Care and Feeding

Is My Kid’s Downward Spiral Just Due to the Pandemic?

A boy wearing a backpack looks upset.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by BananaStock/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 17-year-old son, who’s currently a high school junior. Our district is fully remote, and has been since last March. My son has always been a relatively solid student, if not very enthusiastic. He has had his struggles in a few classes and is unorganized, but has always made it through and at the end of sophomore year as a solid A and B student. This year he has continuously failed classes (even art!), missed assignments, constantly says he’s fine, but he’s not. I brought in an executive functioning coach to help him organize, which worked for a bit, but the issue is still prominent.

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So my dilemma is this: Is he just checked out because remote learning in high school sucks, and he never really loved school anyway, or could this be a deeper problem finally surfacing? Would learning disabilities/attention disorders surface so late in his school career? I’d appreciate any advice you can offer.

—Searching for Answers

Dear Searching,

What a rough year it has been for us all! Given his age and previously strong academic record, I think it’s unlikely that your son has an undiagnosed learning disability. I would be more concerned about his mental health. Despite the fact that he says he’s fine, you see that he clearly is not. I suggest having him meet with the school guidance counselor or a therapist to get a sense of how he is coping mentally and emotionally. The isolation of remote learning combined with the stress of junior year (when many high schools are putting heavy emphasis on college readiness) may be taking a toll on him.

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I know this can be hard to hear, so please don’t take my suggestion as an indictment of your parenting or your family. Kids from loving, happy families can have mental health challenges, too–particularly if they have been living in a global pandemic for over a year!

Now, it’s possible your son is just checked out because remote learning sucks (it really does). If that’s the case, I guess he’ll just have to soldier on to the end and then right the ship next year when he’s back in an actual school. He certainly won’t be the only one. This year has been enormously tough on all of us, and I’ve seen it wreak havoc on the emotional well-being of many of my high schoolers.

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—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

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My kid will, god-willing, start kindergarten this fall. We are an upper-middle-class white family living in a hyper-gentrifying, predominantly Black city.

The schools here are very, very segregated. We’ve narrowed down our choices to two schools, and honestly, both of them seem like great options. But I’m feeling trapped and frustrated: we basically need to choose between a school with Black kids and a bilingual school that’s almost completely without them.

Our kid has been in “Current School,” a public pre-K program in a public school with only 6 percent white kids in the school overall, slightly more than half Black kids (a mix of African-American and African immigrant families), many Latinx families, and a few Asian families. We could also enroll the kid in “Neighborhood School” which is a language immersion school. About three-quarters of the kids in the school are Latinx, and the remaining kids are about half Black and half white. However, because our neighborhood has become a hot destination for affluent white families with kids—like us!—the Black kids in Neighborhood School are almost entirely older, and the pre-K and K grades have very, very few Black kids. Both of these schools are Title 1 schools, and frankly I feel good about the academics and extracurriculars in both.

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My partner and I always thought we’d send our kid to Neighborhood School—we both work in social change, regret not speaking Spanish, and want to prepare our kid to be part of a bilingual world. Plus, Neighborhood School has a great community vibe, and many of our (white) friends send their kids there. It’s not a prestigious school where parents pay a premium to buy homes in the zone—yet.

But it feels like caving to structural anti-Blackness to send our kid to a school that has almost no Black children in it. We have been very happy with Current School, and I also want my child to have Black friends and peers, and to be prepared to stand against the violent poison of anti-Blackness in America. This school doesn’t have the same community vibe, though all the teachers and staff are great, and we are currently friends with only one family there.

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I’m trying to root this decision in our anti-racist values, though my partner thinks I’m just acting out of guilt. Truthfully where I feel guilty is that my friend circles are very white. I struggle to make friends (in general) and have largely failed to make friends with families of color, especially in the pandemic! Perhaps I am asking the school to do too much in terms of creating an antiracist setting where my partner and I have failed. But still, it feels like we’re being forced to choose between Black folks and Latinx folks in a very literal and structural way. How should I make this decision?

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—School Dazed and Confused

Dear School Dazed,

There’s a lot to unpack here! At the root this feels like a question about your values, rather than what educational environment would be best for your child, which should always be the priority. Ultimately, I don’t think it will impact your child greatly no matter what school you choose, as long as you are intentional about supplementing their experience. School is only one part of where we learn how to be decent human beings, and that learning has to be intentional and continuous outside of school as well. Long story short, it’s fine to send your kid to the language immersion school if that feels right for your child, but you also need to be thoughtful about diversifying their experiences in an authentic way outside of school. Conversely, if you keep your kid in their current school, sign them up for Spanish classes outside of school.

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That said, I need to point out that your child’s mere presence at a school with a largely Black student body is not antiracist. Rather, it’s what resources you bring to the community to support Black students, teachers, and families in dismantling racist policies, that makes your family’s presence anti-racist. To approach this decision from an anti-racist lens I’d ask myself the question, “What can my family bring to the table to best support my school community, and how can we support the leadership of black families to become a better ally and community member?”

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—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)

My daughter is 7 years old and is a first grader in remote school. Her handwriting has gotten worse over the year, and she now says she hates writing and it’s not her thing and that she dislikes art, which she used to love.

