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 firstname.lastname@example.org or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
I am truly struggling. I’m a single mom with a 10-year-old son. I’m also living with and taking care of my immunocompromised mom. I have been working from home since March, and I have a relatively flexible work schedule. (While that means I can step away from work, I often end up working half the night to make up lost time.) Because my mom is high risk, I opted for all virtual school for my son, so he also has been stuck at home since March. We have the option at the end of this semester to switch back to in-person school four days a week. But in addition to returning to school four days a week, the school is also reducing its COVID precautions—letting kids ride together on the bus, moving desks to 3 feet apart instead of 6 feet, etc. My son did well with at-home learning in the spring and the first part of the fall, but it has been steadily downhill to the point where he cries and refuses to go to class. (Though he is still getting all the work done.)
I don’t think there is any chance my mom will be vaccinated before March, and I doubt I will be before summer. I am in my early 40s and healthy. My son started therapy in the fall because along with the sudden dislike of school, he started talking openly about not knowing what the point is of life. He’s clearly struggling, and I’m trying to do what I can to help him. COVID cases are definitely worse here than they’ve ever been, though cases at his school have been minimal. My mom is incredibly worried about putting us all at risk with him returning to school. I have no idea what to do. Thoughts?
It sounds like you’re carrying an enormous burden right now. I’m so sorry.
My first bit of advice is to be sure that in addition to your son and mother, you’re taking care of yourself right now, too. I know this might sound ridiculous given your schedule, but finding a little time for yourself is critical. Also, be sure that you have someone supportive to talk to on a regular basis, whether that is a friend, a relative, or a therapist. On the airplane, we put the mask on first so we can take care of other people. That policy applies to everyday life, too.
Second, I am glad your son is in therapy. Please continue to give him this support, as well as your loving support, as he navigates this depression and suicidal thoughts.
Now for your son and his schooling: I certainly understand your concerns. My children currently attend school four days per week, and my wife and I are both teaching full classes of students, five days a week. Sitting in a room with 19 other human beings for an entire day seems crazy at times. I worry a lot. Thankfully, strong adherence to masks and as much social distancing as possible has resulted in almost no transmission taking place in the school.
However, as I’m sure you know, new, more contagious variants of the virus are appearing, so that may change rapidly.
My wife and I made our decisions about whether to return to in-person school based on the health of our family and our willingness to isolate ourselves from our elderly and compromised family members. If I had an elderly or immunocompromised relative living with me, I suspect that we would have opted for remote learning for our children, and my wife or I would have volunteered to teach remotely, which was an option in our district.
I would look at it this way: Returning to school in March would give your son three to four months of in-person schooling. Fewer than 80 days of actual in-class instruction. If there is an April vacation mixed into the schedule, that number gets even lower. Also, the last week of school tends to be a lot less academically rigorous.
With all of that in mind, I don’t think it’s worth the risk to your mother’s health to send your son to school at this time. As difficult as this has been for so many of us, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Vaccines, the conclusion of this school year, and a fresh start in the fall are all on the horizon. Your family has made an enormous sacrifice so far to keep your mother safe and healthy. I would suggest pushing through to June. Don’t quit when the finish line is finally in sight.
If you decided to give your son a few months of schooling, and as a result, your mother became sick or even worse, it would be hard to look back and think your decision was a wise one. It would also be terrible for your son if he knew that he brought COVID into the home and got his grandmother sick.
I would encourage you to try to get through these next few months as best as possible, bringing as much novelty and joy to your lives as you possibly can. Introduce new things to your son’s life whenever possible. Give him a handful of “Skip School” coupons that he can use when he needs a break from learning so he feels some control over his life. As winter turns to spring, spend more time outdoors. If he’s into sports, see if it’s not too late to get him on a recreational team that has practice outdoors, so that he can have some in-person connection with his peers. Many families whose kids have virtual school are also organizing regular, scheduled outdoor playground or lunch meetups for their friends (say, every Tuesday and Thursday), so that their kids have a set time to see their friends. These (masked) after-school outdoor activities can be a lifeline for him. Try to make these last few months as delightful as possible, for your son, your mother, and you.
We’ve all made enormous sacrifices since March. Grit your teeth for a little while longer and celebrate with a summer of vaccines, sun, and school shopping for the coming year.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
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My second grade daughter is really struggling with math this year. It’s not that it’s hard. It’s that it’s boring and she doesn’t want to do the work of memorizing her addition tables. This is made worse by remote schooling where a significant portion of math instruction is being taught by doing problems on a computer. The program she is using flashes equations on the screen and gives her 20 minutes to complete as many as she can. She’s right, it is boring. She tries to rush through it and has determined that “most” of the answers are greater than 10 so I’ve watched her just hit “1” as soon as an equation appears on her screen. She doesn’t even look at the equation. If the answer is less than 10 she’s instantly marked wrong. If it’s not, she looks at it. On average she’s getting about 55 percent right, every day.
