Care and Feeding

My Child Reads Better Than Her Teacher Thinks She Can

A young girl reads a book.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by sam74100/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.

My daughter is a kindergartner, and her school has been virtual all year. In general, we love her teacher and she has done well in class. However, her teacher has not updated the small groups that she uses for reading instruction all year. When my daughter started in the fall, she had just gotten the hang of CVC words. Something clicked with her reading in the fall and winter, and she is now reading chapter books on her own.

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But her small group is still reading just a few short sentences like, “Nat the frog lived in the pond” once a week. I know there is another reading group in her class that is working on more complex texts. Do I ask her teacher whether she can move to a different group? I don’t want to be “that parent,” and clearly she is doing fine with her reading despite (or because of?) this, but she is also bored during small group work. I am sure that her teacher is also stressed with the upcoming transition to hybrid school, so I don’t want to add to her stress, especially for an issue that is so minor in the scheme of things. Is it normal not to change reading groups for the whole year?

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—Need a Change

Dear Need a Change,

You can absolutely ask that your daughter’s reading group be reconsidered, and if asked in the spirt of a teacher-parent partnership, I don’t expect that you’ll come across as “that parent.” Some assessment may be required to make the switch, but I suspect that this is probably a part of the problem.

Assessing a students’ ability remotely is incredibly challenging, especially in a performance-based skill like reading. Your daughter’s teacher probably doesn’t have as firm a handle on your daughter’s skill as she would if she was teaching your daughter in-person. I’m the husband of a kindergarten teacher, so I know that your daughter’s teacher may also be overwhelmed by the challenge of planning and delivering remote instruction for 5- and 6-year-olds. Your daughter’s elevated reading skills may have simply slipped past her. My wife describes teaching this age group remotely as “putting on a show.” That can be exhausting, both mentally and physically.

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As a partner in your daughter’s education, you are in a better position to see some things that her teacher cannot, so I think you are justified in reaching out to ask for a reassessment, and your request will likely be appreciated. Good luck.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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I’ve noticed a weird, frustrating phenomenon in my school, and I’d like to know if this is something you see in your own school. I am a mildly autistic sophomore, and I mask it pretty well at school. However, there are several other autistic kids in my grade who can’t/don’t hide it, which is fine—they shouldn’t have to. My issue is with how the other kids treat these students. They (neurotypical kids) pitch their voices way up and sound extra cheery when talking to them, especially when adults are around. However, they otherwise ignore, exclude, and laugh about them behind their backs. Essentially, they treat them like 3-year-olds, when in fact a lot of the autistic kids are in higher level courses (and no one deserves to be treated like a 3-year-old, regardless of intellectual ability). Is this something that you witness at your school? Is there anything I can do about it?

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—Not 3

Dear Not 3,

You are absolutely correct—no high schooler deserves to be treated like a toddler. Unfortunately, I have witnessed this from time to time. I think this behavior often stems from discomfort or ignorance, but it can also come from simple cruelty. I have a few thoughts on what you can do and what your school should do.

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First, you can practice being an “upstander.” When you witness this behavior, interrupt it by saying something like, “You know, you don’t have to talk to him like he’s a little kid. You can speak normally to him.” Or, “It’s cruel to mock autistic students behind their back. You shouldn’t do that.” I realize this isn’t easy to do, but speaking up in the moment can be effective, and if you have a few phrases ready at your fingertips, it may be easier to do.

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If you notice a pattern of cruelty or exclusion in a class, meaning there are particular students who are repeat offenders, speak to the teacher about it. In a true bullying situation, adults must intervene. If the teacher has noticed but hasn’t responded, this will put her on the spot to do something about it. If the teacher didn’t realize it was happening, you’ve given her a heads up so that she can respond.

However, it sounds like this is more pervasive than one or two students; it sounds like a school culture issue, which has no quick fix. That said, there are concrete actions a school can take to be more inclusive.

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Your school counseling department should develop a lesson for the student body on the topic of autism or neurodiversity. If your school has an advisory or social and emotional learning program, that would be the perfect place for such a lesson. The Autism Self Advocacy Network has a wealth of resources.* The purpose here is to help neurotypical students better understand their autistic peers and the importance of inclusion.

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To truly change the culture of a school, though, you need to enlist the support of student leaders. At my own school, the Link Crew has been integral to promoting a positive school climate; Link Crews typically help freshmen acclimate to high school, but our Link Crew also works with students who have intellectual disabilities. If your school does not have a Link Crew, the student council, volunteer club, or National Honor Society might be good partners. (And your principal should start a Link Crew! It’s fantastic.) Student leaders can help facilitate discussions during the lesson I mentioned above and model the inclusive, respectful behaviors we wish to see. They can brainstorm ways to help autistic students to be more included in the school and classroom, perhaps by eating lunch together or helping interested students to join a club or extracurricular activity.

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OK, I know I’ve just laid a lot on you. Of course, you cannot single-handedly do all of this, Not 3! But you can request a meeting with your school’s principal to discuss this issue to bring forth the suggestions I’ve laid out here (or even print out my response and take it along). Or you could meet with your class representative on the student council and request that she take this concern before the student government. Choose one suggestion from my letter and start there. See where it takes you.

Thank you for standing up for your peers! I’m proud of you.

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

My family moved to our current town when our oldest child was a baby. The public schools here are highly rated with excellent test scores. We’ve been lucky to make friends with a lot of other families here. But what we’ve seen and heard from friends with elementary-age kids is giving us pause.

