Care and Feeding

I’m Heartbroken for My Lonely Son

A boy wearing a backpack crosses his arms over his chest.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by shironosov/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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 askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My son is 11 and in sixth grade. In our district, sixth grade is still part of elementary school. We’ve had bad luck with good friends; it seems every single year, his “best” friend has moved away.

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Now, he feels totally friendless at school.  Worse, actually, since he feels like the kids actively dislike him. He is a bit quirky, we aren’t into sports, and, the big kicker, we live in the Bible Belt and aren’t religious. That shouldn’t be an issue, but a teacher made it one when an innocent conversation between a few students about Christmas traditions turned into a teacher yelling at him about not believing in Jesus. The other kids in the conversation took that as permission to bully my son about religion. The teacher was lightly scolded and made to apologize to my son, but the damage was done.

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Bullying has continued about Jesus and other things, too. And within the end of last year and beginning of this one, two separate kids have threatened my son with violence (one threatened him with death, the other to punch him in the face with a metal stool) because they found my son annoying. The school’s response to both of these incidents was lackluster, and only involved moving my son from sitting with the perpetrator. No discipline—at all—for the perpetrators.

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I emailed the assistant principal and guidance counselor prior to the start of school this year, as my son was distraught to the point of crying daily at the thought of returning for another year. The guidance counselor never responded, and the assistant principal only said, “Keep him virtual.” That wasn’t an option for a variety of reasons and didn’t feel like a real response anyway.

My son says he spends every recess just sitting on the swings, totally alone. I’m heartbroken and angry as well. My son has an anxiety issue, due to an ongoing custody problem with his abusive father, regularly sees a therapist, and takes an antidepressant/anti-anxiety medication. I’m handling his mental health to best of my ability. Also, over the years, I have invited the entire class to every birthday party (my son has NEVER been invited to anyone else’s party), hosted play dates, volunteered at the school, all that stuff. So I feel like we’re trying on our end.

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What can I reasonably expect from the school here? I feel like my son isn’t well liked by other students or the teachers and they would just as soon not deal with us anymore. But this is the public school we are zoned for and he’s entitled to an education. Shouldn’t the educators be helping him? What do I do? Why are these kids so nasty and why will no one help us?

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— A Lonely Child Makes a Heartbroken Mother

Dear Heartbroken Mother,

This certainly is heartbreaking; I am so sorry the two of you are going through this. In your letter, you describe two interrelated problems: bullying and loneliness.

The school certainly has an obligation to put an end to threatening and bullying behavior. If your goal is to keep your son at his current school and nip this behavior in the bud, contact the administrator and insist on an in-person meeting. Find your school district’s policy on bullying (or, perhaps their mission statement) and have it handy so you can refer to it if necessary. Ask the administrator to create a plan that will keep your son safe at school. For the record, harassment based on religion is a violation of students’ civil rights: you could report the school to your state’s Department of Education if the administration does not address the issue. Of course, this is an adversarial position to take and may not help you or your son make friends at school.

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If the school does put an end to the bullying, your son still may find it difficult to connect with his peers. Another path would be to meet with the guidance counselor instead. Is there a particularly kind club sponsor who is good with the “quirky” kids? Is there an elective or organization where these “quirky” kids gather? If so, get him involved! If not, look for a regular, organized activity outside of school that might interest him and could help him connect with kids his age.

I’m glad that your son is in therapy, and I hope he’s talking about school during his sessions. Have you met with his therapist to discuss his social skills? Is it possible there are skills he could improve upon to help him make friends? To be clear, I am absolutely not suggesting that the bullying is his fault. But you’ve said that you fear his teachers and peers find him annoying; maybe there are behaviors he could address to help him connect better with his classmates.

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Finally, if the school continues to be cold or even hostile to helping your son, it might be time to explore other options. I hate to recommend that people leave public schools (and perhaps he could transfer within your district—bullying is often a reason districts allow students to transfer), but if you determine that the problem is the school itself, then another school may be a solution.

Hang in there, Heartbroken Mother. I’ll be thinking of you.

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

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My now 7-year-old son was homeschooled last year and hated it. He hated learning from me, so we made the best of it by having him do some online curriculum and math worksheets, but he didn’t do much writing or reading. I’m not convinced that he doesn’t have some sort of reading challenge. Anyway, we sent him back to school, and he is very far behind everyone else in second grade. All but one student in his class went to in-person school for the past year. They want to send him back to first grade to get the basics he missed last year. He does have good friends in second grade, but he already spent the last year not seeing them every day, and I don’t think it would be a problem for him to make other friends. He is overwhelmed by everything in the classroom. His current teacher is confident that she can help him make advances in second grade, but she is worried that he will be far behind in third grade too. No one is really sure what the right choice is.

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My son does have an IEP for speech only, but he also has some markers for ADHD. We’re waiting on testing with the school and doctor at the end of the month. We’re keeping him in second grade until his teacher and I talk again in a week, just to give him more time to get comfortable being in a class.

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What do we do?

—First or Second?

