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.
I have two fourth graders who have been in virtual learning since last spring. My daughter has excelled; she has a really engaged teacher who is on top of her technology and has been able to manage her students online well (relatively speaking). My son has been struggling. His teacher has trouble with the technology, and she doesn’t engage her students. My son has an IEP, which includes PT/OT/speech, as well as reading intervention and designated paraprofessional minutes each day. He also has been diagnosed with ADD but is unmedicated. He has always tested below grade level in all of his subjects, and he is generally a kind, well-behaved young man. There is no doubt that virtual learning is not the best fit for him—however, due to preexisting health conditions in family members he won’t be returning to school for the foreseeable future.
My kids split their time between my house and their dad’s house. When my son is at my house, I sit with him daily to ensure that he stays focused, participates, and does the work that his class is working on. It has not been easy. It is so hard to watch him struggle and everything seems like a battle for him, but we’ve been managing—or so I’d thought. When he is at his father’s house, his dad provides minimal supervision. At parent-teacher conferences recently, his teacher said that I am stifling his independence and she notices his increased independence while at his father’s house. She’s asked me to leave him alone for the school day. I am shocked. I talked with his resource teacher, and she was as blindsided as I am. To say I am hurt is an understatement.
Since the conference, I’ve pulled way back, and I just check very briefly on him occasionally throughout the day. It is a hell of a lot easier on me. However, he isn’t doing anything now. Almost every time I check on him he’s watching YouTube videos. He hasn’t done a problem or assignment in his school workbooks. He does some of his online work and will work in his small groups with his resource teacher and paraprofessional, but for the majority of the day nothing is getting done. He has figured out that no one is checking his workbooks, so he just pretends that he’s doing it. Handwriting is his biggest struggle, and now, because no one is sitting by him, he’s just not doing it.
So my question is what do I do now? I need someone to hold him accountable for his work, he is already behind, and him watching videos all day isn’t helping at all. The teacher has said not to sit with him and stifle his independence. I know this teacher struggles with e-teaching—the differences between my daughter’s class and my son’s class are startling. (For instance, my son’s teacher left class last week to take her dog to the vet and left two of my son’s 9-year-old classmates “in charge” for about 30 minutes! Obviously this is not OK, but maybe it’s helpful insight into her personality. I did email the principal and he was appalled as well.) How can I make sure my special kid doesn’t get lost in the shuffle? Is it OK to just write off fourth grade for a kid who already struggles?
—Left to His Own Devices
I’d venture to say most kids in remote learning are not getting the level of instruction, coaching, and engagement they would be in an in-person setting. I’m doing as good a job as I can, and most of my students have access to decent technology … and I still get sad about how it’s just not the same. I’ve had to pare down the curriculum and reduce discussion time and expect less from myself and my students. So a slowdown is not something to worry about. But what you’re seeing is not a slowdown. You’re seeing a derailment.
It’s time to communicate with your son’s teacher again. Try to leave all judgments about her teaching style, difficulty with e-teaching, and personality out of your mind. Stick with the facts: You heard her concern about your son’s independence; you’ve followed her advice and backed off; he’s not doing the work.
And then ask what’s next. Serving a special needs student is a practice of implementing a support, evaluating whether it works, and adjusting as necessary (repeat ad infinitum). You have data, anecdotal as it may be, that your son is not progressing and is possibly regressing. That means you need new research-based strategies to try. (By the way, “leave him alone” is not a research-based strategy.)
If you do this in an email, copy all involved parties—teacher, principal, EC coordinator, paraprofessionals, even specials and electives teachers (sometimes they see things or have strategies that can help in academic classrooms). If you prefer a conference, ask the EC coordinator to set it up and request that they invite all the folks above.
Be a squeaky wheel. A kind one, but a squeaky one. Do not write off your son’s fourth grade year. You’ll both regret it.
—Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)
I have a very bright and capable 15-year old sophomore who has big academic ambitions but not a lot of follow-through. My child’s grades suffer because of work not turned in and his lack of organization and discipline, not because of his ability. My mantra as a parent has always been that my kids are on their own journeys, and, while I support them, I don’t micromanage them, even with schoolwork and especially as they’ve gotten older.
