Care and Feeding

My Kid’s Classroom Discipline System Is Making Her Sick—and the School Doesn’t Care

I tried talking to the principal; they told me to move.

An elementary school behavior chart.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Amazon.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

We love our 7-year-old’s school except for one thing: the dreaded color-coded clip charts. My daughter has only ever had her clip moved from green to yellow once, because I forgot to sign a form, but she is now paralyzed with anxiety about this, and has become really withdrawn at school. It’s gotten to the point where she cries and sometimes even throws up in the morning before school. When I asked her why she was getting so upset, she told me she doesn’t want her clip to move down to yellow or red. I’m not sure where this is coming from, because my partner and I have always been very chill about school discipline and report cards. I was just like my daughter when I was a kid and terrified of messing up because my parents were overly strict, so I’ve been trying to do the opposite of what they did, but it’s clearly not working. The one day that her clip did move down, I tried to laugh it off and took her out for ice cream, but she was still hysterical.

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I emailed her teacher and principal a few times, but was told it was district policy, and I would have to contact the superintendent or move to another district. We can’t afford to move right now, and my partner and I work full-time, have two other kids, and are caring for two sets of aging parents. My partner also deals with a chronic illness, and I don’t really know any other parents at the school who I could kind of rally for the cause, so going to the superintendent isn’t an option right now. How can I support my daughter? We’re on a waiting list for therapy but it will be a couple of months before she can see someone, and I feel horrible that my daughter who previously loved school is making herself sick over this and has become a panicky mess.

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— Kill the Clips!

Dear Kill the Clips,

I certainly don’t think it was necessary to hold your child responsible and make her feel bad for a form that a parent forgot to sign—that could easily have been a phone call or email to you, not a ritual public shaming of your kid—and I mention it because it is red flag #1 for me. #2 is that your child’s teacher and principal are able (and really should have been willing!) to listen to your concerns, see how this is affecting your child, and work with you to find a solution that allows her to feel comfortable at school. It is ridiculous that their response was “guess you better call the superintendent or move!” (You do not want to go to the superintendent, trust me, and also a new district/school would probably have the same behavior charts or something similar.) It should really have been the tiniest of matters to either exempt her from the chart, or keep her chart and just agree not to ever move her down from green and instead talk with her and/or contact you if any disciplinary issues arise.

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While I’m annoyed with them, I don’t think the school is solely responsible for your child’s anxiety. To me, it really does sound like she has more severe anxiety than is typical, and so it’s good that you’re planning to have her talk with a therapist. In the meantime, you could also discuss this with your pediatrician. A pediatrician could diagnose her with anxiety if they think that’s warranted, but even short of an official diagnosis, a doctor’s note about what your child is experiencing and the fact that you were concerned enough to seek medical advice might also help convince the teacher and/or school to work with you on the color chart issue.

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If your child is diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, now or in the future, you have the right to request an evaluation to determine whether she needs any additional supports or accommodations in school. (This is assuming she attends a public school.) For her, that support could be as simple as just not having to worry about that ridiculous color-coded behavior chart anymore, but perhaps there are other things in the school environment that contribute to her anxiety, too—if so, there may also be tools or strategies that would help her better manage it so she can focus on her learning. The school and district are legally required to address a student’s documented needs, so if she does get an anxiety disorder diagnosis or any other kind, I would for sure find out what additional accommodations may be available for her.

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Dear Sleepless,

I moved abroad with my husband, our toddler, and our newborn at the start of the pandemic. It was a tough year, like it was for everyone of course, but with life slowly getting back to normal and the kids sleeping decently most nights, I’m starting to feel better. With restrictions being lifted, friends and family from home are starting to visit, which is great, but the thing is, I’m still so very, very tired. And I feel like it’s my duty as a good host to sit up with them until they want to go to bed. We’re having guests again next week, and I’m already dreading it a bit after a week of broken nights with my sick daughter. So my question is: Is it acceptable to say, “There’s beer in the fridge, have a great night” and go to bed at 9.30?

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— Sleepless in Switzerland

Dear Sleepless,

You never need to feel bad for taking care of yourself and resting when your body needs it! And it’s not as though there’s something so special about that last one to two hours of “hosting” before your guests also turn in for the night—they’re spending the whole rest of the day with you, after all. Please get the sleep you need, and feel no guilt.

· If you missed Tuesday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a single mom (by choice), and I have a 10-year-old daughter. We live in a large coastal city, and it was always important to me that she learn to swim at a young age, as we live close to the beach. She’s been taking swimming lessons ever since she was old enough for Mommy & Me swim as a baby, and started junior swim team in kindergarten. She loves swimming and is very talented, almost always placing first or second at meets, even state and semi-nationals.

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She’s been watching the Olympic swimmers religiously all week, and has decided that she wants to swim at more competitive levels from now on, and one day wants to compete at the Olympics as well. Her coaches have been asking her if she wants to compete at higher levels for the past few years, but I’ve always been worried that if she spends more time with swimming and focuses less on other “normal kid” things (making friends who aren’t on the swim team, doing other activities, spending more time on school as she gets older), she’ll end up behind her peers if she quits swimming in the future. I know how hard it is to become an Olympic swimmer (or even just an internationally competitive swimmer), and I feel like I should prioritize her childhood over her potential to be a serious competitor, even though I know I could afford the financial cost of competing on a higher level. I also know that most people (myself included) didn’t have the same interests they had at 10 when they were teenagers, and it’s possible she could decide to quit in a couple years.