She’s not learning anything, and what’s even more concerning is that she’s not able to move on from this until she completes this math program. Worse, I’m worried that she’s beginning to hate math and has decided “math is boring”—an attitude that she may carry with her after this pandemic is over. My understanding is that third grade is pretty foundational, and if you don’t learn your times tables correctly, it’s a real struggle to get ahead after that.
I will admit that I may be unreasonably irritated at an “I hate math” attitude from my daughter. I am put off by people who hit one hard thing in math and decide they hate all math or they “aren’t good at math.” Most of the time they just weren’t taught one bit well and then gave up. Also, as a girl who was good at math, but often was, and still is, presumed to be bad at math because of my gender, I’m extra sensitive to my daughter saying she hates it. I had to fight to get into honors math classes in high school, which I then aced without studying. We are math people in this house. Both my husband and I have math-based jobs. If she were struggling with understanding a concept, I could work with that and help her, but she’s just avoiding memorization because it’s boring.
My husband and I work full time. The idea of spending dinner quizzing the kids on addition tables is … unappealing. Is that the only way to drill the basics into her? How do we make this more fun? Or am I overreacting and this a problem that will be solved for her when she is back in person full time next year?
Dear Math Evangelist,
First, I think you’re correct. Many of these problems will be sorted out when kids return to school next year. As teachers, we know that students will be returning to us with enormous academic needs. I have been teaching my entire fifth grade class in person, full time this year, but even so, COVID-19 mitigation protocols have made everything take twice as long. We have also dedicated considerably more time to social and emotional health this year, which has justifiably reduced academic instruction. Everyone is going to be at least a little behind in their learning.
But if you’d like to try to continue helping her with aspects of math like memorization (which is admittedly important), you can try to make it fun. A few suggestions:
1. This first idea is stolen from a parent years ago. Bounce a small, rubber ball between you and your daughter. As you are about to toss the ball, say, “5 + 8 =” then toss. Your daughter’s job is to answer before the ball bounces and lands in her hand. She then does the same for you.
2. You can compete to see who is fastest at math facts, but your daughter must solve 10 basic addition problems while you solve 10 double digit multiplication problems. Level the playing field based upon your age and experience. Many kids respond to this kind of competition (especially when they have a chance to beat their parent) quite well.
3. Create flashcards, and once the flashcard is memorized, permit your daughter to destroy the flashcard in a fantastic way. I’ve had families burn flashcards in the fireplace, run them over with cars, and fold them into paper airplanes and fly them off of tall buildings.
4. Establish a series of rewards or levels that can be achieved with mastery of the facts. Complete 25 addition problems in X minutes, for example, and receive a coupon that allows you to stay up past your bedtime. Complete an additional X addition problems in three minutes and you get to stay up late on a Saturday night, watching a movie and eating endless popcorn. Choose the things your daughter likes best and set goals. For my son, we purchased a Playmobil set but gave it to him piecemeal as he continued to meet and exceed goals. Seeing the pieces just waiting for him to master the basic facts was enormous incentive for him.
While it would be nice if our children wanted to learn for learning sake, and that may happen someday, incentive is often required. I believe that incentivizing kids through play, competition, and reasonable, attainable rewards, especially in the midst of a pandemic, makes a lot of sense.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
My soon to be 13-year-old is in seventh grade and was diagnosed a year and a half ago with mild ADHD. He mostly struggles with organization, staying on task, and putting his thoughts into words—classic executive functioning skills. We spoke to the school before sixth grade and because he did well academically there weren’t any official supports for him. However, his sixth grade teacher and principal were really good at working on this with him throughout the year and so it was a great year for him.
This year has been different. We signed him up for a camp last summer to get him organized before starting at a middle school, but it was canceled because of COVID. While he was doing well at the start of the school year—he had terrific teachers and school was in person—school recently closed due to COVID and I’m seeing some new behaviors. He’s talking incessantly, is unable to sit still, and often gets up and walks away in the middle of a conversation. I see him struggling to stay organized to finish his work. Getting him to write a single paragraph for school takes at minimum two hours, with parental “coaching” (mixed with a bit of nagging).
After the long break, he is missing his friends, his weekend sports, and his engineering activities, and I worry about his mental health. It’s frustrating and upsetting for all of us. Do you have any ideas on what we should look for in terms of virtual support to help him through this?
—Seventh Grade Struggle Bus
Between losing his outlets, supports, and structure, and the hormone bomb gearing up to detonate upon him, I have no doubt that your son is feeling utterly out of sorts. Poor guy. This sucks, and I feel for you both.