Dear First or Second,

I would definitely keep him in the second grade. Kids at this age are incredibly resilient. With the right educator, your son is likely to make great strides in a matter of months. In fact, this has happened to me numerous times as a former second grade teacher. Kids learn best with their developmental age group, which is why I only recommend retention in extreme circumstances. And the developmental difference between a first and second grader at this point in the school year is quite stark. Even if your son is a bit behind his second-grade peers, I think being in a class with students his age who are on grade level will provide him with the environment he needs to catch up.

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Working closely with his teacher will be critical. Make sure to ask how you can support his learning at home. This will provide consistency so that your son can catch up more quickly. Examiners who administer the school tests you mention should be able to provide you with some techniques to support him academically. At the very least, those examiners should be able to point you in the right direction of some resources.

Remember, too, that regardless of whether a student learned in person or online last year, all students experienced a really difficult time in their lives, which will present itself in different ways at different times. I truly believe that as we return to community with one another, we’ll all start to heal and recover a little more quickly.

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—Mr. Hersey (elementary school teacher, Washington)

My kid was bullied pretty mercilessly by a group of kids in kindergarten and first grade. The school was slow to call it “bullying,” but once it escalated to being irrefutable bullying, they did take action. Most of the kids involved produced apologies, and their parents each initiated conversations with me (at the school’s insistence). My kid went to therapy for the trauma of it all weekly for more than two years starting in kindergarten and “graduated” near the end of second grade. And after that things improved immensely. But one kid “Joey” never apologized.

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Joey bullied another child, mercilessly, in second grade, and this year, in third grade, transferred to a different nearby neighborhood school. But we’ve since found out that my son’s neighborhood friend Charlie has become friends with Joey at this new school. Should I disclose Joey’s history to Charlie’s parents? Part of me feels like Joey is 8, and I want him to have a fair chance at his new school. But another part of me knows that it took a very long time to help my kid heal from what happened, and bullying can never be undone.

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Would it help the new school if I dredge up all of this? Should I let the kid have a fresh start, and keep my kid’s history out of it?

—New School, Old Problems

Dear New School, Old Problems,

I think your empathy for this 8-year-old boy is admirable and appropriate. Joey is attending a new school and perhaps enjoying a fresh start. He’s still very young and certainly deserves an opportunity to demonstrate that he has learned from his mistakes.

I’ve witnessed many students change their behavior entirely from one grade to another. A child who was difficult for years suddenly flips the script and decides to start doing things differently at the start of the school year. I think Joey should have this same opportunity. Going to a new school – absent the reputation that he has established for himself – might be just what he needs.

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I would suggest checking in with Charlie’s parents from time to time to see how he’s doing. Occasionally ask your son about Charlie and how he seems to be doing. Keep your ears open but give Joey a chance to shine in his new environment.

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—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

My fifth grader is in a class that’s completely comprised of children who have been classified as “gifted.” She’s been in this program/school since third grade, but because of Covid, none of her time in this program has been what I would consider “normal”—fourth grade was 100 percent virtual.

This year she is back in the classroom and in the three weeks since school started, she has been complaining that she doesn’t like her teacher. Apparently, when the kids are playing math-based games, the teacher tells them they made a “stupid” move. When I verified with my daughter that the teacher used the word “stupid,” my daughter replied, “yes.” My daughter says the teacher does qualify these statements by saying that it’s not their fault that their math skills are not up to par, but it makes her friends and her feel awful.

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Strangely, my two older kids were also in this program and had this teacher. They thought she was great, and she really helped them to level up their math skills. Due to teacher shortages the class is larger than usual. The teacher also explained to the class that she’s dealing with a managed recurrence of cancer.

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I’ve been telling my daughter to give herself and her teacher a bit of grace and to open herself up to be able to receive the instruction the teacher is giving. I want her to have a great year and enjoy learning, but she’s already filled with negative feelings. How should her dad and I handle this? Should we make our concerns known to the teacher or counsel our daughter to make the best of it while we work on her math skills at home, so that she can get on level, hopefully, more quickly?

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—Off to a Not-So-Fantastic Start

Dear OtaNSFS,

I would speak to the teacher in a positive, collaborative way. Since this teacher has a track record of excellence with you, it’s hard to know if things have changed for her in terms of her teaching style and general demeanor (given the class size, the challenges associated with the pandemic, and her battle with cancer, it’s certainly possible), or if your child is simply not responding well to the teacher’s methods.

It’s admittedly hard to justify telling a student that a move in a math game was “stupid,” but then again, we weren’t there. Context is everything. While the word choice on its own might be ill-advised, there may have been nuance (intended humor, perhaps) behind those words that your child isn’t picking up on. It’s also hard to imagine that your daughter doesn’t like the teacher based upon this one thing. The school day is long. There may be more at play here.

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I’d approach the teacher, expressing your concerns that your daughter isn’t happy and asking what can be done to turn this around. Sooner than later is much better, too. There’s nothing that makes me more distressed as a teacher than knowing that one of my students was suffering in silence for longer than necessary. Better to begin solving the problem as soon as possible.

Good luck.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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My first grader is bright and imaginative, and he seems to be well-liked by his peers. Despite this, he often comes home from school dejected because no one wants to create imaginary play productions during recess. I have encouraged him to join the others and let go of his determination to put on pretend Broadway productions, but this goes in one ear and out the other. Should I say anything else, or let him work these playground politics out on his own?

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