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I told her I was more than happy for her to keep competing with her swim team from our nearby pool, and work hard for a possible place on a college swim team when she’s older, but I didn’t want her entire childhood to be competitions and focusing on only winning—I want her to have fun and be a kid. She is furious with me, and has been alternating between crying and giving me the silent treatment. I feel heartbroken, and have tried to comfort her, but I also worry that I made the wrong decision. I just want her to have a happy childhood, not one focused on getting the gold. Did I go wrong here?

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— Sink or Swim

Dear Sink or Swim,

I understand your worries and reservations—they’re the same ones I’d probably have if I were in your position—but before you consider this decision a done deal, I think you probably should talk more with your daughter. Remember that she’s had a few years to think about this, if her coaches have been asking for a while; it’s not like this came out of nowhere just because she’s been watching the Olympics. Given her age, I think this should be more of a discussion, at least, as opposed to an individual ruling on your part.

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For your own sake, are there any opportunities for you to sit down with other swimming parents and talk frankly about what intense training is really like, at your daughter’s age and going forward? They might be able to offer you more insight, if not necessarily reassurance. You would need to be on board if your child were to pursue this—if she does make it to a certain level, it’s safe to say you’ll be partly building your life around it as well. If you believe the investment, travel, planning, and sacrifice might be beyond your means or capacity, that’s understandable and something you do need to be honest with yourself about. Because unless you’re lucky enough to have family willing to help, all of that is likely falling to you as a single parent.

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It sounds like you’re less concerned about your own means and bandwidth, and mostly just afraid that your kid won’t have a “normal” childhood. Again, I get that, but I think you need to talk about it with her—at length, openly and candidly, asking her plenty of questions about what she wants and how she feels about the hard work, the pressure, the sacrifice, and potentially missing out on certain experiences—instead of just shutting this down. If this really is her dream, it’s at least worthy of a frank discussion about what’s at stake, what it could be like, what specific steps you might be able to take to provide her with at least some of those “normal” school/childhood experiences you want her to have. I’m not saying you’re wrong to feel the way you do or that you have to change your mind; but maybe, after talking it through some more, you’ll both decide that you’re willing to have her try it at the next level—at least for a while—and see what happens.

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Of course, if you do, that doesn’t mean she’ll stick with it forever or rise to the level she hopes. I’d definitely make it clear that it’s okay to dial it down or walk away altogether if she ever wants to. The schedule, the physical strain, the competitive pressure will all be intense; she may well decide it’s not the life she wants for herself, but even then, that doesn’t mean that all her effort leading up to that point wasn’t worth it. Whatever happens, if elite competitive swimming really is her passion, I think it probably merits a longer, more involved conversation than you’ve had thus far. Otherwise, you risk her understandably being left with the feeling that you unilaterally foreclosed her dream.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My child is 12 and assigned female at birth. They have identified as trans lately. The problem is that my ex-husband’s family is extremely religious and conservative, and they aren’t ready to tell that side of the family. I am happy they are willing to talk to me about this issue, but they get mad at me when I use the wrong name or pronouns. I’m stuck because I can’t use them with the school (because their father has access to that info) or when talking to their father, but am supposed to use them at home. We have multiple children, and I’m lucky if I remember my partner’s name most of the time. I often use their deadname by accident, and they get very mad at me. How do I explain to them that I’m not ignoring their request, it’s just hard to keep it all straight with the different people I talk to?

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— Doing My Best

Dear Doing My Best,

Your child already knows that you’re trying to use different names and pronouns with different groups at their request, and they probably do realize the fact that you can’t be consistent at all times everywhere makes it a bit trickier, so I really don’t think you need to explain it to them again. Nor do I think you should launch into a lengthy explanation or attempted justification when you accidentally misgender them or use their deadname. You’ve known them as one name their whole life; you aren’t a bad person for slipping up occasionally. But it is really important to work on it, practice, and get better so those slip-ups decrease and eventually stop.

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If you mess up: 1) Just say you’re sorry—without making excuses or indulging in self-flagellation; 2) Thank them when they correct you; 3) Correct yourself (e.g., if you just addressed them using the wrong name, take time to say their name properly); and most importantly 4) Try your utmost to practice and get better. Ultimately, what will matter most is not any one perfect explanation (which your child really doesn’t need to hear) or apology (which they do deserve), but whether you actually take steps to improve going forward.

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— Nicole

More Advice From Slate

I’m a widow with two daughters, “Laurie” and “Diane.” I’m in the process of writing my will and have allocated 35 percent of my estate to each of my daughters, and 15 percent to each of Diane’s children—both under age 5—to be put into college savings accounts. Laurie is furious that I haven’t given an equal share to “Spot,” her golden retriever puppy, compared with what she calls his “human cousins.” She treats Spot like her child and refers to him as such. She has accused me of unfairness and bias, and likened my actions to homophobia—she has called being a “pet parent” an “orientation.” Laurie hasn’t spoken to me in a month and says she won’t until I amend my will. Please help.

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