Care and Feeding

My Daughter Is Struggling in School

Can I give her a free pass?

An 11-year-old girl looks at her laptop screen.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by 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 11-year-old daughter graduated from elementary school at the end of the 2019-2020 school year and started sixth grade in a new school this past fall. She was diagnosed with ADHD just before COVID hit and has been working remotely with teachers she has never met, in classes with kids she mostly doesn’t know, and has barely set foot inside of her school. The hybrid learning option only kicked in last week and even with that she is only in school for 1-2 half days a week.

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For the first few report cards she seemed to be holding her own and made honor roll twice. She has had some big dips where she has stopped handing in her work and then has to make up large amounts of assignments all at once in order to get her grades back up. On her last report card she went down in every subject. I had a conversation with the leader of her house a few weeks ago, and she told me that in their faculty meetings, none of the teachers have ever named my daughter as a student to keep an eye on, and she thinks she is mostly doing fine.

We have spent the year trying to land on a good medication/dosage for her ADHD and dealing with the side effects, offering our help when she has dropped the ball, and making her communicate with her teachers in terms of fixing her mistakes. The problem is that my husband and I have very different approaches. I feel that a sixth grader with ADHD should be given latitude during this dumpster fire of a year, that she will likely do far better next year when she is in the building for in-person learning and that sixth grade grades don’t matter a single whit. My husband thinks we are failing her by not disciplining her for not turning her work in, and that all sorts of disruptions happen in the real world, and she needs to learn that she has to do her work and succeed no matter what else is going on around her. So, what say you teachers? How many alarms is this fire?

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—Flailing or fine?

Dear Flailing or Fine,

Your husband is right that all sorts of disruptions happen in the real world, but

First of all, rarely is that disruption a global pandemic, during which students had to adjust to a whole new mode of learning, while socially isolating, and protecting themselves from a deadly disease. I’m certainly glad that my boss, colleagues, and students extended me grace during this weird and difficult time. I think they appreciate that I gave them breaks as well.

Second, while some students did as well with remote learning as they do with in-person, it was absolutely normal for students to struggle. Considering your daughter has ADHD, I’m not at all surprised she had a hard time, especially as time wore on.

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As I’m sure you know, some symptoms of ADHD are having a short attention span, being unable to stick to tedious or time-consuming tasks, and having difficulty organizing. You know how bowling alleys have those gutter bumpers you can put up for kids? The kids probably won’t get strikes, but they at least have a chance to hit the mark. Well, in school, teachers have tons of little opportunities to check in with individuals who may have missed a memo or be off-task, and students chat to each other about upcoming deadlines. Remote learning doesn’t allow for these “bumpers,” so it’s much easier for assignments to end up in the gutter.

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If your daughter has the same challenges next year in in-person school, seek help from the EC coordinator, the teachers, and/or the school counselor. Until then, pat her on the back for making it through a year that will go down in the history books.

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

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I’m afraid my 5-year-old is having trouble reintegrating socially after returning to in-person kindergarten. We’ve been fortunate enough to have had the option for in-person school all year, but we switched her to Zoom after Thanksgiving because my wife and mother (who has been staying with us) both were both at high risk for COVID.

Now that everyone is vaccinated, we have sent her back, starting about three weeks ago. Every time I ask, she says that she’s been playing by herself during recess (which seems to be the only time to play with the other kids). It does not sound like she is being bullied or anything, and she does not seem to mind. She says that the other kids just aren’t interested in playing and/or do not know how to play the game she wants to play. She says she has been playing “Dragons,” which I think is an imaginative game.

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I’m trying to decide whether this is something to be worried about, and, if so, what I can do. She isn’t complaining about it, but I am concerned that she is missing an opportunity to build friendships and develop her social skills. She’s an only child so she isn’t building peer social skills at home.

For what it’s worth, neither my wife nor I are the most social people in the world (my wife is an introvert, and I’m just not good at it). As a result, we’ve never been great about setting up play dates (and COVID obviously hasn’t helped). This leaves me both not great at helping her with this, and open to the idea that I’m just imposing my own anxieties on her. Should I talk to her teacher? Not worry? I’d love any thoughts you have.

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—Socially Stymied

Dear Socially Stymied,

As we transition from our homes back into the outside world, this will be a common experience for many families and children. I’ve heard from families who decided to go back to school this year that the safety regulations have made it very difficult for kids to experience all of the fun social aspects of school. So ultimately, I don’t think you have much to worry about. Your daughter is likely a bit rusty socially, and it will take some time for her to stretch her connection muscles again.