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It seems like there’s quite a lot of academic pressure put on kids at an early age here. Just at the kindergarten level, kids are tested every few weeks, and most of the day is spent on focused academics with little time for free exploration or practicing socioemotional skills, in a full seven-hour school day with only 30 total minutes of recess, which can be taken away for misbehavior. Kids have nightly homework, and I don’t mean, “Draw a picture of something in your house that begins with the letter B.” I mean up to an hour of addition/subtraction worksheets, flashcards, copying sentences, etc. We’ve heard about teachers who have retired rather than continue teaching in the new, intensive system. What’s worse, the pressure doesn’t seem to have let up much even in this pandemic year. In short, this seems like too much.

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The highly rated school system is part of why we moved here, and we’d always planned to send our kids to the local public schools. But now that it’s time to enroll our oldest child in kindergarten, we’re hesitating. I’m feeling misgivings that go beyond “my baby is growing up.” I’m concerned enough about putting our kids into this high-pressure environment that I’ve even been looking into private schools that take a more experiential approach.

Is there a middle ground here? Something we’re missing? Is it worth approaching someone at our local public elementary school (who? individual teachers? the principal?) and discussing our concerns with them before we make an enrollment decision? Is it even possible to compromise on things like too much homework, too much testing, and certain disciplinary methods (like withholding recess), especially in the youngest grades? Can we opt out of any portion of it? How do we even bring this up in a way that’s respectful and leaves space for discussion?

I feel like we really need some perspective. We genuinely just want to do right by our kids. Any advice/insight is greatly appreciated.

—Too Much, Too Young

Dear Too Much, Too Young,

You are correct. What you describe is too much, too young. My wife, who as I mentioned is a kindergarten teacher, is appalled at what you describe, and I am, too. Perhaps this is a difference in philosophies, but I believe that what you describe is bad for kids, and I would not enroll my children in a school system like this.

I want my children to do well, but I want them to also be children. I want ample time for play, exploration, social connection, experimentation, and silliness. I want them to love school. I want them to be happy about going to school on most days.

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This school does not sound happy or silly. I suspect that you won’t get much accommodation from teachers or administrators in terms of the amount and type of work required or their testing regimen, but it’s worth a conversation. I would approach the meeting as a fact-finding mission. What is the school’s philosophy? How do they approach testing? What do they do to promote social and emotional health? How much play are the children afforded?

It’s unlikely that they will restructure their philosophy to meet your needs, but finding out exactly what your child will experience moving forward will help you decide if this school is right for you and your children.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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My 6-year-old has pretty severe ADHD, and we’ve been working on finding a medication that works for him. But even before his kindergarten switched to remote learning last March, he was struggling, especially with reading. He barely participated in remote learning last spring, and we felt the anticipated changes from in-person to hybrid to fully remote learning would not work for him in the current school year, so we made the choice to home-school him for 2020–21.

He’s doing much better now and is improving on his reading skills. But how do we decide if he’s really able to go on to second grade in the fall? (This is assuming in-person school is back/safe—otherwise we will likely continue home-schooling, because his ADHD really prevents him from sitting in front of a computer for hours, which is what’s required for our district’s remote learning plan.) He’s one of the younger kids in his class already, so we’ve been thinking about having him attend first grade in the fall to catch up on what he missed during this school year, and also during kindergarten when he was struggling to sit down in a seat. That said, he’s also in the 99th percentile for height and is a strong, physical kid, so I’m a little concerned about whether he’d “fit in” in a class with even younger kids.

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What’s your take on how to tell if my kid will fit right in with all the other kids whose academic progress has been a little disrupted, or if he needs to redo first grade with a better medication regime in place?

—Move Forward or Stay Back?

Dear Move Forward or Stay Back,

My first suggestion is to talk to your local school, because I don’t know the specifics of your district and what they have to offer in terms of special education support.

As for how else to tell if your kid is going to be able to succeed in second grade, I’d take a look at standards or expectations for the grade. Some states use a modified version of the Common Core, and it will lay out midyear expectations, which would provide you with some helpful metrics. But if your state doesn’t, just look at the standards for first grade and assume that at this point in the school year kids would need to be close (though not quite able yet) to meeting those benchmarks. For example, if your state standard said that at the end of the year students need to be at reading level I, and your son is at an F but making progress, he’ll probably be fine.

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I generally recommend against holding a student back if you don’t have to, but if you do a frank assessment of his skills and decide that he’s going to struggle, holding him back won’t be the end of the world. I can’t imagine being big for his age would be an issue, especially if he is on the younger side (meaning he’d only be a little bit older than the kids in his class if you do hold him back). The pandemic is going to leave a lasting impression on the children who are students now, and I think it leaves parents with some tough choices. I think the key in your case, since reading and self-esteem tend to be tied up, is to pick the option that will allow your son to continue feeling successful as he grows his reading skills.

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

More Advice From Slate

Due to COVID, my child’s public school is all online, which is understandable, and I’m all for it. However, during distance learning my child has to use a program called Acellus to learn on their own. A teacher comes on for 30 minutes at the beginning of class, then leaves for the rest of the day, and then jumps back in 30 minutes before class ends to make sure work has been turned in and to say, “See you tomorrow.” This does not seem at all adequate for my child to learn effectively. What should I do?

Update, March 4, 2021: A sentence in this post was updated with a different resource on autism and neurodiversity.

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