Care and Feeding

Teachers Keep Telling Me My Stepdaughter Would Be Better Off With Her Mom

Woman holding a phone to her ear, looking annoyed
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by RollingCamera/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 askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

I am wondering how to handle issues we’re having with our 12-year-old daughter’s school. We are a nontraditional, blended family. Her parents had her young and never married. Her dad (my partner) has primary custody during the school year. Last year and this year, our daughter’s teachers have given us a hard time about our situation and are constantly insisting she is better off with her mother, or that she should be at mom’s house for remote school.

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She has had some behavioral issues (no academic issues; she tests above grade level), and they mention needing her mother’s involvement in her life at each meeting we’ve had about these issues, as well as at her parent-teacher conference.

Her behavior has improved a lot since she got an IEP to improve her social/emotional development, and she’s seen a private counselor, who saw this progress and said she didn’t need any further appointments.

She’s in full-time remote school, and it has gone relatively well. She missed some assignments in the fall, but she now submits all her assignments. For what it’s worth, her mother does not work, but my husband and I both work (remotely) full time.

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I’m getting really tired of hearing her school bring her mother into it. How do we get them to stop without making things worse?

—Where’s Mom?

Dear Where’s Mom,

Simply put, the school has no business commenting on your custody arrangement, let alone trying to influence it, and I’m really surprised that they’re doing so. Teachers and other school professionals do notice changes and patterns in kids’ school performance related to sensitive personal issues like custody transitions; it’s hard not to. They might also make observations about what they’re seeing in the classroom and the school environment to families. But especially when it comes to legal or medical matters, school staff are expected to tread very lightly, sharing what they’ve observed or suggesting a consultation with another resource at most. Delivering their personal opinions of your co-parenting plan is a no-no, and outright asking you to change it is a real violation of their role.

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I think you can ask if there are specific differences they notice in your daughter’s performance when she’s at her mom’s house compared with yours: Does Mom have better Wi-Fi so Daughter’s ability to access her work and participate in class improves? Does Daughter seem more on task or attentive while at Mom’s house, and have they observed a particular cause? Then you can try to address whatever may be within your power to control. Beyond that, I would not entertain any further discussion of your personal family agreements, and I’d be very clear with them about that: “We will contact our service provider to see if there’s anything we can do to improve Daughter’s internet access, but our custody arrangement is final and will not be changing. Thank you for understanding.” Then: “As we’ve already said, our custody arrangement is final, and altering it is not an option for our family, so we don’t plan to discuss it further.” If they continue to violate this clear and very reasonable boundary, honestly, I’d rattle my saber a bit about consulting my family lawyer. It would take some truly foolish audacity for them to keep pressing you after that.

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

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I’m a twentysomething with developmental and learning disabilities, and I live with family due to these disabilities. I help around the house, and part of what I help my parents with is helping my much younger siblings with their homework. This used to be no trouble, but then came third grade math. One of my disabilities is math-related. I couldn’t do third grade math when I was in third grade, and the math they have my sister doing is totally different from how I learned to do anything. The other day it took us an hour to figure out what her math worksheet was even asking and even longer to find the answers. We were so frustrated we just waited until our mom was done with work (she is a special ed teacher and understands this new way of doing math).

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This bothers me for a few reasons. First, the point in me helping is so my mom doesn’t have to. Second, I remember my father, who was dyslexic, trying to help me with spelling and us getting so frustrated and mad at each other that I didn’t learn anything. I worry I will do this to my sister. Third, I don’t think any 8-year-old should be doing math homework for three hours.

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Do you have any tips or tools for how to help a kid with math when you have dyscalculia/a math-related learning disability? I don’t expect to understand calculus overnight; I just need to understand third grade standards enough to explain it to a third grader. If it helps, she likes to know the “why” behind each step in a math problem.

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—Numbers Break My Brain

Dear Numbers Break My Brain,

First and most important, you are correct: A third grader should not be spending three hours on any homework or any combination of homework. Research has shown again and again that homework (with the exception of reading or being read to) at your sister’s age does little to increase understanding or help in mastering concepts. Teachers assign homework at the elementary school level primarily to help students begin to develop the routines and work ethic required in later grades. But this shouldn’t amount to more than 30 minutes per day in total. Homework should also be relatively independent. Mistakes should be expected. Perfection should not be the standard.

It sounds like the situation would most benefit from your parents having a conversation with your sister’s teacher, rather than you relearning third grade math. The teacher should know how long the nightly homework is taking so they can modify the homework expectations for your sister. And if the homework that your sister’s teacher is assigning requires consistent support from family members, that message needs to be sent to your sister’s teacher too, because in my view it signals a larger problem with the nature of the homework assignments.

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I am glad to hear that your sister likes to know the why behind the steps in solving math problems. This “new way of doing math” helps students to understand why we follow certain steps and use certain algorithms. It teaches them why these algorithms work.

Prior generations learned to use an algorithm without understanding why they were doing so. Knowing the why may seem needless to some, but if we want kids to have access to careers in science, engineering, or math, this foundational understanding is required.

