys as they’d like. I often see them cave to his demands when he begins to get upset because they want their time with him to be enjoyable. They are rarely on the same page about discipline, bedtimes, feeding routines, etc. They have also started trying to “correct” the hitting by slapping his hands, so he will see it’s not nice. They compare him to his little brother who is, by all measurements, an easy kid.

They see the stark contrast in behavior as proof that there must be something wrong with him.

I’ve tried to gently suggest that they may be making it worse by speaking so openly about and accommodating his so-called problems, but I have no kids of my own so my opinion is dismissed. I also think they have so convinced themselves of his disorders that they look for fault in everything he does.

I know it can be difficult for parents to accept that something they’re doing is contributing to the problem, but it seems the more they reinforce that he has special needs, the worse his behavior gets.

I love this kid and I’ve seen how great he can be and, in fact, often is. My question is, do you think my instincts are right? And if so, should I keep speaking up or just keep my mouth shut? My brother and sister-in-law are becoming annoyed with me. I know they think they are doing the right thing (maybe they are?) by carting him around to service providers looking for answers, but I’m just not convinced my nephew is the one with the issues. Because of my job, I’ve also witnessed a TON of incompetence in my town’s mental health service providers (the for-profit school he’ll be attending routinely takes kids with needs they are not equipped to meet), so it’s possible that I’m looking at this through a biased lens. Please help me get some perspective here.

—Can’t See the Forest for the Trees

Dear Can’t See the Forest,

I can’t diagnose this child, and neither can you. I want to make that very clear. I’m not a diagnostician, and even if you are a diagnostician, you know as a worker in the child development field that rule one is that you cannot objectively view those close to you. While we can have our opinions about the diagnosis, we can’t really assess it and determine if it’s the right diagnosis for him.

I’m also not a family counselor, but I can tell you if this disagreement is already causing tension between you and your brother, you trying harder to tell him he’s wrong (either more often or more emphatically) isn’t going to help. It’s just going to make him not trust you and decrease his social supports and, importantly, your nephew’s supports. It may also make your brother less likely to leave your nephew with you, which doesn’t sound like what you want. (The only reason I would intervene more strongly would be if you were concerned for his safety—if, for example the hand-slapping starts to set off a mandated reporter red flag, or if they want to medicate him without trying anything else first. Medication is considered a “most restrictive” intervention because it’s chemically changing a child’s brain. Often we as a society do medicate kids easily, but we should always try therapy first, especially since many of these medications, such as ADHD meds, have adverse effects on children.) What you can do instead is be there for them and offer help in whatever way is comfortable.

As for whether your instincts are “right”? I can’t speak specifically to that. But you could look back over the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. When the  American Psychiatric Association changed the criteria between the DSM-4 and the DSM-5, it broadened the definition for ASD to incorporate previously separate diagnoses such as Asperger’s syndrome, Rett syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, or PDD-NOS, under one umbrella. As a result, a much larger population of kids are being diagnosed with ASD, and many of them don’t display the “typical” or “classic” symptoms of autism.

I’m not a fan of this change personally, but what I try to tell parents or other professionals who are struggling with it is that diagnosing children is more of a means to an end. When we diagnose adults, we can ask about their experiences (think about those surveys you can take at a therapist’s office where you rate your depressive or anxious symptoms—we don’t have those for kids!). When doctors diagnose kids, they often pick a diagnosis that best matches the treatment plan that makes the most sense for a child. In that respect, ASD is the “best” diagnosis for many kids because it opens the most doors for treatment. Is your nephew autistic? I don’t know—I’ve never met him. Would he benefit from behavioral intervention, parent training, counseling, and speech services (especially for feeding)? Sounds like it. In that case, ASD isn’t a terrible diagnosis for him. I’m generally wary of an ODD diagnosis because the reality is that oppositional defiance is rare, but it’s also possible that providers will change that diagnosis if he shows a response to the services provided for the ASD. As long as they’re not medicating him (which is difficult or impossible to “reverse,” unlike therapeutic intervention), none of the services will harm him and they should all help him improve his daily life, which is a net positive no matter the “reason” he’s prescribed these services.

