Care and Feeding

My Son’s Teachers Can’t Stop Talking About His Large Size

Three young boys stand together with their backpacks on.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by LeManna/iStock/Getty Images Plus anddusanpetkovic/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 have a five-year-old who has autism and attends the public preschool program for kids with disabilities. Next year he will go to a regular kindergarten classroom. He transitioned from our private preschool to public school a few weeks ago, and it has been challenging at times. One thing that particularly bothers me is that in meetings and conversations with school staff, they always bring up the fact that he is very big for his age. He is over 4 feet tall and 65 pounds—basically the size of an eight- or nine-year-old. We’ve checked with his pediatrician, and they don’t have any concerns, he’s just a big guy. When people bring up his size, it is never in the context of him hurting anyone or acting out in any physical way, or anything where his size should be an issue. It’s always, “He was having a really hard time focusing on his work today. He’s just…so much bigger than the other kids. It’s crazy!”

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I don’t know even know what they’re trying to say, but it makes me uncomfortable. One of the issues right now is that there are three-year-olds in his class who are on the opposite site of the growth chart, so I guess it’s possible that he seems particularly large. That won’t be as much of a problem in kindergarten, but he also towers over most kids his own age.

I am worried the teachers might be holding him to a higher standard of behavior or expectations because of his size. I also know that kids with disabilities are often physically handled in school more than typically developing kids. I have specifically instructed the school to not touch him, or hold him, because he doesn’t like it, and the response has always been that of course they wouldn’t do that.

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He is capable of following verbal directions with visual supports when given enough processing time, and time to express his own feelings about what is going on. He is a smart kid who takes in a lot and takes a long time to figure out what he wants to say, so I also know that he is hearing everything said about him around him, and I’m worried about his sense of self-worth if the adults around him are constantly referring to his body as being abnormal in some way. Even now I will sometimes overhear him saying to himself, “I’m a REALLY big boy.”

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There are other aspects of his education that I have already had to be a strong advocate about, and I feel like I have limited capital for “the small stuff.” So part of me wonders if should just let this one go, but they keep saying it, and it keeps bothering me. How do I bring this up with his team without sounding like I am micromanaging them or accusing them of handling him inappropriately? I have 17 more years of dealing with this district for my son if he stays in school until he’s 22, and I am cognizant of how many more important battles there may be ahead.

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—It’s Not About His Size

Dear INAHS,

Years ago, I adopted a policy: I will never comment on a student’s physical appearance, both because it’s not necessary or important, but also because a compliment about one student’s physical appearance is the absence of a compliment to another.

Not all teachers agree with this policy. Some think I’ve taken things too far. But I explain this policy to my students during the first week of school every year, and students wholeheartedly support it.

This means that when a student comes to school and says, “Do you like my new haircut?” or “Check out my new coat!” I always say, “I care about what you say or do, and that’s all.” Then I follow it with as compliment about something related to what the students says or does well.

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All of this is to say: You should say something to these teachers. There is no reason for them to be mentioning your son’s size, and the sooner they stop saying it, the sooner it will cease to be relevant. I think you can bring it up very simply by sending an email to his principal or teacher and ask for it to be communicated to everyone who works with him.

Something like this: “Many of you have mentioned my son’s size to me many times—never in a mean-spirited or negative way—and I know that he is obviously large for his age. But these routine comments make me worry whether you see the totality of my child. I want you to see him for who he is, and not how tall he is. I also worry my son has begun to fixate on his size himself, which concerns me as well. If everyone who works with my son could eliminate discussion of his size from our conversations (and from any conversation around him), I would appreciate it.”

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This could be something you share with future teachers as well. In general, a good rule of thumb is this: If it’s bothering you, regardless of how small you may see the issue, it deserves to be addressed. You have every right to request this change.

Good luck.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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We are a family of American expats, and my 4-year-old daughter attends a very fancy, expensive international preschool with an American curriculum and mostly American teachers. So I have high expectations of her getting a good education that is sensitive to American societal issues like racism and the importance of diversity. (Not that those are just American issues.)

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Since my daughter started at this preschool in January, every book she has brought home from the school library has featured all white characters. It is important to me that my daughter’s school not center on whiteness, not least because she is a person of color, and I don’t want her perception of herself to be negatively affected. (I myself am white, and I do my best to look out for my daughter).

