Care and Feeding

I’m Horrified by This Egregious Oversight at My Son’s School

A boy with a backpack on watches a bus pulling away into the distance.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by 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.

I’m a single mom to a fourth grader. My son, “Sam,” is bright but extremely shy and quiet, especially at school. I’m currently looking at getting him diagnosed for anxiety/social anxiety as well because he exhibits many of the symptoms. The other day, my son’s class had been poorly behaved for their teacher, who is very strict. Sam’s class is known as a difficult one and the situation has been escalating all year. As punishment, Sam’s teacher held the class 10 minutes after school. I don’t think this was a major problem for anyone else, but Sam missed his bus home. When he got outside and realized he was too late, he didn’t want to speak up to the vice principal (who he is scared of) and somehow managed to get off the property unnoticed. He walked, alone, all the way downtown and found a pay phone, which he used to call me. He didn’t reach me though, since I was at work. So he sat by the phone and waited for over an hour, then called again. This time I was able to pick up. When I heard where he was, I left work early to go get him. He was scared but thankfully unharmed. I am very angry at Sam’s teacher and the school for allowing this to happen. I don’t know if keeping kids after school is a common/appropriate practice, but either way someone should have asked about the bus kids, although I’m not really sure who is responsible. So, I’m not sure what I should do now. Should I talk to the teacher, or the vice principal, or the principal? What is the best way to go about this?

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—Lost in the Streets

Dear Lost,

It is exceptionally rare that I suggest jumping the ladder of responsibility and not beginning the conversation with your child’s teacher, but this is one of the most egregious and unsafe situations that I have heard of in my 23 years in education. Every link along the chain of custody designed to protect your son failed. If you live in a small school district, I would immediately take this issue to the superintendent. If your district is very large, I would immediately take this to the principal, and to that person’s direct superior as well (assistant superintendent).

A school’s No. 1 job is to keep their students safe. Everything comes second to this essential expectation. Schools design layers of protection to ensure something like this never happens. After school, staff should be in place to ensure that kids are getting to where they need to go—to their parents, into cars, across crosswalks, into buses. Your son fell through way too many cracks for this to be an isolated, forgivable incident. The number of adults who failed your son is astounding, and whole-scale changes must be instituted immediately in order to prevent this from ever happening again to any child.

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Contact the people in charge in your district immediately, for the safety of your son and every other child in that school.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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I have three children. My daughter is my oldest child, and she’s in fifth grade. As you may imagine, with her gender and birth order, she has developed a very responsible and caretaking nature. On the whole, I think these are good characteristics, as long as she and we are careful not to overdo it. On further discussion with another family similarly with an eldest daughter in a family of three, however, I see kids like these possibly taking on unfair roles in the classroom.

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Over the years, my daughter has often mentioned how she will be the only one kind enough to partner with or include the annoying or neuro-diverse kid in class, at lunch, on the playground. I’ve coached her on advocating for herself and her own space, while still being sympathetic. Nevertheless, it’s a constant theme, and one I attributed to growing up and learning to set boundaries, until just this morning.

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This morning, the other family mentioned their daughter experiences the same thing in the same school, and suddenly a lightbulb went off. It seems like at least my daughter and her friend are getting trapped into their “oldest responsible daughter” caretaking roles, even at school! This is not what I want for her at home or elsewhere!

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It feels as if all the discussion about being inclusive and accepting diversity just falls on the shoulders of a few overburdened student caretakers. Other students refuse to partner with the tough kids, and teachers go ahead and lean on these easy “responsible” kids. Then, even the caretaker-students’ friends avoid them, because they don’t want to be stuck with the challenging kids.

Are teachers just too busy to deal with this? After all the supposed focus on social-emotional learning, shouldn’t the teachers be sure everyone has a fair chance to partner with the more challenging students? Why is this only on my daughter’s and other “nice” kids’ shoulders?  Some of the challenging kids are truly emotionally draining, and it feels awful that no adult recognizes this and steps into ensure there is a fair division of peer caretaking. Any thoughts?

