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 a retired teacher (grades pre-K to grade 3) with 40 years of experience. For the past several years, I’ve been volunteering a couple of hours each morning in one second grade classroom in a Title 1 school. This year there’s one child who consistently rocks on two legs of her chair, and so she ends up having her chair taken away. I mentioned to the teacher that I thought she’d benefit from an active motion chair; she replied that children “take advantage” of such chairs. I’ve used many varieties of “fidget chairs” with students, and I know they can help. Do you have any advice on how to broach the subject with the teacher again, so that I can get her on board with this suggestion?
—Wiggle Your Waggles Away
Dear Wiggle Your Waggles,
It sounds like this teacher doesn’t have much experience or trust concerning accommodations. For those who may not know, wiggle chairs are stool-like seats with a rounded bottom that allow children to rock around. Some educators see these accommodations more as toys and believe that they cause students to become distracted. But in fact the opposite is true: offering wiggly students fidgets like wiggle chairs has been considered best practice for minimizing distraction and maximizing focus for a few years now and is common in many classrooms across the country. The key is setting clear expectations with the student about the purpose of the accommodation and how it should be used.
First, I’d make a more direct appeal to the lead teacher. A more dedicated conversation may give them the opportunity to reflect on the situation and make a different choice. If that doesn’t work, and you still feel strongly, I’d talk to your school’s resource room or have the school psychologist come in and observe the student’s behavior. If your school doesn’t have a dedicated psychologist, you can request one from your district. The psychologist will have a better understanding of how an accommodation like a wiggle chair may impact the student’s learning. If the psychologist believes it will be a benefit, they can develop a 504 plan that would mandate the accommodation by law.
—Mr. Hersey (elementary school teacher, Washington)
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My daughter is about to turn 7, and she just started first grade in-person. While she was in kindergarten last year, she spent most of the year learning virtually, so this is her first real experience with public school. She is a very bright and outgoing child, but she struggles in terms of self-control and the level of her emotional reactions, with us at home and with her peers. When she gets excited, she is really, really happy, but if she feels angry, she will yell and use unkind words/tones.
We are weeks into the school year and have already received an email from her teacher who wanted us to know our daughter has been having trouble keeping her hands to herself. She does not usually do so in aggression (though there have been one or two times she has hit, which worries me), but rather wants to hug, touch someone’s hair, tickle, etc.
She has done this since she was little, and we have been working on personal space, boundaries, etc. I have asked to set up a call with her teacher so I can get a better idea how it is looking in class/teacher’s level of concern. The problem for me is that I tend to worry to the extreme, classically making mountains out of molehills (which is my own issue and one I am working on separately). While I know my instincts are telling me my daughter needs guidance and support at home and school, I am not sure at what level I should be intervening. I feel like my intervention here could run the gamut from a sticker chart to an ADHD evaluation.
Do you have any advice on how I can keep a level head as a mom while not ignoring the issue? I do plan to work with my child’s teacher and school to make sure she gets the support she needs. I am working really hard to separate the behaviors from my child, and focus on all the positives, but my mind gets bogged down, and I tend to obsess/want to solve the problem immediately! Life doesn’t work like that, however…Any help would be appreciated.
—Mountains Out of Molehills
In general, when I look at responses to behaviors, I try to have kids start small and work their way up. I think of it the way most people approach most problems—first, you try easy, convenient solutions. If that doesn’t work, you manage up, and only move on to a more invasive step if the less intensive steps don’t work.
With that in mind, I would say the first step is to stop and take stock. One way of thinking about behavior I’ve found really useful is to ask yourself two questions: Is it acceptable? And is it age-appropriate? A child hugging peers when that’s not allowed at school isn’t really acceptable, but it’s a much bigger problem at 17 than it would be at 7, because of the different maturity levels at work. For a 7-year-old who hasn’t physically been around other people at school in 18 months, being overly forward isn’t all that surprising. Remind yourself that it’s a relatively small problem, and that you and her teacher can work together to solve it.
A sticker chart is a great start! You can make one at home, and it doesn’t require a specialist to create or administer. I would suggest that you begin with a social story—you can find them online, but you can make one using PowerPoint, explaining that it is okay to want to be friends, but we keep our hands to ourselves at school, etc. At the preschool I worked at, we used the line, “Hugs/kisses are for mommies and daddies,” which never sat well for me, but maybe you can find an alternative that explains “kisses are for not-school.”
