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.
I am having serious difficulties motivating my 7-year-old to do homework. This isn’t homework from school—I have her in Kumon and piano, and ask her to do about 5–10 minutes of each per day a few times per week. I also want her to read 15 minutes a day and complete a vocab or writing assignment. The total work time is about 35 minutes of actual work a few times per week. Because I often can’t get her to do all of it, it ends up extending into the “off” days I want to give her. Homework from school is very light, and it’s way too easy for her, so I don’t press it because it’s often just busy work. She excels at school and got great marks in first grade—her math and reading assessment put her at fifth grade level.
I’m very proud of her, and I want her to continue to excel, but because school is too easy, particularly during the pandemic, I don’t believe she will continue on her path unless I work with her at her level outside of school. She has a very stubborn personality, and we often spend hours fighting over simple five-minute assignments. She argues about every assignment, delays/procrastinates, manipulates, etc. … whatever she can do to not do the work. I’ve tried many different approaches—given her freedom to do it at her schedule, taken away her screen time, none of it works.
We have horrible fights over this stuff. I get very frustrated when I have to spend hours getting her to do short assignments. It makes her feel as if I am “always giving her work” when the reality is she could knock it out in a few short sittings per week. I end up screaming and she ends up in tears. This will often happen over a single page of Kumon—40 or so equations that will take her 3–4 minutes when she sits down and works.
What should I do? My wife is debilitated so I basically function as a single dad to her and her younger sibling. My wife’s health situation definitely impacts her, but it’s not new—our home life has been this way for five years. Please help.
Dear Nightly Battles,
Your daughter is 7 years old, so my first thought is that taking your foot off the gas is probably the best solution. Piano lessons? Sure. Reading? Absolutely.
Beyond that, I would encourage your child to play. Make art. Roll in the grass. The school day is long enough, and given the nature of the pandemic, a little less stress and a little more play is probably best for all of us, but especially small children.
As your daughter gets older, and it’s time for her to do more homework, or if my advice is falling on deaf ears, one of the best ways I’ve found to get kids to buy into working hard is to offer a vision of what a future of this work might mean for her.
A couple of suggestions:
1. Take your daughter on a grand tour of college campuses. This may sound premature, but pre-pandemic, I often took my fifth graders on a tour of a community college campus and a local university. We would speak to students and professors, peek inside the dorms, run on the athletic fields, sneak into chapels and movie theaters, and more. The goal was to give my students a vision of a possible future if they worked hard and applied themselves. It transformed the amorphous, oftentimes unimaginable concept of higher education into a tangible, appealing possibility.
2. Find your daughter a mentor. While our children will fight us tooth and nail on the smallest of requests, they are often more likely to listen to someone closer to their age who they see as a role model. If you can connect her with a high school or college-aged student who can meet with her weekly—in person or over videoconferencing—that can often make an enormous difference in a child’s effort, attitude, and willingness to work.
It also takes some work off your plate while adding another trusted, caring person into her world, perhaps for a long time. High schools and colleges can often direct you to mentors on campus or mentor services that can help you.
Good luck. These are hard times in the life of a child, and as a result, in the life of a parent, too. Rest assured that many parents are going through similar struggles.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
There’s a candidate running for school board in a district that neighbors mine. She’s voiced some deeply problematic and racist ideas in the past, such as arguing that equity programs to provide tutoring and graduation support to Black and Latino students would leave white and Asian kids behind, not to mention extraordinarily offensive false assertions like genetic components to IQ differences by race. School board elections rarely capture the attention they deserve. Other than telling my friends who do live there not to vote for this candidate and donating to the opposing candidate, what do I do?
—Where Are the Voters?
I’m so glad you’re paying attention to local school board races! School boards make incredibly important decisions that directly affect the children who attend public schools. In addition to donating money to the candidate running against this racist woman, you could volunteer with their campaign. School board candidates always need volunteers to knock on doors, make phone calls, or put up signs. If you don’t have lots of free time to help, you can certainly do so on an occasional or even one-time basis.