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—Too Early for Pigeonholing Female Caretakers!

Dear Too Early for Pigeonholing Female Caretakers,

A few years ago, I read a number of articles and social media posts claiming that teachers make 1,500 decisions each day. I believe it. Decision fatigue can leave teachers without the mental capacity to do things like switch up the seating chart or groups, which, I will add, is a much more complicated, time-consuming process than it might seem to people who do not teach. I cannot overstate how busy we are, especially this school year. Last year was hard. This year is harder. Case in point: It’s November and my students are sitting in the same desks they were assigned to in August. Should I mix things up? Yes. When will I do it? I don’t know. It’s been on my “to do” list for three weeks.

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At the same time, I caution you against uncritically accepting the perspective of two fifth graders as the entire story. Of course, I’m not suggesting your daughter and family friend are dishonest, but their teachers may be doing more to include the “challenging” students than your children realize.

Setting that aside, if your daughter truly feels like she’s turning into a mini–teacher’s aide rather than a compassionate peer, you can certainly advocate for her. Inform the teacher of her frustrations and ask the teacher to mix it up.

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Before you do that, TEPFC, keep this in mind: It’s much harder to be the child no one wants to work with than the child assigned to partner with them. You should be proud that your daughter is kind and compassionate. You should sympathize with her when she laments the fact that other kids are not so inclusive, and yes, you should remind her that she can set healthy boundaries and help her practice doing that.

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Finally, you state in your letter that your daughter has developed this caretaking role at home, in your charge. If it’s challenging for you to ensure that you are not pigeonholing your own child into a role, remember that it will also be challenging for the teachers, so it’s important to be patient.

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

I am a Canadian living abroad in France for the next year. My husband and I have an extremely bright 3-year-old. She’s already mastered the names and sounds of all her letters, her shapes, and colors, can count to 20 and loves to “read” the stories she has memorized. She has never been to day care.

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In Canada, kindergarten starts at 5. You can put a child into prekindergarten at 4 if you’re so inclined. Here in France, school starts at 3. The first week of school in France, my daughter was so excited to be starting school. She’d wake up every morning and tell me she wanted to go to school RIGHT NOW. But lately, she loathes school and refuses to go. She has a complete meltdown, and I have to choose between having her teacher tear my daughter from my body or turning around and taking her back home. She has no friends at school. None of her classmates speak English. Her teacher also speaks no English. My daughter speaks no French.

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We mostly wanted her to go because we thought the French language exposure would be fantastic. (We would also have to home-school her if she doesn’t attend school, as school is required here at age 3. Home-schooling is not an issue for me.) But is forcing her to go through a mental/emotional breakdown every day worth whatever language acquisition she is gaining at school when she is only 3? Is it so bad that we wait until she can start school (also in French, but with bilingual teachers) at 4 or 5 when we’re back in Canada?

—Parlez-Vous Francais?

Dear PVF,

Normally, I am all about language exposure. The more you immerse a child in a language during their “sensitive period” (the time when their brains are still able to pick up a language as a native speaker would, typically from birth to age 8), the better it is for your child. There are numerous benefits to bilingualism: increases in executive function and processing speed, not to mention benefits when traveling, etc. I would typically say that there is truly no downside to sending her. It wouldn’t even be an issue that she doesn’t speak French—kids at her age are like sponges when it comes to language, so it should be no problem for her to pick it up.

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Usually.

But in this case, because your daughter is so upset, I have my hesitations. What it comes down to here, is why she cries every morning. It may be that the act of separating from you is what is so hard for her. We just today received an email from a parent whose child sobbed hysterically walking into the building every day up until last week. He got into the classroom and almost instantly stopped crying, but it took him almost two months of school to acclimate to saying goodbye to mom, and now he walks in happy as can be. Your daughter might still be adjusting to the routines of school, and struggling to make friends as she learns the language. Or, she may truly be unhappy. Those two scenarios require different responses. It’s important to figure out what’s going on. Do her teachers say if she cries throughout the day? Does she settle in after you leave? If you can figure out where the source of the problem is, that may make this decision for you.