Try to focus on the behaviors you want her to show! Talk about how it’s okay to share with friends, to use kind words with friends, and to play games with friends, but we do not use our hands with friends because we need to keep our distance to stay safe. Once you’ve established the difference between the target behavior and what she’s currently doing, you can show her the chart and explain she earns stickers by showing her friends kindness without her hands. On a positive note, this is a great way to bring up the concept of consent! It’s never too early to teach kids about respecting other people’s boundaries, and rather than viewing this as your child being terrible, you and her teacher can use this lesson on following school rules to understand why it’s important to keep her hands to herself unless someone has told her it’s okay to touch.
With this behavior, and any behaviors that might come up, you should give the behavior plan a few days to kick in before panicking and looking for a stronger solution, but you should also remember that not every behavior is cause for panic. Kids go through behaviors—all kids. The key is remembering that if you can step over it, it’s just a molehill. You don’t need to bust-out the mountain-climbing gear until you’ve tried that yet.
—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)
After a few months of deliberating, checking out test scores and talking to parents, we decided to send our kid to kindergarten at a local charter school. There is also a neighborhood school equidistant from our house. Honestly, neither school really stood out from the other, and only minor differences led us to enroll her at the charter. Our kid is bright and makes friends relatively easily; she is mostly enjoying school and keeping up with the work.
We live in a pretty conservative county and disagree with many in our community about COVID precautions. Our child wears a mask to school every day even though the majority of kids do not, and will be vaccinated as soon as vaccines are approved for her age group. The rest of the district recently (and begrudgingly) instituted mask mandates, the rule doesn’t cover our charter school but is enforced at the other elementary schools. If it hadn’t been for the district mandate, I’m positive the other elementary school would be mask-free as well, and I question how long they will keep the mandate in place.
Besides being deeply anxious about sending her to a school that doesn’t seem to give a damn about COVID mitigation, there have been several other minor red flags that have me second-guessing whether this school is a good fit for our family. These things seem petty to me but I can’t seem to let them go. For example, the teacher (even after polite reminders) can’t seem to remember to dismiss my child on time according to their own dismissal policy; I’ve seen school staff treat a particular child who needed help with indifference; the art teacher told my child she needed to color using “realistic” colors; and school staff brushed off a simple recommendation I made to increase safety for kids (like mine) who ride their bikes to school; just to name a few. I recognize that my response to these incidents is partially due to my unhappiness with their overall response to COVID.
I’ve been seriously considering the possibility of switching her to the other school, because at least then all the kids would be wearing masks. I haven’t even broached the subject with my daughter, or asked the other school if there is still room to enroll. I’m stuck on whether it would do more harm than good to switch her to a different school right in the middle of the semester, especially since there’s always the chance I’ll be just as unhappy with the other school.
My husband is also frustrated with the school staff and he would be supportive of moving her to the other school, but he’s in the same boat as me—the other one could be just as bad, and she might be vaccinated soon so we won’t be as anxious about the lack of COVID protocol. We’d like a third-party opinion about whether our concerns are valid enough to move her to a new school at this point in the school year.
—Should We Make the Switch?
This is a tough one. The good news is that you’re still early enough in your daughter’s schooling experience that a change would be far easier than in later years. I think you need to put aside the pandemic for a moment and ask yourself this: Do I trust the teachers and administrators to keep my daughter safe?
In the end, a school’s first and most important job is to keep children safe, so if you don’t think the school is making decisions to keep your daughter safe now, do you think that they will suddenly make better decisions when the pandemic has subsided, or when your daughter is vaccinated?
It’s hard for me to speak from a distance, but if my child’s school did not institute mask mandates despite what the vast majority of medical experts advise, I think I would worry about the priorities of the adults in my child’s school and might be ready to make a change.
It’s true, the grass always seems greener somewhere else, but you at least have evidence that the someplace else is prioritizing children’s health and safety over anything else, and that, I think, would appeal to me enormously.
Best of luck.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
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My 5-year-old daughter does dance lessons with a teacher she adores, Miss Emma. Her Christmas concert was this week, and Emma asked each parent to pay $50 for the concert costume. I’ve just picked up the costume, and it has a price tag for $25 still attached. Emma is a very kind teacher, but I feel a bit annoyed. I was led to believe she wasn’t making a profit on costumes, and if I’d known she was going to charge us twice the price, I would have gone to the store and purchased it myself. Should I say something to her?