After you speak with your friends who live in the school district, enlist them to join you in donating money or time to the opposition candidate. Make sure they are registered to vote and know how and when to cast their ballot. Encourage them to write letters to the editor of their local newspaper and to talk with their neighbors to ensure this woman does not wind up on the school board.
My youngest child started a full-day pre-K program this year at a parochial school. He started seven weeks prior to his third birthday. This is our third kid to attend pre-K at this school, but he has a teacher who’s new to the school. We are on Day Four of school, and so far his teacher reported that our child won’t nap, and that he doesn’t listen to instructions all the time. She’s asked us to sit him down and explain the rules to him.
The previous teacher would allow our other children to color if they chose not to nap to keep them from disrupting others. I’m now worried that either this teacher hasn’t worked with preschoolers before, or that I started this kid in preschool too early and he’s not ready for it. How do I know when to call it quits for him at this school? How do I know if the issue is him, or if it’s potentially the teacher’s lack of knowledge?
—Frustrated Pre-K Mom
I know I sound like a broken record, but have you spoken to your child’s teacher about it? If your son doesn’t nap at home, then he might not nap at school and that’s OK. Some kids outgrow naps early. If you talk it over with her, I’m sure she’ll understand that he doesn’t want to nap.
As for “doesn’t listen”—well, it’s a few weeks in (at most) to his first experience at school. I’d give it time, and if that doesn’t work, I’d ask the teacher what she means by him not listening. You can do so in a noncombative way: “I want to work on this at home as well—can you describe to me what you’re seeing?” (or something), and see if you can pinpoint exactly what she means. Her being new to the school doesn’t mean she’s new to early childhood education, but it doesn’t not mean that either. He may well be misbehaving, and if she can describe to you the behavior, you can determine for yourself if he’s just adjusting, or if he’s not mature enough for preschool yet. On the flip side, if she can’t explain what she means, that might be her inexperience showing, in which case, you can decide for yourself if an inexperienced teacher is a deal-breaker, or if you think your son will adjust as she learns. Good luck talking to her.
—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)
I recently started high school and I’m already doing very poorly. My grades are dropping because I don’t understand the material or how to turn in work or when things are due. Socially I’ve only made one friend who’s only in one of my classes. Other than that, I don’t get along with people well and I’m usually alone. The increased responsibility has really taken a toll on me as well. I was depressed for a long time as a kid but got over it during middle school, but now it’s coming back and I really hate going to school. Is there any way I can improve at this or make high school more enjoyable?
—Rough Road to Graduation
The transition from middle to high school is tough for lots of students, but it sounds like your experience has been especially hard. Struggling to manage the content and expectations of your classes, as well as feeling socially isolated, is a lot to shoulder alone. I’m also concerned that you’re feeling a bout of depression building. I think it’s time to seek out the support of adults who are equipped to help you.
First, have you talked to your parents? I am hoping that they can offer you some support. Second, I want to encourage you to talk to a teacher, if there’s one you especially like. Don’t worry if you haven’t had a personal conversation before; feeling comfortable around them is the most important part. Part of a teacher’s job is to listen and help students through issues like the ones you’re facing, so they won’t be thrown by your request. If none of your current teachers come to mind, your guidance counselor is another person who is prepared to help.
Whoever you choose to talk to, you should tell them exactly what you’ve told me. They’ll listen to your concerns, maybe ask you some questions, and probably discuss your situation with a few other adults, like the rest of your teachers or a learning specialist. Then, the team will help you make a plan. A good plan should include tools and strategies to organize assignments and keep track of deadlines, tutoring or other academic support to help you understand your work, and connections to other people and resources who can give you ongoing guidance. A good plan should also address your social and emotional concerns, which might include continuing to talk to a counselor or social worker. You might also be advised to complete some testing to determine if there are any other factors, like a learning difference, that are making school especially challenging.
Writing this letter was a great first step, and now it’s time to share these concerns with someone who can get to know you personally, understand your strengths and needs, and figure out how best to help you feel more successful. Hang in there, RR. You’re going to get through this.
—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school 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?