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 email@example.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
My third grade daughter is gifted and has continually come home from school this year with 100 percent on her tests. It’s become such a regular thing that I am worried that she isn’t challenged enough at school. They don’t offer gifted programs in my area, so I inquired about having her skip a grade, and I was told that no one had ever asked about their child skipping a grade.
I do not want to insult her teachers, but how do I approach them in a respectful way about my daughter’s special needs? Do I say something, or just keep giving my daughter arts and crafts and other educational activities she enjoys? School feels like it’s such a waste because I know my daughter needs more challenges. I’d love some suggestions on how to talk to her teacher in the fall about my daughter’s unique learning needs.
In general, I would not recommend skipping grade levels. While your daughter may be academically gifted, academics are only a part of your child’s learning experience. Your daughter’s social and emotional development are equally, and perhaps even more important, and she may need the lessons and experiences that every grade level will bring.
She may also not be prepared for the maturity and physical development of children older than her. One year may not seem like a lot, but when you are eight years old, a single year represents a significant percentage of her lifetime, and the differences between fourth and fifth graders in terms of maturity and physical development are considerable.
I would also be curious about your child’s level of effort on a daily basis. I’ve had students who master concepts with high levels of achievement but work hard while doing so. There’s an enormous difference between a child easily scoring 100 percent on an assignment and a child working like hell to score 100 percent on an assignment. If your child is scoring well but her effort is high, she may already be challenged sufficiently.
My suggestion would be to ask her teacher to partner with you in terms of challenging your daughter in the coming year. Acknowledging to a teacher that meeting the needs of two dozen children with diverse needs can be challenging and offering to be an equal partner in that process of meeting the needs of your daughter will go a long way in making it work. Education always works best with teachers and parents work in tandem, but it’s especially helpful when a student has a special need.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
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My 7-year-old ADHD daughter has really suffered this year. We decided to homeschool her, instead of chasing her to sit in front of a monitor, and in some ways, she’s excelled. She’s reading at 940L based on fluency and comfort level, and she’s exceeded her state goals in math. However, she’s become withdrawn and chooses to bring books to activities designed to help her socialize. Her BFF has an autoimmune disorder, and they only talk online. How do I help her become more comfortable around other kids again?
—Out of Her Shell
Time and exposure are probably the only ways to get your daughter comfortable with other children again. In the same way that a kindergartener who’s slow to warm up might take a month or two to feel comfortable in a classroom for the first time, your daughter will need to spend more time in the presence of children before she begins to feel comfortable socializing again.
You can assist this process by creating structured situations where reading a book is impossible. Try to present her with some situations or social engagements that are low stakes or have a very low-key, built-in social component to them, such as cooperative board games, movie nights, swimming, or playing other sports (if sports are her thing). When socialization is structured and specific, your daughter might feel it safer to engage.
Returning to school, when that is possible in your state, will also help a lot.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
In your opinion, how much does a “good” pre-k program matter? In other words, should we be prioritizing academics (what do they even learn at that age?) or is it more about socialization?
—Where to Go?
I think pre-k is incredibly important. Districts around the country are upping their investments in pre-k, and the Biden administration has made it part of their education plan because research shows that pre-k has a positive impact on children long-term. I can speak to this from personal experience as an educator. Without a doubt you should find a quality program in which to enroll your child.
When weighing academics and socialization, they’re both significant parts of a preschool experience. Completing preschool makes the entry to kindergarten a lot less scary for kids because it feels more like a natural progression, rather than the start of something brand new. Those kids also are likely to have already built a foundation of learning about sharing, empathy, and they probably even have some practice at making friends. Additionally, most children leave preschool able to identify a few, if not all, letters and count to ten. Those skills will be invaluable during the first few weeks/months of kindergarten because that is the focus of most curriculum. In short, like most things, getting started sooner rather than later usually yields favorable results.
If what you’re asking is how to choose between two preschools that weigh those factors differently—one might be play-based, for example, and another might focus on rigorous academics—then I think I’d lean more toward a preschool with a strong academic focus. To be clear, I’m a huge proponent of play-based learning in general, but for preschool I believe the focus should be getting a strong head start and initial exposure to the rigor of kindergarten and school overall. However, you should strongly consider your child’s learning style before making a final decision. Do they enjoy a free-flowing learning experience, or are they a kid that thrives in a more structured environment? Ultimately you should prioritize enrolling your child into whatever school is the best fit for them, where they can learn to love learning.
—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)
My son will be five at the end of July. We were planning on having him start kindergarten in the fall but then we heard that this year’s class is significantly larger than normal (22 kids per class instead of 15). I’m assuming a lot of the extra kids will be 6-year-olds who delayed starting kindergarten last year due to COVID. Now I’m nervous that my son will seem extra young compared to his classmates. I think he meets most of the kindergarten readiness checklist requirements, but he does seem to get overwhelmed in larger groups. We would obviously prefer not to pay for another year of pre-k, but it’s very doable if it’s going to make a difference for him. What sorts of things can I look at in terms of his emotional or academic readiness to help me make this decision? Do you have any thoughts on whether I should hold him back or not?
—To Go or Not to Go
For this question, I checked in with my kindergarten colleagues, including my wife, for some expert advice.
If it were me, I would hold your son back. But I tend toward preferring the extra year at home for selfish reasons more than academic. We get such a short amount of time with our children, and they get such a short amount of time to enjoy childhood. I tend toward wanting to give them (and myself) more of all of that.
The consensus from my kindergarten colleagues is that while holding your son back wouldn’t have many detrimental effects, keeping him in pre-K because of the class size should not be one of them. While 22 is not ideal, it is certainly doable, and depending on where you live, class sizes of 22 kindergarteners are not uncommon. Your son’s tendency to become overwhelmed in larger groups is also not uncommon and would surely be mitigated by being in school, so that should also not be a concern. This is why kids go to school.
In terms of readiness, kindergarteners begin the school year at every level of possible readiness, so identifying specific readiness indicators is hard. It’s helpful if your child understands how to regulate his emotions, take turns, and lose a game without becoming despondent or angry, but kindergarten teachers deal with children who lack these skills every year and help their students to develop them.
In the words of one kindergarten teacher, “Turning five in July is just right for a child entering kindergarten. He’s ready. And if he’s in any kind of preschool, he’s absolutely ready.”
In summation, selfish me says hold the kid back for your own personal needs and satisfaction. My kindergarten colleagues say send that kid to school. He’s ready to go.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
More Advice From Slate
My daughter is a freshman in high school, and she recently got an assignment in life sciences that seems inappropriate. The assignment is for the kids to identify someone in their family who died of cancer, and then students are supposed to research that kind of cancer and create a poster presentation to display for the entire school. This seems like a terrible idea, and an invasion of privacy. Should I talk to the teacher?