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Part of the problem is physical in that she holds her pencil incorrectly. We got special pencil grips, which she used for a little while but no longer does. Without the grip she holds her pencil with all five fingers (with her pinky in the bottommost position). She also tilts the paper in the wrong direction making it even harder to write. When we try to gently point out using three fingers or tilting the paper in the other direction she gets incredibly mad. Sometimes she even runs away. So we stopped pointing it out.

We get that perfectionism may be playing a role, but no amount of mentioning our own mistakes or mentioning getting better at something after practicing has made any difference.

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The school occupational therapist evaluated her over Zoom and said she may have a motor planning problem. She gave us a list of things to do not unlike the suggestions you made recently in this column to another child struggling with writing—make it fun and like a game so that we don’t force her, etc.— but otherwise the OT basically washed her hands of us. Our daughter mostly refuses to do what the OT recommended. We were already trying to make these tasks fun and are feeling so frustrated. She’s typically the type of kid who will listen to any adult who isn’t us. What do we do?

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—Writing Isn’t My Thing

Dear Writing,

This is one of the great challenges of remote learning. Kids lose the opportunity to practice challenging but necessary skills like handwriting, and it’s extremely hard to build those skills. As someone who was diagnosed with dysgraphia myself, I can empathize with the child who doesn’t want to write. It hurt my hand to do it, and I wanted to avoid that feeling. I’m not saying your daughter has dysgraphia, but it could explain why she is so resistant to writing, using the grip, or even doing the activities—the muscle tone in her hand may be low. I know that sounds odd (we don’t think of our hands as being “toned”), but fine motor tasks like writing do take muscular strength in the hands—grip and control and stamina. Often, a palmer grasp (holding the pencil in the fist, pinky down) is evidence that a child simply doesn’t have the hand strength to hold or sustain a more mature pencil grasp.

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Mr. Dicks’ suggestions for writing are wonderful (and I do encourage you to keep trying!), but if the issue is her strength, they may be too challenging for her at this time. The world’s most fun Ninja Warrior course is, at its core, still a Ninja Warrior course, and people who do not have the muscles to complete a Ninja Warrior course aren’t going to be better at it just because it’s fun. They may be more willing to try, but that only gets you so far.

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So, if the issue is her hand muscles, how do you build those? Not shockingly, the answer is just using your hands. Dressing and undressing (or dressing up a doll), cooking, gardening, crafts… Anything you do that uses your hands builds strength in your hands. And as for her not wanting to do what you want her to, don’t make it a task you’re asking her to complete. You guys can want to make biscuits for breakfast Sunday morning. You can have fun doing it. You can, perhaps, play up the amount of fun you’re having. If she wants to participate, great! If not, now you have biscuits, so really, is that a loss? You can get a set of pony beads and make a necklace for her best friend (using a shoelace is easier to thread than string, FYI), or try planting a garden, or play a boardgame where she has to move her piece around. Those sorts of activities can help build the stamina to eventually build toward writing. Likewise, with the writing activities, try an approach that is less “we’re going to do our writing exercises now” and more “let’s write a grocery list”—kids like having responsibilities, and that framework may distract from how frustrating or challenging the work is.

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I would also follow up with the school district about the OT evaluation—“might have a motor planning problem” isn’t really a diagnosis, and those tests typically have some kind of threshold for what is or is not age appropriate. If she is on the edge between appropriate and not appropriate, you may want to ask for a re-eval after some amount of time, and if not, you may want that reassessed if none of these suggestions seem to improve her fine motor skills. It’s unfortunate that, due to COVID-19, parents are increasingly responsible for monitoring their children’s development in areas that are normally managed at school, but it’s an opportunity for you to be her best advocate and equip yourself with as much information as possible to ask for the supports she needs while she’s still young.

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

We have transitioned from distance learning to in person learning. While we were distance learning, my husband (who was the person primarily responsible for our kids during school time) purchased educational supplies that would normally be classroom supplies related to whatever the kids were learning. Now that they are back in school he wants me to take these supplies and drop them off at the school. I’m reluctant to just drop off bulky stuff without some indication that someone wants/needs it. I’m afraid that we are creating a burden on the school to deal with stuff that they didn’t request or may not have any use for.

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I have requested that he check the teachers or the school ahead of time, but he’s reluctant to do that.What do you, as a teacher, think of unsolicited donations?

—Stuff, Stuff, and More Stuff

Dear Stuff,

Donations of cash, gift cards, coffee, booze, tissues, or (in our current plague) Lysol wipes are welcome any time. All others should be inquired about.

I’m always flummoxed when people just drop stuff off at school. Would your husband deliver unsolicited surplus band-aids to your kids’ pediatrician? File folders to your tax preparer? Even if he had a pristine couch he was trying to get rid of, he’d ask somebody at the church before he hauled it into the meeting hall, wouldn’t he? Yes, schools often ask for donations, but they’re for specific supplies—things teachers know they need, will use, and don’t have. Remember that old Mitch Hedberg joke that goes something like, “When someone hands you a flyer, it’s like they’re saying, ‘Here, you throw this away’”? If the school doesn’t need those specific supplies, your husband is creating more work for the staff because they have to find someone who does need them or dispose of them themselves.

Please tell him Ms. Scott says you’re right, he’s wrong.

—Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)

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