Care and Feeding

Will These Very Basic Morning Battles Ever Stop?

A 6-year-old boy wearing a backpack and holding books looks upset to be going to school.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by goir/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 6-year-old boy hates kindergarten. He fights me every morning and tells me he doesn’t want to go. This morning I had to carry him to my car with his shoes in my hand.

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His preschool closed due to Covid when he was 4, so he’s been home playing with friends and me since then. He says he doesn’t like being told what to do, and he hates worksheets. I know his teacher is warm and kind. I also know she has a reputation in our community for being an excellent teacher.

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How long do I give him to transition? When or why should I unenroll him and homeschool? I don’t want this to kill his spirit or damage our relationship. Please help.

—War Mom

Dear War Mom,

Getting a kid to transition back to a structured learning environment especially after so much change during the pandemic can be difficult. However, I don’t believe homeschooling would be the appropriate response to this situation. While it may seem burdensome or even scarring to drag your son to kindergarten, I believe this will benefit him more than giving in to his behavior by homeschooling.

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It’s not uncommon after what seems like a year filled with play for him to be work avoidant initially, especially since it seems like he didn’t spend much time in Pre-K due to initial pandemic school closures. Regardless, you should allow this transition to take as long as it needs. Socialization with kids his age is especially critical now given that so many of us have been isolated over the past 2 years. By pulling him out to homeschool him you risk his opportunity to catch up in class. I honestly don’t think taking a harder stance and continuing to drag him to kindergarten will have a lasting impact on his spirit or your relationship. If anything, it will build his sense of resilience and understanding of boundaries. He needs to learn that sometimes in life we must do things, like worksheets, that we aren’t excited about.

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—Mr. Hersey (elementary school teacher, Washington)

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My middle schooler has come home this year to say that her English class isn’t reading any whole novels this year, only excerpts. What is all that about? I’m so upset to think that she’ll have no opportunities to read good literature in its entirety in a classroom setting. What is the right way to broach this? My instincts tell me it’s not up to the teacher, but perhaps that’s a good place to start anyway.

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—Bookworm

Dear Bookworm,

Talking to the teacher is nearly always the best place to start. The teacher will likely say that they hate it, but that it’s a district mandate.

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I’ve been in a district like that, and I can tell you, it stinks. The district folks, i.e., the people not in the classroom, will insist on teaching isolated skills. They’ll say the students can get what they need from excerpts. They’ll push test-taking strategies, rather than deep comprehension of complex texts. In my opinion (and I’d wager that most teachers share my view), it’s a terrible way to teach.

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I’ve tried to explain it to people this way:

Imagine you adopt a dog. You love that dog. You learn to feed the dog, walk the dog, pick up dog poop, teach the dog to sit, manage the dog’s quirks—all at the same time. Maybe after six months or two years, you move on to agility training. You can do that because the bond is there. You’re connected to the dog.

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Now imagine you read a book. You love that book. You learn to deduce the meanings of words, make predictions, draw conclusions, support inferences with evidence from the text—all at the same time. Maybe after six months or two years, you draw a connection between that book and another book or a real-world event. You can do that because the bond is there. You’re connected to the story.

Making students care about what you do in class is often the hardest thing about teaching. Stories are one of the best ways to draw them in. Kids don’t care about excerpts. They won’t reminisce ten years later about that excerpt they read.

So what can you do? If the district is mandating this method, and the teachers don’t like it, ask how you can support them in changing the policy. Sadly, districts often listen to parents before they listen to teachers.

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(And to any teachers reading this letter who are in the same boat: What I’ve done in that situation is teach skills using short fiction/articles and then put the kids into book club groups in which they apply the skills to complete texts. They had to do some of the work outside of school, but it was the only way I could shoehorn whole books in.)

—Ms. Scott (high school teacher, North Carolina)

Our child starts kindergarten next year, and we are torn between two schools—a high-quality, mostly white, neighborhood public school that is a 3-minute drive away, or an award-winning, more diverse, magnet school with a social justice and IB curriculum that is 30 minutes away. I love the IB school, but she’d lose an hour a day in the car. My husband thinks it doesn’t matter how far the drive is, and we need to send her to the best school. What do you think?

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—What Wins Here?

Dear WWH,

This is a tough decision. When my fifth grade students move onto middle school, some of them have a choice between two middle schools in our district, and I always advise parents to consider drive time when making the decision.

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An hour a day is a lot of time to spend in a car when the alternative is six minutes. Over the course of the average 180-day school year, this amounts to 5 hours a week or 20 hours a month, versus 30 minutes a week, or two hours a month.

I’m not suggesting that this time calculation should be the sole determining factor, but I think it needs to be weighed against the benefits of the magnet school. Perhaps that hour a day can be well spent listening to music, talking about the day, and telling stories. You may also be able to carpool. While this won’t lessen the burden for your student, it would lessen the burden for you.

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Then again, that hour per day may become more difficult to manage when homework becomes more onerous, your child becomes involved in after school activities, and time becomes more precious. Also, trips to the school for parent-teacher conferences, fetching a sick child, PTO meetings, and other school-based activities will also require an hour in the car, so be sure to consider this when deciding, too.

I realize that none of this is an answer to your question, but as I said, this is a tough decision. Just be sure to include the element of time, especially how it will add up over the course of a school year and how that may impact your child and family down the road, when making your decision.

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—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

What are good ways to keep your kid engaged and caught up on school when they have to stay home each time they have a Covid symptom or are exposed in school? There are some assignments posted online, but not nearly all (and it varies by grade level). I have been told to keep my kids home whenever they have a Covid symptom, but my kids seem to have coughs for about half the fall and winter seasons.

—Long Days Ahead

Dear Long Days Ahead,

Parents have been struggling with this question ever since the pandemic began, and unfortunately, there are no easy answers.

If you have internet access, there are lots of resources that can help your child keep up with the curriculum. I would start with Khan Academy, which is a free service used by tens of thousands of school districts all over the world. Video lessons, practice problems, assessments, and more can help your child keep up with almost any subject.

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But just because the resources are available doesn’t mean that your child will be engaged and motivated to learn at home. Some students are fantastic remote learners, but most are not. If this is the case for your child and you have the capacity to engage with your child on their quarantine days, you may want to put the curriculum aside and invite your child to explore areas of interest. Outschool, for example, is a website that offers classes on enormously wide range of topics, including traditional academics, social and emotional learning, art and music classes, murder mysteries, science experiments, and much more. These will cost you money, of course, but the options are endless, and in the end, the specific curriculum is not nearly as important as keeping your child engaged in learning of some kind.

Best of luck. These are challenging times to be a parent.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

More Advice From Slate

My 8-year-old daughter is in third grade. She recently shared with me that during lunch last week, a male first grade teacher made a joke that I find inappropriate and not at all funny. What should I do?

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