I spoke (nicely) with my daughter’s teacher about the pattern I had noticed and asked if my daughter could be exposed to more diverse books. Her teacher was very understanding and supportive, but she directed me to the librarian. The librarian’s response was basically: it’s important that the kids choose their books so that they’re invested in their reading experience, and that there’s nothing she can do. I sort of get this, but my daughter is only 4, and what is a librarian’s job if not to expose and steer kids to good, diverse books? While I was disappointed that her response wasn’t more understanding or helpful, I was hopeful that the librarian might steer my daughter to some more diverse alternatives anyway.

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Well, library day has come, and my daughter has brought home one book with all white characters; one book with white main characters and a Black sidekick character; and a non-fiction nature book.

Should I take this as a very tiny step in the right direction? Or raise my concerns again with the teacher, librarian, or principal? Or should I just focus on conversations about it with my daughter (which was the librarian’s suggestion for what to do if I had issues with any of the books my daughter brings home)? Or something else?

My daughter is happy with the books she has brought home. It’s not clear to me what she’s noticed about the race of the characters, particularly in relation to her own race. I’ve tried talking with her about it, but have not gotten anywhere. She just says she likes her books.

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—Isn’t This Her Job?

Dear ITHJ,

I agree with the librarian that your daughter should choose her own books, but I also believe the librarian has a responsibility to expose all students to books with BIPOC characters and authors. When I visit my child’s school and public libraries, I always see books on display enticing students to check them out. Often, the books are united by a theme: for example, since it is currently April, the titles might be about springtime; the displayed books should include BIPOC characters and authors. When I toured my daughter’s school a few years ago, we stopped by the library while a class of students was there checking out books; the librarian had placed a variety of books that reflected the identities and interests of the students on the tables for them to consider. And in my personal experience, school librarians love talking to kids about books! They often make recommendations or help match children to literature they will love.

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This is why I find the response “there’s nothing I can do” very puzzling. Why not? Are the library shelves lacking in diversity? Is the budget for new books paltry? Is the librarian too busy checking out and shelving books to interact with the children? Is your daughter’s teacher helping the class during library time, or is that her prep time?

I think the school can do better. Asking the questions I’ve posed above would be a place to start. Pressing the issue doesn’t just benefit your daughter—you can potentially help all the students. Personally, I would speak with the librarian one more time before going to the principal, and let her know that is your next step if you get the sense that there is a systemic issue at play.

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Finally, there are many helpful resources online for using literature to talk to young children about race (see this one from PBS). I think the librarian is right that you should talk about the books with your daughter, but she also has a responsibility to promote diversity in the library. Hold her to it.

­—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

After a year of 100 percent remote learning, our school district is finally starting to roll-out plans for the kids returning to school in a hybrid model. I’m excited about this, but I am nervous about a challenge for our family.

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I have two autistic sons, a first grader and a second grader. My first grader is in 100 percent GenEd with pull-outs for speech services. My second grader is in a Sensory/Autism classroom with some GenEd time plus speech and OT. My first grader is handling remote learning fairly well, but we’re also dealing with a new ADHD identification for him and with both parents working from home full-time, we are finding it difficult to keep him up to date with the 3-4 assignments he has every day on top of the 3-4 zooms. My second grader has not done anything academically this year and will only participate in the social zooms. He was working a full grade-level ahead when in physical school, so his teachers are not particularly concerned. We also have a fifth grade daughter who is handling remote school as best as she can and is doing well academically.

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My concern is that the dates for returning students are staggered and the boys are slated to start back at different times. It looks like the difference could be a couple of weeks. I know this doesn’t sound like a big deal, but I simply cannot see trying to send my first grader back without his second grader brother. They would both be hysterical knowing that one was at home and the other was at school. I think we have the option of continuing 100 percent remote, so I had the thought of keeping my first grader home until my second grader can go back, and then sending them both, but I don’t know if that will be allowed. Also, it’s entirely possible that since it’s a hybrid model (2 days in-person, 2 days remote) that they could end up on different schedules anyway.

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Our school year ends in mid-June. At this point, I’d almost think it’s better to just keep them fully remote until next year, but I need to return to in-person work at some point and the only thing keeping me home is the boys and their schooling. Any thoughts?

