Care and Feeding

My 8-Year-Old Cheated on a Test

Should I punish her?

A girl in a surgical mask writes on a piece of paper.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Tashulia/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.

Our very sweet and sensitive daughter is in second grade at our local public elementary school. My husband and I place a high value on academics, but I’ve been dismayed about the amount of homework she gets, all of which consists of repetitive worksheets and rote memorization tasks that evidence shows are not effective. Since January, her homework has been to memorize 20 spelling words each week. Every day we try to practice, but sometimes it’s like pulling teeth. I hate feeling like I’m forcing her to do this extra work when I don’t believe there’s a real benefit to most of it, but I’m a rule follower and so, if the teacher assigns it, we make sure she does it. We’ve tried to build some intrinsic motivation in the form of being proud at being able to do hard things and persevering even when some tasks aren’t fun, etc., but I’m honestly not sure how much that’s helping.

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My larger problem is that today I received an email from my daughter’s teacher letting us know that during her spelling test, she was caught with some of the words written down on a sticky note. The teacher gave her a zero and apparently had a talk about “habits of character” (something the school promotes). It sounds like the teacher didn’t demean or punish her, which I’m grateful for. I know we have to talk to our daughter about this, and I’m struggling a bit with how to approach it.

On the one hand, I don’t want to punish or embarrass her—I’m sure the shame of getting caught was bad enough. And I’m worried that she’s so young and feeling this kind of stress around academic achievement already. On the other, I certainly want to convey that cheating is wrong and it’s more important to try hard than get everything right all the time. Mostly I want to make sure we’re using this as a learning opportunity and that she knows that if she’s struggling she can tell us without fear of judgment or punishment. I’m also not sure if I should be engaging with the teacher in a different way—I basically thanked her for telling me and said we’d talk to her. Should I be doing anything else?

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—Learning Should Be Fun

Hey There, LSBF,

Wow, this story takes me back. I remember getting grounded for a week for cheating on a spelling test. I was struggling to remember the e at the end of the word orange, so I wrote it on my hand. Unfortunately, my third grade teacher caught me red, or in this case orange, handed. I was mortified when she caught me, so I think you’re spot on with avoiding any additional punishment for your daughter.

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Cheating at this age is a natural form of experimentation and boundary testing for kids, especially in perceived high-stress academic environments. Most kids after being caught cheating once or twice give it up as a viable option. (Unfortunately, it is true that in some cases they just get a lot better at it.) But in your case, I wouldn’t make a big deal out of it unless it becomes a pattern. The best thing you can do for her now is to continue disassociating high marks as a primary indicator of success or intelligence, because they just aren’t. Don’t get me wrong, you should still encourage your child to try her best and work hard for good grades. However, getting a high score on every single assignment or exam is an unrealistic expectation for kids, especially at your daughter’s age.

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I always tell my students that I don’t really care if they get the right answer all the time—I would much rather see that they tried their best to figure it out. Layering this value into our classroom culture has been a big help in cutting down on paper peeking and builds resilience in my second graders. I also don’t think you need to engage with the teacher any further on this. Just keep encouraging your daughter to try her best and reassure her that a poor grade is not the end of the world, it’s merely a starting point from which to grow.

—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)

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My oldest son will turn 5 at the end of August, which means he should start kindergarten at our local public school this fall. Prior to the pandemic, he had been in a Montessori preschool two days a week, and our daughter, now 2, was at the Montessori day care. The other three days a week they were home with my mom, who happens to be a retired elementary school teacher.

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When the pandemic hit, my son’s school closed for the spring. Although it reopened, we haven’t sent the kids back; I worried about the exposure for all of us, but especially for my mom, who is over 65. My mom was able to continue caring for him a few days a week, and he’s made great strides academically because of her teaching.

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My question is about what we should do regarding kindergarten for the fall. For some reason, whenever my son hears the word kindergarten, he gets very upset and starts to have what I don’t think is an exaggeration to call a panic attack. He tells us that he wants to go back to preschool, and he doesn’t want to go to kindergarten. I get it. We all loved his preschool, and because we had moved shortly before he started, he only got to go for a few months before lockdown.

