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.
My oldest daughter turned 5 last March, right when everything shut down. We had planned to send her to a Spanish immersion school this past fall to start her kindergarten year. But due to our area starting the school year hybrid for all elementary students, and thinking (correctly) that it would turn to full distance learning, and after talking with some family members who are elementary teachers for their opinions, we decided to keep her out of kindergarten and send her next year. I was confident in our decision in August, wavered when I was seeing lots of first-day-of-school pictures being posted, confident when I read people’s struggles with virtual school, but am now wavering again. She has matured so much this year, and I’m so worried we’ve done her a huge disservice by making her possibly the oldest in her class as a 6.5-year-old starting kindergarten. I need some advice on if we should just say what’s done is done and move on, or if next year we should try to skip kindergarten (this would probably change our Spanish immersion school plan, as neither her father or myself speak Spanish). Basically, I’m worrying: Have we set her up poorly for the rest of her school days by making her way older than her peers?
—Is What’s Done Done?
As a general rule, and as I’ve said before, I don’t recommend holding kids back (for precisely the concerns you’re facing), but I also don’t believe that it’s irreversibly bad. First of all, holding kids back in kindergarten is more common now than hold-backs have ever been—both for maturity reasons and for academic reasons. I don’t always agree with parents’ decision to do this, but the fact remains that it happens. Your daughter is likely not to notice that she started kindergarten “late,” and neither will her peers.
As for whether this age difference can become a problem as kids get older and into middle school, I think the pandemic will make these problems less of an issue. Unfortunately, because distance learning provides such a barrier for some learners, I think we’ll see more kids than ever who’ve been held back.
I don’t believe that having her skip a year will serve her better. You can, of course, talk to a teacher about this, but she may not have the academic, social, or behavioral skills needed to be successful as a first grader yet. After all, depending on what your current child care situation is, she may not have learned the “school readiness” skills they teach at the start of kindergarten, and she may not be reading at a first grade level by the end of the year. I don’t want to say that it’s impossible, but I am as wary of grade skipping as I am of parents holding kids back. She can always be moved up a grade later in her academic career if it turns out that she is ahead of her peers, but there’s no reason to make that change now before you’ve had a chance to see how she does in school.
To me, this is very much a “what’s done is done” situation. I don’t see how skipping her a grade without any experience in school is necessarily going to help her, and I don’t see holding a child back in an unprecedentedly screwy year as all that bad a problem. It may not be what I would have recommended, but I don’t think you’ve ruined anything either.
—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)
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My middle schooler has been all virtual since the beginning of the school year. While I would say it’s gone as well as it could—my daughter has stayed focused, does her work, her teachers (for the most part) are doing as well as I could ask under the circumstances—it is getting really old. If we meet health metrics, our district is asking parents to choose whether we want our kids to go back to school hybrid or remain virtual. I had planned on hybrid because I feel like some return to school would be good for my child’s mental health. While she sees a small number of friends (outside, masked) and has some outdoor sports activities, well, we’ve just about had it being home all day long.
But I’ve been increasingly hearing from friends in other areas who’ve moved to hybrid that it’s been tough. That teachers teach to the students who are in the classroom that day, and students logging on from home on their days at home have trouble asking questions, hearing lessons, and feeling a part of things. That the quality of the teaching in hybrid is less than it was in remote learning. I’m also not delusional and know that “going back” those two days a week will not remotely resemble a “normal” school day—students will be masked, there will be no lunch hour, no socializing, etc.
We don’t know yet how teaching would be organized under a hybrid plan. What would obviously be great is if our school divided teachers up into classroom and remote teachers, so that classroom teachers just teach to those students in class, and remote teachers handle all virtual learning. But is that feasible?
I am very sympathetic to our administrators, and the teachers, for needing to pivot instruction methods and reach students in so many different ways. I know they’re extremely taxed. I can’t help but feel so sad that there seems to be no good solution. What are your thoughts?
—What Would You Do?
You’ve hit the nail on the head. All options are less than ideal. I get that parents want their kids to have social interaction (I have two 6-year-olds at home!), and any in-person learning seems better than none.
But I don’t think so.
I’m sure you’ll find teachers who disagree with me, but here we go.
My school (where I teach eighth grade English) is supposed to start hybrid next week, and even though I love my job and my team, I would quit if I had the financial means to do so. My reasons follow.
