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 daughter “Kay” is taking AP Calculus A/B. She is the only AP Calculus A/B student, and her teacher is using a new book and finalizing the curriculum as Kay goes through it. Kay’s teacher has told her she does not need to do several sections of her calculus book for the AP test. My daughter checked with the college board, and then emailed the textbook author, and it turns out her teacher is unfortunately mistaken.
My daughter is planning to simply study the missing sections herself. The problem is that next year, if Kay gets the good score I expect she will get, her teacher will assume the curriculum was sufficient as is, and the teacher will almost certainly not realize she is not teaching critical information. In general, the teacher is terrific, but she hates to be corrected. What should we do? I certainly don’t want to tell Kay to annoy her teacher, but I also know my daughter, and she will feel very guilty next year if she ends up accidently sabotaging other students going through the course.
Dear Puzzled Parent,
Guess how much it matters that the teacher hates to be corrected.
Seriously, somebody has to tell her. Her students and future students deserve that much.
If your daughter feels comfortable telling the teacher what she found out, she should do it sooner rather than later. That way, the teacher can familiarize herself with how to teach the concepts in those sections and be even more effective next year.
If your daughter doesn’t feel comfortable, you should do it. Are you worried about retaliation against your daughter? I think in this instance it’s OK to preserve the teacher’s dignity a bit and say you were talking to a friend who teaches AP Calculus in another state. You mentioned the textbook, and the sections your daughter was skipping. The teacher-friend corrected you, so you checked in with the college board to be sure. And would you believe it? Those sections will be on the test!
Just do it. It’ll weigh on both of your minds until you do.
And this probably goes without saying, but taking correction is part of being a learner. If anybody should model taking correction, it should be teachers.
—Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)
My son is a high school senior—he’s a good kid and had a 3.8 GPA prior to COVID. He struggles with ADD and mental illness, sees a psychiatrist, and is on medication.
He’s been struggling with Zoom classes since last March. This year, he accrued 15 absences in his history class, and as a result, he’s in danger of not graduating. I’m told his school will only excuse absences for college visits, take your child to work day, and religious holidays. I’ve reached out to his teacher about this, but he will not be flexible.
Do you have any suggestions for how to deal with the school about these absences? I just want him to graduate and open his wings. He has gotten into college, and he wants to study filmmaking and comedy. This has been so frustrating for our family.
—Consequences of Absences
I’m sure this was painful news. Your family saw the light at the end of the tunnel of this grueling experience, and now the exciting next step your son was anticipating feels jeopardized. That’s hard, and I’m sorry.
In order to move forward successfully, though, I think you need to reconsider your approach. You didn’t specify what you requested of his history teacher, but it sounds like by “be flexible,” you were hoping that he’d retroactively excuse your son’s absences despite school policy. I doubt that decision is up to the discretion of individual teachers, and that’s a good thing. It’s to no one’s benefit for policies like these to be enforced arbitrarily, inconsistently, or on a personal, case-by-case basis. I think you can reach out to his psychiatrist, or if he has a 504 plan, you can contact his special ed coordinator, to discuss whether any of the fifteen accrued absences might be considered medically excusable. But rather than spending much more time or emotional energy on trying to negotiate these absences, I would think proactively.
“In danger of not graduating” is alarming news—but it is precautionary, and it’s a much, much better position to be in than “not graduating.” Your son can still course-correct. Together, you should investigate where he stands in all of his classes, and make sure you’re very clear about what is required for him to stay on track. Then, work with him to generate a plan for meeting those requirements. Can he identify the triggers that caused him to miss class? How will he successfully navigate them going forward? Don’t hesitate to call in the support of anyone who might be able to help: the school counselor or social worker, administrators, his psychiatrist. If your son does have a 504 plan, his coordinator should be a key partner in this, too. I would also try to set a tone of optimism and confidence that he can recover from this setback; defeatedness and panic are contagious, and the last thing he needs.
And as much as you can, I would try to encourage your son’s agency and independence, letting him take the lead in this process. You don’t want the rest of the year to go off the rails, of course, but he will need these coping skills in college, where, even as the present crisis starts to recede, he will still struggle with challenges under far less oversight than he has now. You want him to come out of this knowing what to do if it happens again.
—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)
My 7-year-old first grader is a smart kid but had a rough transition to school. He was evaluated for special education, and when I got the results of his testing back, I was surprised as he scored pretty low in some areas I know he can do well. For instance, he only demonstrated that he could recognize about 10 letters, when he has been able to recognize every letter since he was 3. The evaluator noted that he lost interest, and she thinks he just started giving nonsense answers about halfway through.