Your sister’s willingness to embrace this level of understanding is fantastic. I would hate to see that curiosity and engagement wither in the vine of onerous homework expectations.

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I think the best thing you can do for your sister is ensure that she continues to have a positive attitude toward math and school in general. I would do this by talking to your parents, so that they can talk to her teacher, so that homework at this young age does not become the bane of your sister’s existence. Kids work hard in school all day long, and your sister will have plenty of homework to complete in the future. There is no need to make her struggle and suffer with hours of homework at this age.

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—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

My family will be moving to a new school district this summer. My son is 3 years old and qualifies for a partial-day intensive language preschool program in our current district because of his significant language delay. We have no behavior concerns about him, and he’s doing OK in a typical private preschool right now. Unfortunately, he is not receiving any public school services now, due to a hard shutdown of schools in our current district due to COVID.

I am wondering how to evaluate how well public schools in the district we move to are serving students with disabilities, and I’m at a loss as to how to figure that out. The rating sites seem so focused on test scores, and that doesn’t seem like the right metric to me. Any advice on how to choose a great school that serves kids with learning differences and disabilities well?

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—Lost in Los Angeles

Dear Lost in L.A.,

I must admit I am not an expert on selecting school districts, since I don’t have a child of my own. However, I can give some advice based on the experiences I’ve seen parents go through, and what I know about the system in general.

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Local parent groups—on Facebook, community listservs, and such—can be a great source of information. Through these, or through families you meet on these, you may discover, for example, that while the district is OK about providing services, one particular school is notoriously worse than the others. Beyond acquiring information about the school and what kinds of services it provides, you may also get a sense of the school’s culture with respect to special education. Does the school seem particularly bifurcated? Does it have a culture of acceptance? Do you hear of the principal or other administrators playing favorites, which could contribute to a difficult experience if you don’t wind up in the principal’s inner circle?

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It might also be helpful to see if there’s any local news coverage of special education school services. For example, one of the school districts in my area had something of a scandal when an audit found that the district was not following New York state laws regarding special education services. That was a few years ago now, and the new Committee on Special Education chairwoman has done a lot to clean up that mess, but if it were fresh, I would say it may not be the best time to move into that district.

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The final suggestion I have is perhaps challenging in a pandemic, but if possible, can you meet any of the people involved in a safe manner? Will someone from the Committee on Special Education take a meeting with you? If you’re moving school districts but not geographically moving far, can you visit the school? Talk to teachers? I know it’s frustrating when someone just tells you to trust your gut, but I truly believe that you will, at least, know if something is wrong. If you go to the school and you meet your child’s prospective special education service providers, that’s a good sign. That’s comforting. Doubly so if they seem like they genuinely care to meet you and your son and to help you support his growth. If all of their special education students are sequestered off in a dark hallway in the far recesses of the building, that’s maybe a warning that they are not prioritizing nurturing learners who have different needs.

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If you collect all of these different kinds of information and overall you still feel as though this school is OK, it probably is. If you see a red flag in any of these sources, it probably merits more investigation. Fortunately, your child will still be in preschool for another year or two. You will have time to adjust if you find that a particular school is not going to be good for him. Remember also that as a resident of that district, you have a right for him to receive public special education services if his IEP mandates them. You can advocate for those regardless of where you end up living.

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

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My kindergartner’s school runs a large day camp program every summer. They’ve done a wonderful job with their pandemic protocols, and I feel confident that it would be more fun for him to attend various camps during the summer than sit at home while most of our usual sites for outings remain closed. We’ve largely agreed on which sessions he’d like to attend, but the one camp he truly has his heart set on—basketball camp—is meeting the same week as the one camp I’m mandating he attend, which is the back-to-school academic refresher camp. All his other camp sessions will be centered on fun activities, sports, or play. Am I wrong to require he attend the academic camp? He has been grumbling about missing out on basketball, but I worry about him losing progress over the summer, and I’d like him to get a taste of what first grade will be like.

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—Summer Fun?

Dear Summer Fun,

This sounds so exciting! What I’d give to attend a basketball camp this summer. While I really can’t say whether you should let your son attend or not, I can say that you shouldn’t worry about him losing progress over the summer, especially if the camp is only going to be a week.

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As I’ve said before in this column, kids are very resilient, and I’m confident that your son will be just fine heading into first grade regardless of whether he attends the weeklong academic camp. Honestly, if you’re interested in him continuing to progress over the summer, you’d be better off giving him two or three small tasks daily rather than a focused week. It’s true there are some advantages to attending a camp like this, such as getting to know future teachers and their styles, and getting exposed to the content can be really helpful in making sure your kiddo starts off on the right foot. I know this choice feels like a hard one, but you won’t go wrong with either option. Good luck!

—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)

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My daughter is 3 years old and talks A LOT about every detail of our lives. My mom takes MAJOR advantage of this and asks my daughter questions about my personal life. What should I do?

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