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.
I have a son who just started middle school this last year. He was remote all year, while most of his classmates are not in-person. He loves remote and would like to do it full time if he could, but he has no option next year. He is a quiet kid with only a few friends. One now goes to a different middle school and his other close friend is at the same school, but their schedules don’t align. I am concerned that he will struggle socially next year. Do you have any tips for a child to integrate into middle school social life?
Dear At Sea,
One very effective way to make new friends at school is to join a club. It doesn’t have to be an extracurricular that requires an intense commitment, either. Some clubs meet up once a week during lunch at school just for fun. Many schools have a list of their clubs and activities on their website; read through it with him and encourage him to choose one to try this year.
There are also workbooks that can help kids learn strategies for making friends or overcoming shyness. If you don’t think he’s amenable to reading a book on the topic, Understood has some helpful tips for talking to your middle schooler about making friends (this website is for parents of children with learning difficulties, so not all of the advice will be applicable, but several of the tips are generally helpful for all kids). When you discuss returning to school in the fall, be careful not to project your worries onto him. It’s possible he’s content having a few close friends—not all kids have the same friendship needs. Make sure you’re listening to what he wants and needs.
Best of luck! I’m wishing you and your son a happy return to school.
— Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)
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I’m a disabled rising senior student and am currently looking at colleges and universities to apply to. I go to a charter school known for its rigorous curriculum and managed to stay afloat through my middle school years before being diagnosed with ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder in my freshman year of high school (I also have a lot of chronic health conditions, as well as depression and anxiety). I was able to get accommodations, such as extra time for assessments and am allowed to wear noise-cancelling headphones in class. These have been quite helpful, however it hasn’t been enough to keep the noise levels in the classrooms from causing me to have meltdowns or prevent my classmates from mocking me and spreading rumors of my “special treatment,” among other things. So you can imagine I’m not looking forward to going back to school too much.
Ideally I’d like to go somewhere with small class sizes and a flexible curriculum to suit my brain, like a liberal arts college. I was researching schools when I realized that there are colleges for the neurodivergent. I know there are schools for the blind and deaf, but I hadn’t heard of a place like Landmark College or Beacon College until very recently. Since I was diagnosed late in life (and due to a bunch of other stuff), I haven’t gotten a lot of treatment or training to help me to do well in a mainstream learning environment. I get decent grades in school currently, but I know I have to work a lot harder and under a lot more distress than my classmates to get half as far as them. The lack of tolerance and awareness (particularly of SPD) of others has also made me think that my best bet for college might be a place made specifically for people like me, where I can be surrounded by others who’ve had similar experiences.
Only problem is, there don’t seem to be a lot of these schools. There are the two I’ve already mentioned, and Adelphi University in New York has the only program specifically for individuals with sensory needs in the country. Furthermore, a lot of people believe that only autistic individuals have sensory issues, and so if there’s a program that’s for people on the spectrum that also provides sensory relief, obviously I can’t qualify for it. Are there more colleges for ADHD kids that I’m missing? A college with a program for neurodivergent students would be fine, but a college for neurodiverse students would be easier. It took a while to find the ones that I did, so I’m curious about any and all others, even if they’re not in the U.S. where I live.
Dear Invisibly Disabled,
Let me get the bad news out of the way first: other than the ones you’ve listed (Beacon, Landmark, and Adelphi), there aren’t really any schools I’ve been able to find that are specifically designed for neurodivergent students. I’m not going to surprise you with a list of secret schools that have been there the whole time.
Now, onto the better news. I have a few things you can do. First, if it’s an option for you, request (or have your parents request) an IEP/504 meeting (whichever one you are already using) to address the SPD. Sensory Processing Disorder can be debilitating in that it prevents you from doing activities that you want to do. While SPD is not a diagnosis in the DSM, you can receive therapies to help you cope with it, mainly occupational therapy. An occupational therapist can help you learn how to ground yourself so that you have more “spoons” or emotional stores to handle challenging sensory input when it comes up. That person can also teach you strategies for how to cope in the moment that challenging sensory input occurs. This doesn’t directly address the college problem, but life is full of sensory input and having strategies in place to handle it will help across settings.
Next, while there aren’t many other dedicated colleges, there are programs for neurodivergent students within other schools that could really help you. It’s true that most programs that address SPD are typically aimed at autistic students, but not all of them require a diagnosis. One of the big differences between high school and college is that, even if you don’t go to a college that is all one minority group or another, it’s easier to cultivate a social circle in college. For example, I went to the University of Chicago, and while it doesn’t have any special programs for neurodivergent students, a large population of kids with neurodivergent needs were able to find one another and form support groups, both formal and informal.
