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 just started first grade. Last year, there were five kindergarten classes of about 16 students each. This year there are four first grade classes. We found out today that she doesn’t have a single kid from her old class in her new class. Is this typical? I mean, just by chance, I would think she’d have three to four other kids from her previous class in her class this year? My husband thinks maybe they are already breaking the kids into tracks?
She had perfect grades last year, and we didn’t get any info about her not getting along with others; she got the “best friend” award at the end of kindergarten. Is this weird? My husband went to a tiny rural school where he had the same classmates for years, while I moved all the time and went to many different elementary schools so we just don’t know.
—It’s Lonely Over Here
Nope, not weird! Elementary teachers do develop class rosters with some degree of intention, but the decisions are usually based on rationale about students’ social-emotional needs, not academic tracking, and it’s not an especially dramatic or high-stakes selection process. More like, “Student A was socially anxious last year, so he might do well placed with Teacher B, who is especially nurturing and encouraging,” or “Students C and D really struggled to get along last year, so let’s split them up.” Or, most likely in your case, “Letter Writer’s Daughter had a great kindergarten year and got along with everyone; she’ll be fine wherever we put her.” Whatever the rationale, I can assure you pretty confidently that it was not an attempt to isolate your daughter—her class placement is due to some combination of random luck and a smooth and uneventful kindergarten year. She’ll do great in first grade!
—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)
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Last year I home-schooled my son “Z” due to COVID. Z is an only child and will always be an only child. He’s very charming, if occasionally aggressive or clingy, but I think it’s normal for his age. I was planning to return him to school at least for this year, but given the state of COVID and its variants, I’m not sure what to do. I found out that masks will be optional at school and social distancing is only 3 feet. This has led my husband and me to want to home-school for another year.
My question is about his social development. Teachers I talk to freak out that I taught him kindergarten myself. Most family insist he will be a serial killer loner if he doesn’t interact with a classroom of kids each day. How damaging would it be if I home-school him for first grade? Everyone talks about how important these first couple of years are for social development, but I don’t want to put my son at greater risk. I don’t want to damage him, but I don’t want him to get sick or die. How much socialization does he need with kids his age to avoid damage and being able to function as an adult down the road? For the record I was properly “socialized” K-12, and I am weirder than just about anyone I know.
—All Anxious About the Social Stuff
COVID has presented many challenges to parents, especially those with young children. While I believe strongly that socialization is one of the main benefits to early learning, missing out on a couple years will not condemn your son to the life of a serial killer.
You’re right to be concerned about the school’s minimal approach to COVID protections. If the district’s COVID protocols don’t live up to your expectations, you should prioritize keeping your child safe. And if you choose to keep him home, it doesn’t mean he can’t socialize entirely. Consider what key social skills and behaviors a child gets from classroom experiences. Things like sharing, empathy, and team dynamics are best learned through peer-to-peer experience. It will be very important to create situations for your son to learn and hone these skills with other kids his age.
You might consider a home-schooling collective where families who home-school get their kids together for common classes, sporting activities, and play sessions. See if you can find one that’s on the same page as you with COVID precautions and protocols. If not, regular trips to a neighborhood park could be a great first step, too.
—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)
My daughter’s 7 (she’ll be 8 in October) and about to start third grade. A pattern has existed in her educational experience so far that I’m really hoping to break starting this year.
According to her preschool teacher, my daughter didn’t show much interest in the academic lessons that were being taught in class. I sent her to a kindergarten prep summer camp to help her get ready for elementary school, and I signed her up for Kumon for extra support. I didn’t get much feedback from her counselors at the camp, but once she started kindergarten, her teacher made it quite clear pretty early on that she was behind academically when compared to her peers.
My daughter continued to struggle throughout kindergarten to keep up with the pace of the curriculum, but with extra help from one of the special ed teachers, her performance improved enough that she was able to move on to first grade without having to go to summer school.