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

My daughter is 6 years old and is starting first grade. She has always been a strong-willed, opinionated, and often recalcitrant child. These strident traits are mixed with amazing creativity, sweetness, and intelligence. She can be quite sensitive to new experiences and criticism. That being said, her former teacher said that she sometimes does not listen to the instructions of adults (for example, she keeps running in the hall despite being told not to), lacks focus during assignments even though she can do the work, and talks too much during work periods. She needs to be reminded repeatedly not to do these things by her teachers.

I’m not at all surprised, as these things also happen at home. She often ignores our requests or dilly-dallies until I have to threaten to take away a privilege—then a meltdown ensues. She can be very difficult to motivate: Sticker charts, earning points, and promises of something special haven’t worked well in the past. Taking things away (such as TV time) tends to motivate her but also causes a huge eruption. I generally take report cards for first graders with a grain of salt, but her selective hearing and lack of respect for adults is concerning. Is this normal? Do you have any suggestions on how to manage this at school and at home?

—Still Learning to Listen

Dear Still Learning to Listen,

Well, I sure hope it’s normal, because it sounds like your 6-year-old and my 5-year-old would love to get together and have a grand old time ignoring us both! My daughter’s temperament is upbeat and mellow—strong opinions and meltdowns would be her younger sister’s domain—but her response to rules and directions is often what I would call “breezy disregard,” and she tends to wander off course from the task at hand. She, too, got fairly regular feedback from her teacher about this last year. (It was a good learning experience for me to be on the receiving end of the pulled-aside hallway update for a change!)

My primary strategy with my daughter is to set her up for success. So, if she’s going to be in a situation where following directions will be a high priority, I set expectations with intention, in advance. That means that I sit with her for a focused conversation; I give her short, clear directions and an explanation of what will happen if the directions aren’t followed; and I ask her to repeat those expectations back to me. My girl is very responsive to praise, so in these instances I often provide her with some “postgame analysis” of what she did well, in which I recap the details of her good choices and self-control, and prompt her to recount her successes to her aunt and grandparents. I also regularly prompt her with simple reminders and catchphrases. Some of our favorites are inspired by Daniel Tiger’s parents in Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, like “one-time ask, then stay on task,” which is in heavy rotation these days. Setting your daughter up for success also means, when possible, choosing situations that reduce the necessity of directions and correction at all. (There is a reason you will almost always find us taking an afternoon walk on the wide, quiet path through the park rather than on our own fairly busy street, and it isn’t the scenery.)

When all of that doesn’t work, I try to make the consequences as closely tied to the behavior and its outcome as I can. The language I use is “making it right.” So, for example, if something gets broken or spilled after she’s been told for, truly, the kajillionth time not to run laps between the kitchen and living room, then she needs to make it right by helping with a chore or a household task. Taking away valued but random privileges like TV time feels arbitrary and lessens the teachable moment of the consequence.

Parenting articles and books can be helpful, too (though I caution you that there is a point of diminishing returns where reading too much feels defeating). A lot of people like Janet Lansbury’s articles and podcast, and my favorite resource is the down-to-earth and strategy-based How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen by Joanna Faber and Julie King.

Finally, though … she is who she is. Your daughter, and mine. Kids come by their personalities naturally, and while we can respond to them in ways that feel more or less effective, the challenging qualities are part of the package. I will note that I am keeping an eye on the potential for ADHD as my daughter grows; her dad has the inattentive type of ADHD, which manifests differently than the hyperactive or combination type, and especially so in girls. But mostly I think you need to keep on keeping on, celebrating her strengths and parenting through the difficulties, supporting and teaching her but also accepting her as is.

—Ms. Bauer

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