The Montessori school started a kindergarten program this year, so we could theoretically send my son “back” to do kindergarten in the fall. But it would be tight financially, and it might affect how many days a week my daughter could go to preschool.

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Part of me feels like since this has been such a difficult time for him—leaving his friends and a school he loved—that now is not the time to teach him a lesson about how sometimes we need to start new things, even though they’re scary. But at the same time, I feel like I can’t make any long-term financial commitments because, looking at the world, who knows where we’ll be by September? What if we send him, and then because of financial constraints we have to take him out after a few months and send him to public school after all? What if we do send him to public school, but they go virtual (virtual preschool was a nightmare)?

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Is he going to be unprepared for the structure of first grade if he enters public school after having been in a Montessori environment for kindergarten? I’m torn. What do you think is the least traumatic option?

—Public or Private?

Dear PoP,

To be frank, I don’t see sending him to Montessori as a viable option. Not because there’s any problem entering public school after Montessori kindergarten, but because I don’t think you should be taking on financial burden when it may not solve the problem. It’s possible he’d attend regular Montessori kindergarten and then transition easily and comfortably to first grade. But it’s also possible that he’d attend a hybrid or Zoom year of Montessori kindergarten, or have a year of Montessori kindergarten and then have the same panicked response to first grade, leaving you with the same problem, one year later. Sending him to Montessori kindergarten doesn’t address the underlying issue, which sounds like a fear of school.

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A more responsible choice is to try to help him work through his anxiety. I know that putting another burden on him in an already-challenging year seems unfair, but you sound like a sensitive parent, and I don’t think sending him to kindergarten needs to mean throwing him in there in spite of his fears, and holding your breath to see what happens. You can teach him to work through what’s scary, help him build his coping skills, and prepare himself for a challenge. Start by incorporating kindergarten into play. Do you have a toy bus or some blocks to build one? Show that bus taking children (or buttons or whatever else you are using for pretend play) to kindergarten. You can role-play, you can read books, you can start making kindergarten-ready crafts—find ways to make kindergarten part of his daily life in a safe, manageable way. If you’re describing his response like a panic attack, I’m suggesting something akin to controlled exposure therapy. You know he’s safe, and you’re not physically bringing him to kindergarten, and that might take some of the scariness out of the experience.

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If you’re able to get to the root of what he is afraid of as well, you can address that fear directly. Books like The Kissing Hand address fear of separation, for example. You can start drawing a heart on his hand every day so he knows you’re always with him, or you can make him Magic Bravery Dust out of glitter and sprinkle it on him to help him feel brave. We tell kids all the time that we can magic away their pain with a kiss; emotional pain is absolutely as susceptible to the placebo effect as physical pain.

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I also think there may be some merit to getting in touch with his potential teachers. Not only is it possible that they can meet with him and ease his fears directly, but I’m sure he is not the first child they’ve seen who is afraid of starting school. They may have some tips they know that you can use to help him feel more comfortable to go to school. Ultimately, I think that trying to work through it will be worthwhile, and that putting it off another year buys you nothing, puts a strain on you financially, and is unfair to his sister, who won’t get the preschool experience he got to have.

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

I don’t know what to do about my daughter’s unreasonable English teacher, Mrs. Jones. My daughter is a diligent, hardworking student in a 10th grade English honors class. Mrs. Jones, who’s probably mid- to late-teaching career, continually gives assignments with unclear instructions. My daughter asks Mrs. Jones for clarification and for a rubric to get a sense of what is required, but when my daughter completes the assignments accordingly, she often gets a low grade.