Before we talk virtual support, my very first suggestion would be, if it’s at all possible, to seek out ways to get him outdoors, more physically active, or both. I don’t know where you live or what your area’s COVID numbers are like, but it sounds like he’s an athletic kid accustomed to exercise, and with the added challenge of ADHD, I’m sure the loss of that outlet is especially acute. Research indicates that both physical activity and time spent in nature can reduce ADHD symptoms, so if he can safely do anything to give him more access to those—walking the dog, kicking a soccer ball around, whatever—I’d try it. Talking time management and organizational strategies is probably putting the cart before the horse when his brain feels this jangly and dysregulated, so if you can find a way to ameliorate that, anything you try after will be more primed for success.
Second, I suggest a little virtual support for you. To begin with, your son’s diagnosis is still quite new, and now you’re playing a larger role in his education than you ever expected to. You’re on really unfamiliar ground! I think if you can learn more about how he’s wired, and gain some strategies specific to the ADHD brain, it will help you feel more effective and confident in coaching him—and help him feel more supported and understood. I might start with this YouTube playlist presenting Russell Barkley’s “The 30 Essential Ideas Every Parent Needs to Know About ADHD.” He is an expert in the field, and these videos offer both an in-depth explanation of the disorder and a wealth of tangible, practical techniques for coping with it. I’ve also heard good things about the YouTube channel How to ADHD (and your son might like to watch some of the videos there, too).
Finally, I’m curious about how much you’ve communicated to his school since the closure. It sounds like he has great teachers that you trust—they’ll be your best resource for specific, targeted help. I’d start with the classes that have proved the biggest challenge and get in touch with those teachers to let him know how he’s struggling and ask for their suggestions. Can they provide graphic organizers to make paragraph writing less daunting? Help him prioritize or modify his assignments? Give you suggestions for helping him stay organized and focused? You could also ask his teachers or administrators for their advice about initiating a 504 plan; given that these challenges have proved mostly situational, they may or may not recommend that route right now, but it’s a question worth posing, at least.
Good luck, and I hope his school is able to reopen soon.
—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)
I’m trying to assess my expectations with my son’s Montessori-based school. He’s almost 3 and has been attending a Montessori school for about four months. We just had our first parent-teacher conference, and I was really disappointed. His teacher spoke in generalizations about him, with very little specific information about what he’s drawn to and how he spends his time. It sounds like at the beginning of the day, the kids have to choose math or reading, then they get free choice, then back to math and reading. She said if they didn’t have some time focused on math and reading, they would all only want to do activities that center around life skills. Also, she’s focused on getting them to recognize and identify numbers 1–5 and letters A–D by name, but I thought that Montessori focused more on concepts rather than memorization. Finally, although there are only four to five kids in his class, her goal is to spend time with each child twice a week, though they go to school every day. I want more information about how he’s doing, what he’s working on, and how I can support/augment what he’s drawn to at school at home. I also expected him to have more freedom. Are my expectations too high?
—Montessori or Bust
Dear Montessori or Bust,
Let me begin by saying I am not an expert in the Montessori model or Montessori schools in general. I haven’t worked in a Montessori school, so my knowledge about Montessori methods is from learning and reading about Montessori in graduate school.
It’s important to note, though, that Montessori isn’t a trademarked name, which means any school can call itself a Montessori school without having to adhere strictly to the Montessori model. It sounds like this is likely the case with your son’s school. Maybe the school uses some Montessori-style methodologies, but it may not be a member of the American Montessori Society or adhere fully to the practices of the Montessori method. That doesn’t necessarily make it a bad school, but it may explain why the school’s curriculum isn’t what you thought it would be.
Learning to identify and recognize numbers and letters is not a bad thing. Frankly, I don’t consider it memorization either. These are pre-academic skills, and developing automaticity (or fluency) with these skills is important to success in reading and early math (which are obviously fundamental to your child’s education). And even when schools offer “free choice” in the classroom, the choices offered tend to be centered around concepts that are good for kids to learn—how to sort objects, imaginary play, counting, etc. Maria Montessori herself had concepts she wanted children to learn at different ages. When children are successful with all of these skills, they will feel positive about school and have better self-esteem.
In terms of how much time the teacher is spending with your child? Assuming your child is back at school in person, she should be spending time with your child every day. Within a few weeks of school, I can usually tell parents what a child does or does not like, what activities they’re drawn to, and what some of their relative strengths and relative weaknesses are. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for you to expect the teacher to know your child.
If you’re craving more information, I would just ask the teacher what the classroom schedule looks like, and how/to what degree each activity is facilitated. I would also ask for a brief description of the activity. If it is safe where you are, I might even recommend visiting the classroom and seeing what the flow of the day is like.
Ultimately, it’s possible that she is just not the right teacher for you. If you do visit and don’t like what you see, you could look for a different preschool. He is still young and it probably will not hugely impact his education either way. My general philosophy on preschools is that if you don’t like the one you have, you might as well move.
—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)
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