First, I don’t want to get COVID-19. Yes, the research shows that kids are not major transmitters, that schools can open “safely,” etc., and yet any contact with people increases my risk. In-person teaching increases my risk. I will be around other adults who may transmit the disease, and in my experience many of the families who are the loudest about getting back to school are the same ones who deny the severity of the disease and take fewer precautions. (I’m happy to go back to school as soon as I’m vaccinated.)
Second, the hybrid model, as it’s structured right now, is not good pedagogy. When our administration first introduced the hybrid model to families, it was to be two days of in-person learning and three days of asynchronous learning. This approach made sense to me—for the kids’ non-Zoom days, I would videotape lessons, provide work, give examples, and answer questions by email or quick individual Zoom calls. I would use the days they were in the classroom to critique work they did at home and coach individual students or small groups.
When parents complained that their kids would not have face-to-face contact with their teachers during their asynchronous days, the administration decided students at home would Zoom into the classroom during their at-home days.
I do everything I can to engage my students on Zoom. I’m very animated in my teaching. We play games. We switch activities every 10 to 15 minutes. I praise participation. I even wore a fake mustache last Friday. Even so, many kids struggle to stay engaged. So … how will it be helpful for them to Zoom into class on days when I’m focused on the in-person students and not able to do my usual dog and pony show? Why wouldn’t it be better to offer videotaped lessons that they could watch on their own schedule (and rewatch as needed)? And, as you mentioned, how am I supposed to answer questions from students on Zoom while simultaneously teaching live?
Moreover, the time in the classroom is going to be very limited. The logistics of cleaning, sanitizing, and changing classes while remaining 6 feet apart are going to take up a good chunk of the day. I’m willing to bet that the amount of instruction kids are getting right now via teachers in person on Zoom is more than what kids will get under the hybrid model.
Some schools, and even some grades in my school, are taking the route you mentioned and assigning teachers to be in person OR remote. That’s less feasible for grades in which students change classes. For example, a fourth grade teacher who teaches all subjects might take all the remote kids, while another takes all the in-person, but I’m the only eighth grade English teacher in the school. I can’t teach anything else, and my teammates can’t teach English.
So no, I don’t think it’s a good idea to go back. I think we take the good and the bad of online learning, until enough people are vaccinated to stem the tide.
And then we work on improving science education in the United States so this mess doesn’t happen again.
—Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)
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My 4-year-old is in fully remote pre-K. The school has the option of doing blended learning (2–3 days in person, the rest remote), but we decided to keep him home for now because I’m in a high-risk group. The beginning of the year was going pretty well. My son loved his teacher—she was very engaging, communicated exceptionally well with both students and parents, and is just an all-around great teacher.
A few weeks ago, however, the school decided they needed to make some changes. The school’s other pre-K teacher has taken over all the remote learning, and so far it’s been pretty disastrous.
The new teacher’s meetings drag on way too long—often more than 30 minutes. He frequently has tech problems, and his setup is also visually a little disturbing—he is in a room so dark that we can hardly see him. Perhaps worst of all, his meetings consist almost entirely of him playing YouTube videos for them. My son is certainly not in need of more passive screen time, since my husband and I often have to rely on that to get work done.
Should I address these concerns with the teacher, and if so, how do I do this tactfully and with kindness? I am a teacher myself and hate teaching online, so I understand how frustrating—even devastating—it may have been for him to be taken out of his in-person classroom and deemed the new remote-only pre-K teacher. I want to be understanding and don’t want to be “that parent,” but it’s been a few weeks and none of this is improving. I’m particularly anxious about bringing these concerns to him because he has already sent a couple of slightly passive-aggressive emails when my son has left meetings early, which makes me think he is already taking my son’s lack of engagement with his approach personally.
Is it better to try to address this with the teacher directly, or should we just acknowledge that the Zoom meetings aren’t working for him and stop asking him to join them? We would still stay enrolled in the school and can post about his progress in the Google Classroom that is set up with activities. (I had also already confirmed with the previous teacher that this wouldn’t be an issue with student attendance on the administrative side for the school.)
Dear Zoomed Out,
This is a sticky situation. It’s never easy when your kiddo’s teacher assignment changes for the worse, especially when they are so young. Luckily, I think you have a couple of options here. First, I would definitely address this with the teacher directly and tactfully. Personally, I think the way you laid it out in your letter is pretty thoughtful.
Begin by acknowledging the transition and the impact it must/may have had on him. Next, share with him that you, too, are a teacher and recognize how difficult remote learning is, especially for such young students, and thank him for his work. Then share your concerns from the perspective of your child. You could say something like “My son gets a bit anxious when he can’t see your face well. Would it be possible to add a little light?” or “Are there any additional written or drawing activities I can support my son with at home that directly relate to the videos you are showing in class?” End the message with “I want to support both you and my son in having as productive an experience as possible, but right now I don’t feel he is getting everything he needs to be successful. What can I do to help?”