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Grading seems to be incredibly subjective and at the teacher’s whim. Mrs. Jones often says that there’s just one right answer on assignments where there’s room for interpretation (for example, what the theme is in a book, or what literary devices are being used by an author). When assignments are returned, my daughter and her friends often compare answers and feedback, and they will have the same answers, but Mrs. Jones will grade them differently (sometimes in my daughter’s favor; sometimes in her friends’ favor). While Mrs. Jones will often amend my daughter’s grade if my daughter points out that she has completed the assignment according to the instructions, receiving that initial grade is extremely stressful, as is the inordinate amount of time my daughter spends trying to read Mrs. Jones’ mind to guess the elusive “right” answer.

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Many assignments result in a class average of C or worse, which I feel like speaks to the unreasonableness of this teacher’s grading. She often comments to her class, “You all did way too well on that assignment so I’m going to have to make things harder.” Is this really necessary, especially during this incredibly stressful time with the pandemic? And what is the purpose of that?

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While my daughter has gotten good at advocating for herself, it has resulted in a lot of panicking over each assignment, and inevitable conversations with the teacher after assignments are graded. I am not sure my daughter can bear the stress of this teacher any longer, especially in the current environment of the pandemic and our school is still doing all distance learning. Is it appropriate for me to talk to the teacher? Or to the vice principal? And what should I say?

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—Feeling Helpless

Dear Helpless,

Oof. What a mess. Normally, I am skeptical when students say that a teacher didn’t provide a rubric or didn’t explain the directions, because often the student is incorrect. However, I know there are some teachers who operate this way, and I am sure that distance learning makes things even worse. Perhaps Mrs. Jones is struggling to convert her teaching materials for online instruction; maybe she would do better if the students were in the classroom with her and she could teach in the manner to which she is accustomed.

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It is certainly acceptable to request a parent-teacher conference, share your daughter’s frustrations, and ask Mrs. Jones to clarify how your daughter can be more successful. I feel strongly that you should try this before going above her head to an administrator. My advice is to be specific when describing the problem but also keep an open mind about the teacher’s perspective. For example, “My daughter is very anxious about how to write this essay because she tells me there is not a rubric. Could you give me more information about your expectations for student writing?” Or, “My daughter believes her thoughts about the novel’s theme are an accurate interpretation and doesn’t understand why she is incorrect; could you help us understand why her analysis was off-base?” Through this conversation, you may get a better understanding of where the teacher is coming from; hopefully Mrs. Jones will also feel enlightened hearing your daughter’s point of view.

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Unfortunately, if Mrs. Jones is in fact an unreasonable person, this conversation might not be fruitful. And honestly, there’s a strong possibility the vice principal won’t be much help either. Running a school in a global pandemic creates many issues that are higher priority than whether or not a teacher uses rubrics. This is why I think you should have a heart-to-heart with your daughter.

Just how important is this grade? Is a grade in sophomore English worth panicking over? Why is she so stressed about it? And how important is it to you, as her parent?

I don’t mean to sound glib, and I realize that might sound counterintuitive coming from another 10th grade English teacher. Of course I want my students to care about their grades, but I also want them to keep their grades in perspective. Certainly grades are important, but they’re not that important. I don’t want my students losing sleep over a score on a quiz or an assignment. A low grade is not a reflection of a student’s self-worth. Yet some students (and parents) are so invested in high grades that they take on outsize importance, causing misery all around.

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I’m not suggesting that you tell your daughter to give up on her grade in English, but maybe she shouldn’t care quite so much. Tell her that you’re proud of her for advocating for herself, that you recognize and appreciate her diligence, and that you don’t think she should continue to spend so much time chasing after every single assignment in this class if it’s causing her undue stress and frustration.

This is not the last time your daughter will be in this situation; I certainly had instructors like this in high school and in college. Furthermore, if Mrs. Jones is as inconsistent and unclear as you say, then your daughter’s grade is not a true reflection of her learning but rather the whims of the teacher. And while that is not fair, it’s not the end of the world either.

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—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

I am a 12-year-old girl in sixth grade. I have always been advanced in my studies getting straight A’s since first grade. We are currently doing distance learning and no one knows when we will go back to school.