—To Send or Not to Send

Dear Send,

This sounds like a difficult situation for you, and in an ideal world, this is the sort of thing you’d hope the school can work out with you. I’d start by calling the school directly—the principal, if you can—to ask for an accommodation. You can start by saying that the differing start dates may be a trigger for behaviors from one or both boys. You can also mention that it’s difficult for you logistically with work, although this may carry less sway, as you are not the only parent in your school facing the issue of having two children go back at different times. Hopefully, especially since one of your kids is in a special class, they’ll be able to create a flexible plan that allows the two boys to start back at school at the same time.

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Unfortunately, the harsh reality is that the school may not be able to provide you with that option. School reopening is a logistical nightmare, made worse by our national poor pandemic management. Depending on your local health department’s guidelines, the size of your district, and the way your school district arranged virtual vs. in-person learning models, there may not be space for a flexible plan.

If it turns out the school can’t help you, I would recommend you stay remote. I know it stinks but setting up a situation that causes behavioral outbursts isn’t really going to add anything beneficial to your current situation. At the very least, with the way things are now, your kids are in a stable learning environment, even even if it’s not ideal, and the end of the school year is not that far off. If you send one kid back in person but keep the others home, you have the downside of that instability without the upside of being able to return to work yourself. That situation benefits nobody in the end.

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

My husband and I don’t have kids, but our friend group is split pretty evenly between folks that do and don’t. I have done a couple of distanced, outside hangouts with my friends with kids. However, they have overall had a far greater risk tolerance than us, and most of our childless friends, which I know is tied to their and their children’s mental health. Not judging that!

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As we all get vaccinated, I am planning on avoiding folks who aren’t. Initially that just meant anti-vaxxers, but I realized that kids won’t get the vaccine for a while as well. With my friend’s kids back in school or about to head back, I am concerned for what I consider to be a 100 percent guarantee of virus spread and mutation among kids and parents and teachers.

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As a teacher, this reality is obviously about to come crashing into your life as well, though schools have protocols, so I figured you might have some insight. I worry that the way the UK variant is affecting younger people makes it more likely that it’s only a matter of time before kids are at a greater risk as well.

Are we now at a point where we just have to shrug and say, well this is endemic, and hope for the best? Or is there a better way? I don’t want to silo myself off from half of my friends, but part of me wonders if it’s actually a good idea for everyone.

—COVID & Kid Cautious

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Dear C&KC,

I’m not sure there’s an easy answer here. There’s a steady flow of emerging information about transmission in schools, safe post-vaccine behavior, the susceptibility of kids to COVID variants, and the vaccines’ effectiveness against them to wade through. But on top of navigating and making sense of all that data, there’s also the human factor of your own comfort and willingness to engage with risk. Given the cards we’ve been dealt, we all have to do our best to make level-headed choices that balance the needs for personal safety, community responsibility, and human connection.

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Right now, I think the best you can do is stay apprised of the most current findings, listen to national guidance from trusted sources, and keep informed of local transmission numbers—then make your decisions and communicate them kindly. Throughout the year, I’ve found that having a set of family rules that we always stick to and share freely in advance—for example, “we are comfortable with outdoor playdates but we aren’t participating in indoor activities yet”—alleviates a lot of decision fatigue and awkwardness when interacting with friends who have made different choices. You might want to decide and share your own ground rules before the invitations start rolling in.

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When I make decisions myself, I have tried to stay grounded and use information to distinguish between “actually, scientifically unsound” and “feels scary, because living through a pandemic is scary.” I think you could try to suss out the same thing. If you’re vaccinated, and your parent friends are vaccinated (though their kids are not), and you spend time together masked and outdoors, then you’ve taken every possible medical and environmental safety precaution. Do findings on vaccine effectiveness against variants suggest that this scenario is unacceptably risky, or is your hesitation more due to a general nervousness and desire for control that you could push through?

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If you do ultimately decide that you aren’t comfortable spending time around your friends’ unvaccinated kids, I think you should prepare to nurture those friendships in other ways. I’ll be honest, if a child-free friend was unwilling to see me in person in any capacity because I have young children in school, I can’t say I wouldn’t be disappointed. If you can soften the sting with alternate suggestions of how to stay connected, you should.

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The constant decision-making and self-denial COVID has imposed on us all is exhausting. Good luck.

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

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