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That said, there are some things that you can do to help. Even though it’s a little outside of your comfort zone, I’d begin by setting up a few COVID-safe outdoor playdates for her. It’d be a great opportunity for her to spend time with some friends or school acquaintances, and may even give you and your wife a chance to stretch those human connection muscles as well. You could also try visiting a few parks and playgrounds if they are open in your area. With all the safety regulations your daughter is adhering to in school, it may just be a tense space where she feels nervous to interact as she normally would in school. Taking her to the park where those restrictions aren’t present may give her a sense of ease in reaching out to other kids.

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—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)

My son is in sixth grade, and he transferred to his current school 6 months ago (there were too many playground fights at his previous school). He was enjoying his new school, had made a handful of friends, and was happy. He’s quiet, shy, goes out of his way to please others, and has never had any issues throughout his school years.

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Yesterday, his class aide emailed me to inform me that his school shoes were inappropriate. (They were black Lacoste, the only school shoe we found in his size during a pandemic.) No one had mentioned anything to him before.

His teacher, the head of his school, and his classroom aide went on to scold him about his school shoes in front of all his classmates. His teacher then went on to ask him if his shoes are Lacoste, and whether they are knock-offs! He said he felt humiliated and embarrassed.

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I feel terrible—I would think they’d have had the decency to speak with him privately if his shoes were not suitable. I immediately took him to buy a replacement that same afternoon.

In talking about this incident, my son has said that when he says good morning to his classroom aide, the aide never says good morning back, although he says good morning to his other students. With all this, he’s been feeling really down and does not have the same enjoyment or eagerness to want to go to school.

I am torn if I should say something to his teachers? Sometimes he wants me to, but changes his mind because he’s scared and worried they will be harsher towards him. He’s Indian, and the three teachers are all white. I told him I am sure the teachers don’t mean anything by it, but he said I wasn’t there and do not know how he’s feeling.

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What do you think I should do? I don’t know how to handle the situation delicately so he’s not further humiliated or hurt. I also don’t want to see him hurt and upset.

—The Other Shoe Has Dropped

Dear Shoe,

Speak to these teachers about your concerns. The behavior described is inappropriate and potentially damaging to your son. Remaining silent in fear of retribution creates a space that is not healthy for your son.

Given the nature of children, it’s possible that your son is misreading the situation, so I would start the conversation with his teachers by asking questions, listening carefully, taking notes, and keeping an open mind. But given the specificity of your son’s accounting of the story, I suspect that it’s fairly accurate.

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While it’s possible that these teachers will treat your son even worse after your conversation with them, it’s highly unlikely. They may not like you very much following the discussion, but in my 23 years of teaching, I have yet to see a teacher take out their frustration with a parent on a child.

If this happens, I would immediately speak to the teacher’s administrator, armed with notes from your conversation. Climb the chain of command until you find someone willing to help.

In the end, you really have no choice. Your son isn’t enjoying school as a result of recent actions by the teachers in this classroom. He doesn’t feel welcomed or loved. This requires a conversation and a plan of action for solving this problem. Remaining silent because you or he fear the consequences of speaking up cannot be the path of any parent or student.

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—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

My son is in fifth grade. We have been gloriously fortunate to have full in-person school since August 2020. As the school year ends, my kid is getting more and more sad and lonely. His friendships have ebbed and flowed this year. He now seems stuck in a spiral of having no true friends. He can’t move past old friends to find new ones. I have offered to have kids to our house, but he says no one is ever available. I have reached out to other moms to set up visits and get turned down. His teachers are really surprised by this saying he is social and well liked at school. What am I missing? How can I help him move through this time?

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—Friendless in Fifth Grade

Dear Friendless,

Aw, poor kid. I’ve been the teacher who said, “Really? He’s a social butterfly!” But teachers don’t see every interaction, nor do we occupy kids’ social emotional headspace. His experience is legitimate, even if it differs from teachers’ perceptions of it.

As he ends fifth grade, he might be starting to experience the normal friend-group fractures that happen in middle school. Students start clumping, not by geography or shared history, but by interest. You could try getting your son involved in extracurricular activities. Participating in coding or baseball or hip-hop dance or Science Olympiad or theater could provide a natural environment in which he’d find kindred spirits.

Or he might be mourning the end of elementary school. Or frightened about the shift to middle school. Or maybe somebody’s bullying him, and he doesn’t want to tell you.

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Have you considered talking to or letting your son talk to the school counselor? Or a therapist? If he’s sad and lonely, and it’s getting worse, it would be wise to consult a professional. They may be able to get to the bottom of the issue and teach him some strategies for both emotion regulation and making friends.

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Better to try an intervention now than let this issue fester, I think.

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

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