I understand and truly believe that kids will go to the college that is a good fit for them and where they can succeed. I had the privilege of going to a private, small liberal arts college, and my experience there transformed my sense of self as well as my understanding of the world. I would love my kids to have that same experience, but I realize I can’t force my high schooler to join clubs, push himself academically, etc.
Do you have any ideas about how to inspire a little more mojo? Of course, as a working adult, I fully realize there are lots of path to success and his may not include the same kind of college experience I had. Do you think it makes sense to do some virtual college tours now to give him a sense of why it’s worth it to push a little harder now? Or should I recognize he’s on his own path and stop trying to nudge him to get more involved, apply himself a little more to his academics, etc.? I would hate for him to regret that he didn’t try a little harder when applying for college in a couple of years, but maybe regret is part of maturing and not the worst thing in the world.
—That Little Push
It’s true that a long résumé of activities and accomplishments can bolster a college application. And yet, many teens will not find it especially motivating to join a club so that a college will admit them in two years, since college may not feel immediately relevant.
However, joining a club might be more appealing if he got to pursue an interest, learn something new, or make friends. You might ask him to look at the clubs and activities offered at his school. My own nephew is a bright and capable student but not really a “joiner.” My sister told him he had to pick one activity to do in high school; he chose choir, and he’s still singing as a senior. You’ll have to reflect on whether this approach would work with your kiddo; sometimes, mandates backfire. But if you think he’d be amenable, there’s nothing wrong in my mind with pushing him to pursue one activity, especially if it’s his choice.
As far as virtual college trips go, I think they’re great! Most of them are quick and they don’t require a lot of planning. Plus, you get the chance to “visit” a wide variety of schools. Another resource I highly recommend is Roadtrip Nation, which has a wealth of resources for career exploration.
I know it’s hard to find the right balance: On the one hand, you want to push him to reach his full potential; on the other, you want to honor his independence and individuality. Take heart: Most colleges accept most of the students who apply. If he doesn’t have stellar grades or an impressive résumé, he can still go to college and find a rewarding career.
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How much intrinsic motivation is it fair to expect from a 7-year-old second grader? During a parent-teacher conference, my child’s teacher said that my son always answers questions when she asks and in general does what she asks but she’d like him to do more than she asks. For example, if she asks him to list two beaver facts, he’ll list two facts, but she said she’d like him to list more. If she says choose three games to play from a list of options, he chooses three, but she’d actually like him to play all of the games listed as options. I recognize he’s just doing the minimum, and sure, he could do more, but he’s still completing the assignment, right?
Dear Just Enough,
I think you should be thrilled that your son’s teacher is pushing him to expect more from himself. It would be very easy for a teacher to look at someone like your son and say, “Nothing to worry about here,” and focus her efforts on a student who is struggling to learn or behaving poorly. But the best teachers strive to help all children reach their highest academic potential. This teacher sounds like one of these excellent teachers.
It’s wonderful that this teacher seems to see greater potential in your son than he may even see himself. As long as she is not penalizing your son for his minimal efforts, and she’s encouraging him to push himself a bit, I think her efforts should be celebrated.
It’s also never too early to begin establishing positive habits and strong self-confidence. If your son learns in second grade that classroom expectations represent the minimum required, and he begins to see himself as someone who can achieve far greater things, he will be set up for a lifetime of success.
If I were you, I would thank this teacher and support her in any way possible.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
I am the parent of a wonderful fourth grader with an anxiety disorder. All his life, he has had a hard time with “challenges”: Things that are too hard trigger his anxiety and he folds up, making himself physically small, and often falls into a spiral of shame and anger. If things are going well, he will say that the task is stupid; if they’re not, he’ll say that he is stupid or worse. Medication has helped. From my point of view, his judgment that something is too hard isn’t always accurate: It could be that a problem requires a few steps, all of which he can do.
He is creative, and funny, and smart, and basically on grade level in core subjects, though he rejects a lot of parts of school (like art or parts of gym). Extracurriculars are out of the question. We tried soccer, but he missed one kick and he refused to go back on the field for the rest of the season. It makes sense that he would avoid things that trigger his anxiety, since it’s obviously painful for him.