If you say something along these lines, I believe any reasonable educator would reply respectfully. However, if that fails, I think it’s perfectly fine for your 4-year-old to skip out on the meetings. In this column I often suggest that for our youngest learners it’s more important to build an early love for learning than to try and reach any particular academic outcome or benchmark. If you feel that his current educational environment is negatively affecting his love for school, then I think it would be a wise choice to stop attending the classes but continue to participate in the other activities to assure his attendance is counted.
—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)
My 7-year-old son (an only child) has been in full-time distance learning so far this school year. The plan is for his age group to go back to 100 percent in-person classes later this month. He went to kindergarten in person until March last year when everything shut down, so he has never actually had a full “year” of school at the school.
He has been telling me that he is very nervous about going back to school and that he doesn’t want to go. He loved kindergarten, but I think he has been home for so long that he has adjusted to that as his “normal.” I had a lot of anxiety as a kid, and I only realize looking back how much it truly affected me. I never told my parents that I felt sick every day while getting ready for school from third through eighth grade—I was quiet and just kept it to myself. I am so happy that my son is opening up to me about how he feels, but I don’t know what to tell him. He is nervous to be away from me (he’s never had separation anxiety before, ever) and says that even after COVID is over he just wants to stay home (he does not fear COVID or getting it and he is very good about wearing a mask). He excels at school and has a wonderful imagination, and he gets really excited when his teacher sends him feedback on his work. I don’t know what to say to him besides “It’s all going to be OK” and also making fun plans each day for his first week back. I know once he is there he is going to love it again. I just don’t want to dismiss his anxiety beforehand even though I really think it will go away immediately.
I don’t want to fail him and have him feel like I felt. What can I tell him?
—The Anxiety Stops Here
Dear Anxiety Stops Here,
I’m so happy to hear that your son is opening up to you about his nervousness. It’s so important to teach children to name their emotions. Kids can often be filled with overwhelming feelings, but until they can identify and name them, little can be done to make things better. Your son has taken an important first step.
The most important thing to tell your son is that his anxiety is normal. All of his classmates are feeling anxiety about returning to school too. Some may feel more anxious and some less so. Some might be really good at concealing their nervousness, and others may not. But he is not alone. Young children often possess a very self-centered view of the world. It’s very common for them to have trouble looking outside themselves and noticing how others might be struggling too.
For example, students often feel embarrassed about receiving help from a reading or math specialist, worried that their classmates may think less of them, when nearly every student in the classroom is receiving additional support in some form. They just don’t see it. At your son’s young age, his view is likely myopic.
Simply pointing out and reinforcing that his feelings are normal and commonplace is often helpful. I’d also point out to your son that the best way to overcome nervousness is to accept nervousness as a part of doing something new. It’s a normal part of life. When I’m coaching public speakers, they often tell me that they are nervous about taking the stage in front of hundreds or thousands of people and hope that I might have some magic pill for eliminating nervousness. My response: “Congratulations. You’re not special. Public speaking makes most people nervous. The brave ones are just willing to be nervous and press on.”
Reminding your son of the nervousness that he has felt in other circumstances—things that felt almost impossible on the first try but now seem automatic—and how that nervousness is now gone will also be helpful. Giving him a sense of past accomplishment can make the future seem a little less daunting.
You might also help to ease your son back into school with some baby steps. Take walks around the school before his return. Peek into some windows. Ask him if he has any questions. Find out what the first-day arrival procedures will be and do a dry run. Connect your son with a similarly anxious classmate and have them make some plans to meet before school on the first day.
This can be hard, but it may be especially hard on you given your experiences in school. My daughter wailed for a month when my wife dropped her off at preschool, and my only saving grace was that she was the one dropping our daughter off.
It’s not easy to watch our children struggle. It’s especially hard when that struggle includes separation from us. But he’s talking to you, which is great. He understands his feelings, which is a huge step. And he has a parent who is willing to do whatever it takes to prepare him for this big step. He’s a lucky boy.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
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My partner is a middle school teacher known for establishing a rapport with “difficult” students and advocating for BIPOC and LGBTQ kids. When he answered a call from a parent one evening, I overheard him talking about his sister. I confronted him about this after he got off the phone, because he does not actually have a sister. I’m baffled by his decision to lie. What’s your take on this?