I love math, and it has always been my favorite subject, until now. My math teacher is … let’s just say he’s not meant to be a math teacher. He is a nice enough guy, but he always lectures us and uses math as an extra homeroom. He will go on for 20 minutes about how math will always help us, which I understand, but I want to learn math, not hear about it. I absolutely dread having to go to his class, and I try to find a way out of it almost all the time.

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Recently my parents got me tutoring from a neighbor who is teaching me quadratic equations, and the basics of algebra, but I don’t think we should have to. Shouldn’t I be able to learn from my teacher? I understand and quickly solve 90 percent of the math problems within minutes, when he gives us 20 minutes to do it.

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My parents just say he is a bad teacher, and that we all have them, but they don’t understand how it is to be doing school from home and to have a teacher who is not teaching. Please help. How can I focus when I don’t want to listen to him? I understand distance learning is hard for everyone, especially teachers, but I have had multiple breakdowns about how I’m getting behind in school. I have always had dreams for myself with colleges, but I feel this teacher will ruin them. I am still ahead in every other subject; I just want to stay ahead in math. Please help me.

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—Stumped by Math

Dear Stumped,

It’s already so hard to be in sixth grade—even during a typical year, sixth graders experience a lot of changes in themselves and in their relationships. But regular old “sixth grade is tough” has got nothing on “sixth grade in the 2020–21 school year is tough.” Everything in life has been turned upside down, everyone is struggling and confused, and there is so little you can predict or control. I’m not surprised that your ineffective math teacher feels like the last straw for your patience.

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Your parents are right; having teachers that you don’t love is a part of life. Teachers hold a position of authority in school settings, but really, they’re just normal people. Part of what that means is that some teachers are great at their work and some, like you said, are nice enough, but their skills are only OK. That will be true through college, and it’s true of people in other lines of work, too. Here’s the good news, though: Your education and your college dreams are in no trouble at all. If you’re completing your sixth grade–level tasks easily, and studying material far beyond your grade level on your own time, then you’re not falling behind—your skills are as sharp and advanced as always. It sounds like what’s really bothering you is feeling like your time is being wasted during a subject that you really care about. To solve that problem, I think there are steps you can take to feel less frustrated. Could you gather some materials to work on during the downtime when your teacher is not instructing, or when you’ve sailed through work you already know how to do? You could try practicing new skills or concepts on Khan Academy, or asking your tutor to give you extra practice problems or interesting challenges to stretch your skills and mathematical reasoning.

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I definitely understand feeling that providing helpful lessons is your teacher’s responsibility, not your own, but even if he were an amazing instructor, he’d still be covering sixth grade math content meant to teach average sixth grade skills, and you’d still be ready for higher-level material. If you can prepare yourself with some extra challenge work, I think it will help you feel like your time is being spent productively, with something engaging and useful to focus on.

Beyond your math class, I am a little concerned about your stress level in general, Stumped—it sounds like this is really bothering you and prompting a lot of worry. College is a long, long way away, and when the time eventually does come to apply, the schools you’re interested in will not look at any of the grades you earned before high school. I really don’t want the idea of college, and your school performance in general, to weigh too heavily on your mind. It’s important, of course, but if you’re having emotional breakdowns about it, that makes me think you need to find some balance. I want you to make sure you are finding ways to safely interact and socialize with your friends and that you’re taking time to relax and enjoy your favorite nonschool activities. Everyone’s stress is unusually high right now, but if you’re finding it hard to ever feel carefree or have fun, or you notice yourself worrying about school all the time, please make sure to talk to your parents or another trusted adult in your life about the possibilities for getting some help to manage your feelings.

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You’re doing great.

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

More Advice From Slate

My daughter will be entering third grade in the fall. We live in a Northeast town where the virus ran rampant in the spring but numbers are lower now. We’ve been told school will probably open in person, but there will be some kind of online option for those who don’t want to attend. Like many, we’re not so comfortable with the risk, but we have a different problem than most—our daughter loved virtual school! Should we keep her home?

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