Virtual school has been a struggle. He yells at us most days, because he’s frustrated. We have worked out an arrangement where he participates in the most important parts of the day and then works with us at home and with his younger brother on a flexible list of daily activities. Both of us parents are working from home right now, though we have full-time jobs.
One of our goals for the year is to help him be comfortable with chapter books. The issue isn’t his reading level. He actually reads quite a bit. But he will only read graphic novels and comics, and when he sees a page full of text he shuts down. I have nothing against graphic novels or comics! I’ve tried to supply him with as many as I can, old and new. But we’re running out, and school is starting to require reading longer texts. Since, in general, the treatment for anxiety is exposure, I’ve tried doing a little bit of daily reading with him from books without illustrations. I’ve tried to let him pick the book. I’ve tried alternating paragraphs with him. I’ve tried rewards. I’ve tried some of the books that have some text and some illustrations. We try to get cozy and comfortable. But no matter what I do, it almost always makes him miserable. The issue isn’t that he can’t do the reading. He doesn’t have any trouble with the vocabulary or reading comprehension. The blocks of text just make him freeze up.
At the moment, I’ve let it go. His emotional needs are real needs, and he needs to know we care about his feelings. But no one seems to have any advice about how to help him through this, and it’s a microcosm of the larger challenge of parenting kids with anxiety: They need controlled exposure to the things that trigger their anxiety, but they naturally try to avoid them. Since we’re simultaneously parents and teachers right now, the balancing act is extra difficult. Do you have any advice?
—Trying to Help, Doing It Wrong
Dear Trying to Help, Doing It Wrong,
First, please dispel with any notion that you’re doing it wrong. Parenting is hard. Children are difficult. Add to that mix a pandemic and remote schooling, and it is a challenge for everyone. If you are trying, you’re doing it right.
I also think you’re very wise to recognize the likely connection between your son’s anxiety and his refusal to move beyond graphic novels and comic books. As a parent of a child who struggles with anxiety myself, I understand the challenges of introducing new and hard things to your child very well.
I have a few suggestions that might help, but the truth is that persistence, patience, and additional strategies will likely be needed before your son embraces this new kind of reading. There are no simple solutions to a problem like this except to continue to support, encourage, and strive for new ways of breaking through.
That said, here are a few strategies that have worked for me in the past:
1. Choose chapter books that have film adaptations and allow your son to watch the movies first. Many parents make the movie the reward for reading the book, but these children are often enthusiastic readers already. Allowing your son to watch the film might get him excited about the story and allow him to visualize the characters and events more clearly as he reads it. Some kids also enjoy looking for the differences between movies and books and deciding which is better.
2. Break chapter books into smaller parts by physically pulling them apart. As an author of several novels, this strikes me as sacrilege, but tearing a book into smaller pieces can sometimes make the book seem far more palatable to a child. As a kid, my friends and I would share novels this way, passing them around piece by piece, and it always made the reading seem easier and more fun.
3. Introduce your child to nonfiction texts like books, magazines, and even online text that have smaller chunks of text on a variety of subjects and, most importantly, are well illustrated with photographs, maps, drawings, art, and the like. Your child will be making the shift from fiction to nonfiction soon, and this can sometimes stimulate a reluctant reader who isn’t interested in made-up stories but is willing to read endlessly on a subject of their choice, especially if the text is book is broken up in parts by other text features. Though these kinds of books don’t constitute novels, making a shift of any kind can sometimes be productive and helpful with future changes.
4. If possible, you might also see if it’s possible to form a book club for your son and some of his friends. It may need to be over Zoom at the moment, but the chance to talk about a book with friends might be appealing. And be sure to make it special. Serve your son’s favorite treat at the meeting, or a food that ties into the book.
These are just a few suggestions. As I said, this problem will likely take time and persistence to solve. Anxiety can be challenging. I assume that since he is on medication, he also has a therapist or social worker or psychologist working with him too. Be sure to let that person know about this particular struggle if you haven’t already.
It takes a village. Make that village as large, informed, and connected as possible.
And please pat yourself on the back for working so hard on behalf of your child. Parenting is never easy, but these are especially difficult times. Parents rarely give themselves the credit they deserve. Take a moment to honor your work.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
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