This is his biggest issue. He loses interest, or gets “bored” as he puts it, and doesn’t want to do the work anymore. I have tried to tell him not everything is always going to be exciting but we have to do it anyway, and he’ll do better for a while but then stop trying. His school uses apps on a tablet for some of their work, and to advance to the next level you have to show proficiency in the current lesson before it moves you up. My son is still on the simplest math even though yesterday he was able to multiply all numbers from 1-6 (he needed a piece of paper to multiply 6x6, but he did the rest in his head).
His teachers know he’s smart. I know he’s smart. But how can we get him to demonstrate this in his work? I know some parents would say his boredom is because he already knows how to do the adding that the class is being taught and he needs something harder, but he typically gets anxious when learning or doing something that is hard for him. I’ve learned if you just let him come to it naturally, he’ll get more excited about it (which is how he started multiplying).
He’s young enough now that I don’t worry about his “grades,” but I want to figure out a way to get him to demonstrate his actual abilities before it starts to become an issue. Any recommendations?
—Lack of Focus
As you rightly point out to your son, school will not always be entertaining, challenging, and thoroughly engaging. Sometimes you simply need to bear down and get the job done as directed, regardless of your feelings or enthusiasm.
One of the best ways that I have found to encourage students to try their best regardless of subject or task is to find them a mentor or role model who can reinforce this idea on a consistent basis. When I partner one of my fifth graders with a middle schooler who can talk about the importance of effort regardless of subject, day, or mood, that message is often better received and produces longer lasting results. Kids hear from parents and teachers quite a lot, but when you insert the voice of someone a little older with a different perspective and even a different language of sorts, I have seen real change take place.
Your son may also respond well to grades. For many of my students, a graded assignment, with a score, inspires much more effort than a pat on the back, or a gold star. Your child is probably too young to expect letter grades from his teacher, but you might begin explaining the grade he would’ve received on an assignment if he were older.
Many kids like to know exactly where they stand at all times. It’s why they never balk at scores in baseball games or videogames. They want to know if they are kicking ass or getting their ass kicked. You might find that this knowledge causes your son to work harder.
When there are no stakes, there is often less effort. Increase the stakes a bit, and you might find your son responding positively.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
My six-year-old daughter is in first grade. Her handwriting has regressed a lot over this past year. Her therapist suspects she has ADHD, but she hasn’t been able to get assessed because of the pandemic. She is in therapy (1-on-1 and group) under the assumption that she either has ADHD or just needs the supports.
Trying to get her to practice writing is the hardest part of virtual learning. She’s been seeing other kids’ writing on the screen all year and has identified that their handwriting is better than hers is—so I’m pretty sure self-esteem is part of the problem. She was excited by Handwriting Without Tears for a day, and then rushed through the letters purposefully, with the letters progressively getting worse and worse.
Her teacher told us we should focus on her letters and not push her to write sentences (beyond her weekly writing assignment), so we don’t add too much stress. But it’s still a struggle, and I’m reluctant to make her feel worse. Any recommendations? I’m considering an in-person writing tutor in the summer if it’s safe enough, but I’m also looking for help now.
—Writing Brings Tears
Dear Writing Brings Tears,
My heart goes out to you. As a teacher and novelist, I want all children to love writing so much.
I have three suggestions for you:
First, get your daughter writing in as many modalities as possible to increase her interest in practice. This can include:
• Writing letters on white boards, and using fun implements like crayons, colored pens, and chalk.
• Spread shaving cream on a tray and have your daughter write her letters in it with her fingers.
• Spread sugar or salt on a tray and have her write her letters with a straw or a stick.
• Building letters in Playdoh.
Second, help develop her fine motor skills. This can include:
• Using tongs to move small objects from one spot to another (make a game of it).
• Working with clay.
• Tracing letters, pictures, and lines.
Third, I disagree with your teacher’s advice to focus on letters only. Kids get excited about writing when it has a purpose. When children learn to express themselves through words on the page, a whole new world opens up for them. My wife’s kindergarten students are currently writing picture books, and her students’ excitement is palpable. I know—I hear about it every night.
I would encourage your daughter to write sentences. Poorly spelled, grammatically incorrect, sloppily written sentences, and when she does, be amazed. Laugh at her hilarity, even when it’s definitely not hilarious. Take a photo of her sentences, and share it via text with her grandparents and others. Record a video of her writing process. Ask her to draw a picture to go along with every sentence. Make it a huge deal.
Best of luck.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
More Advice From Slate
I have four children, with another on the way. My oldest, who is 9, is very creative and bright, but is perhaps prone to hoarding a bit. She draws and cuts out creative pictures. She keeps magazines she wants to read, and interesting bits of recycling she will use for art later. When she was younger, I would just throw away most stuff. (She didn’t remember or care.) Now that she is older, I want to respect her desire to create and keep her own stuff, but I am also finding myself driven crazy by the mess! What should I do?