There are two avenues for finding these programs. Some college counselors specialize in this sort of work, and if your family can afford them, they may be a big help, not just with picking a program, but with the application process. ADHD often manifests as executive functioning difficulties, so having someone walk you through this process could be enormously helpful. If you go to this website and search for the LD College sub-specialty, there are people all over the country who have the expertise to help you find the right school. The other avenue is more informal: With your parents’ approval, go to Twitter or Facebook or whatever your social media of choice is and find adults with ADHD or SPD who can offer you advice. You can, for example, tag something #AskingAutistic on twitter and get responses from Autistic people about their experiences in college. Likewise ask #AskADHD and get responses from people with ADHD about their experiences in one school or another. Getting information from the community can help you both with picking a school and with finding resources to help you be happier and more comfortable in the world.
Choosing a college is hard and scary, but something I think we forget is that it’s not permanent. The secret is that, while transferring is a hassle, it’s ultimately doable, so if you find a school and it isn’t working for you, you can always look again. You aren’t going to ruin your life by picking the wrong program—but hopefully, if you can find a supportive community of people who aren’t jerks to you, you will be more comfortable and able to learn.
—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)
Children where I live start kindergarten if they’re 5 before December 31. All of the towns around us have a kindergarten cutoff date of being 5 by September 15. Our daughter has a Dec. 20 birthday, and we’re torn about whether to send her to kindergarten at 4.5 or not. We have the (obviously more expensive) option of keeping her at our beloved daycare, which goes through kindergarten because of the neighboring town cutoff. I worry about sending her to kindergarten so young, because much of our school curriculum seems to be test-driven. What are good questions I can ask of our public school district to better understand what their goals are for the kindergarten curriculum? What are questions I should ask to better understand their expectations of kindergarten students?
—Too Little for Kinder?
Dear Too Little,
I’m really glad that your approach is to discuss this with the school and its teachers. I think parents often turn to other parents for advice about when to enroll their child in kindergarten, but to me, those conversations are often less than productive. I think you end up being offered a whole bunch of personal anecdotes about the unique temperament and experiences of other people’s kids that don’t help you make an informed decision about your individual kid. Talking to the staff will guide you more effectively in understanding how your daughter will fit into their kindergarten program.
In that conversation, here are some of the things I’d ask: What skills help a student begin kindergarten successfully? (That doesn’t mean academic skills, necessarily—some letter and number recognition is helpful, but you really want to hear more about expected behavioral and social-emotional skills like following directions independently, playing collaboratively with peers, accepting correction, and so on.) How long will students be expected to sit and attend to a task at the beginning of the year, and how much will that change as the year goes on? How much time are kindergarteners offered for play or free choice, physical movement, and time outdoors? How is academic instruction delivered—in small groups? With manipulatives and experiments? With the aid of screens or tech? You can compare their answers to what you know about your daughter and her strengths and current challenges to start getting an idea of whether she’s currently prepared to have a positive transition. I would also ask directly about the teachers’ experiences with children who fall at the very end of the age cutoff. What are the advantages and disadvantages of enrolling your daughter this year? What have they observed as indicators that a student would benefit from waiting a year? You can even simply ask: after they’ve heard more about your daughter, do they have a recommendation?
Finally, I know I just expressed the limited usefulness of trying to apply other people’s individual circumstances to your own, so take this with some grain of salt, but: as a teacher who is also the parent of a July baby who just finished her kindergarten year, my general opinion is that concerns over the demands of modern kindergarten are somewhat overblown, and concerns over summer birthdays being “too young” for it quite so. But a child not turning the standard entry age until almost halfway through the school year is a different story. I found kindergarten expectations quite reasonable for my recently-turned five-year-old, but four and a half strikes me as pretty early to make the leap (six months makes a big difference for kids growing and developing this rapidly!). I don’t know your daughter or your school, so I won’t advise you firmly either way, but I would listen carefully to the teachers’ advice and err on the side of caution.
—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)
Is opting out of homework at younger grade levels actually a thing? I’d like to respectfully have my rising first grader not participate in homework or assignments over school breaks and weekends. How do I ask for this while not burning a bridge with my child’s teacher but also helping my kid balance school and life at this young age?
—Home Over Homework
In general, I’m not a fan of homework especially in lower grades, but I’ve never heard of a family or student opting out of homework if it is the educator’s expectation that it be completed, unless it’s supported by district policy. I’d begin by asking your kid’s teacher a few clarifying questions about homework, like how do the homework assignments support the curriculum?
Some teachers use homework as a time for independent practice, preferring to save class time for instruction or small group work. If this is the case, homework may be the only time your student has to practice key skills. Other districts like mine, allow homework to be assigned but restrict it from being counted toward a student’s final grade. Your kid’s teacher may be assigning the work as practice but so that they can have an opportunity to provide feedback to your child. I don’t believe asking questions will burn a bridge with your teacher, and I think doing so can allow you to make a more informed decision. I’m sure they’d be more open to you forgoing homework if you go into things asking for information and clarification, as opposed to just skipping the assignments all together. See what they say, and you can make your decision accordingly.
—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)
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I feel like a social outcast among a group of parents in my community. I can’t tell if it’s my social anxiety and overthinking, or if I have indeed done something to make myself a pariah. I’m very sensitive to negative social cues and tend to miss positive ones, and I don’t know how to get to the bottom of this problem. Can you help?