First grade somewhat mirrored kindergarten: She was behind most of the year, received extra help and was able to pass. With my 74-year-old father and asthmatic teen daughter to think of, my husband and I decided to keep my 7-year-old at home for most of the third grade. She struggled with distance learning, and her teacher recommended that we have her evaluated for a learning disability. She scored mostly average on all of the tests they administered and only very slightly below on tests that evaluated her working memory. They concluded that her shyness and lack of confidence had a lot to do with her struggles.
Having her home for distance learning revealed to me that it takes her longer than her peers to master a particular skill. We were able to get her reading skills up with a private tutor, but now she’s struggling in math. She returned to school during the middle of April and received extra help in both reading and math after school, which allowed her to pass the necessary assessments, but her progress report showed more than a few areas that are still in need of improvement.
She has continued to see her reading tutor periodically throughout the summer, but I’m concerned that she’s not prepared enough for third-grade math. How can I help my daughter break the cycle of struggling for most of the year and then catching up at the end? I know it’s hurting her confidence when she sees her friends being able to read books and do math problems that she has trouble with. She’s told me on more than one occasion that she doesn’t think she’s smart. When she’s around family and friends, she’s so bright, well-spoken, and clever. People are so surprised when they hear she has trouble in school. It baffles me a bit as well.
Is it worth having her evaluated again? Perhaps they missed something? Or is this just a challenge that she’s going to have to work through on a yearly basis?
—Always Playing Catch-Up
Dear Always Playing,
While it may be worth having your daughter evaluated again, I suggest you wait. It’s often difficult to identify learning disabilities in younger students, and many times, the transition from the lower primary grades to the upper grades is marked by changes in the way kids learn and are taught. It’s hard to predict how these changes will affect learning, so I would wait for at least a year before asking for another evaluation.
My suggestion is to take all that you have written in your letter and discuss it with your daughter’s teacher. You’ve done an excellent job outlining the problem. Explain the history, state your concerns, and ask for a plan to be put into place that will help your daughter realize greater success this year. This should include regularly scheduled communication between you and the teacher so that extra help can be provided in a timely manner when needed, either at home, school, or ideally in both places. I would also look to establish a positive support system—again both at school and at home—with the goal of boosting your daughter’s self-confidence and self-image by celebrating successes whenever they come.
A strong home/school connection will allow you and your daughter’s teacher to work closely this year to fill in any gaps before they widen into chasms.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
I have a son who is 5 and will start kindergarten this month. He displays ADHD tendencies (we’ll have a formal evaluation soon) and is very willful. He always has a reason why he can’t or shouldn’t do the things you ask him to do, and a willingness to argue (or tolerate punishment) for longer than it would have taken him to actually do the thing. Nevertheless, we have tried to mold him into a respectable citizen by requiring him to do chores like laundry. Under our supervision, he has to load his laundry and put away the clean, dry clothes. We don’t make him fold his clothes or match his socks, though, because I am tired of arguing with him. He has plenty of drawer space and his clothes don’t crease, so I don’t think it’s a fight worth having right now.
Enter my mother. She is an extremely capable person, and I was never organized, fashionable, or hard-working enough for her. She’s now a highly regarded teacher of her native language in a public elementary school in my hometown. She told me that when teachers in the public schools see kids with mismatched socks, the kids are warned to “straighten up,” and I was setting my son up for problems by not matching his socks.
I am worried about her comment about schools and socks. My mom will keep me up half the night arguing over inconsequential matters until I give in, so I can’t really ask her for any more details or expect her to give objective answers. I am already afraid that my son’s behavior will land him in trouble in kindergarten (like it does to a minor extent in preschool), and I don’t want his socks to add to the trouble. On the other hand, I can’t fathom why any teacher would care about socks. Do kindergarteners in public school (besides the ones taught by my mom) actually get in trouble for wearing mismatched socks?
—Should My Mom Put a Sock in It?
No. For many reasons, the two most important being that what your child wears does not affect how your son learns, and teachers penalizing kids for their clothes is ethically dicey. Your kid will be fine.
—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)
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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?