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If the problem is that she doesn’t have friends and is still adjusting, see if you can set her up with a class buddy—someone who can treat her kindly and befriend her even if her French is less than stellar. Set up play dates and try to find activities she can do with someone from her class that don’t require much talking. Outdoor play is great because it often requires minimal talking! Once she makes a friend, her language and comfort at school will both improve, and a friend who speaks French can help her find other peers.

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On the flip side, if she is unhappy throughout the day, and it doesn’t seem like she is adjusting or succeeding, her unhappiness for a year isn’t worth a year of French immersion. Canada has lots of opportunities for her to learn the language, and just being around French speakers in her everyday life will expose her to the sounds and rhythms of the language. You can home-school her and try to give her some exposure incidentally throughout your day until you get back to Canada, and give her a fresh start with school there. It’s important that kids not associate school with being miserable because they have to attend it until they’re adults, and to me that’s more important than the benefits of this immersive experience.

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—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)

My fourth grade daughter is a very unmotivated child. She has always been this way. But at a recent parent/teacher conference I learned it is worse than I thought. She will not do homework or pay attention if it is a subject she doesn’t care about. On a recent group project, she disagreed with the other two participants so just refused to do the assignment and walked off. On a recent assessment (MAP testing), she half-heartedly finished the test and her math score percentile went down a lot. Turns out, she finished the test in 36 minutes, which indicates she did not take it seriously.

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The teacher said she is willing to work with us, and my child is supposed to come up with a plan to fix these motivation issues, but I am not sure this will really motivate her. I know her; she will think this is punishment. The teacher also stated that she can make my child miss part of recess if that is necessary so my child can finish her work. I think this is an OK option once or twice, but if it happens too often, this will just demotivate her even more.

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I have attempted to show her why certain skills (math, etc.) may be important even if she does not enjoy them. We have talked about how it is OK if she tries hard and fails. She has atrocious handwriting, her spelling is awful, and she has always had a problem sitting still in class and not interrupting. For a while she was seeing a therapist. That therapist did not think my child matched ADHD or really had any learning disabilities and didn’t think it was necessary to get her tested. She has always been a high energy, creative child. Any suggestions going forward to get her to do her work, to motivate her?

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—Lacking Motivation

Dear Lacking,

This is a common yet challenging scenario for both parents and students. The problem, as I often explain it to children, is that the current version of yourself is ruining the chances of the future version of yourself from succeeding.

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I typically define success for students as the ability to make choices in the future. Beyond wealth, fame, or the accumulation of things, the greatest indicator of success is the ability to choose the course of your life. Helping your child understand how today’s actions impact tomorrow’s outcomes is the challenge.

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I have a few suggestions:

1. Find your daughter a mentor. Someone older, wiser, and who she would perceive as a role model. This could be a high school student, an adult with experience in these kinds of things, or perhaps someone successful in an area that interests your daughter. When parents and teachers can’t reach a student, an outsider who a child admires and respects can sometimes make an enormous difference.

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2. Let your daughter know that handwriting, spelling, and even her ability to sit in one place for a lengthy period of time are not terribly important in the grand scheme of things. Bestselling authors have had terrible handwriting and spelling. Just look at E.B. White’s first drafts of Charlotte’s Web. Practically illegible. And many highly successful adults are terrible at sitting through meetings, remaining focused on a single task for a long period of time, or working with others. It doesn’t make for the easiest academic career, but if you let you daughter know that success is not predicated on these discrete skills but instead on effort, problem-solving, the pursuit of a passion, and the respect toward others, she may be more likely to engage in learning. It’s possible that these outward markers of success—handwriting, spelling, and traditional academic behaviors—are making her feel rotten. When she starts to see herself in a more positive light, she may start to see the value of self-improvement.

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3. Try another therapist. The first therapist isn’t always the right therapist. Therapy is a business that requires trust, cohesion, and effective communication. You may simply need to find the right person who sees your child clearly, and whom your child trusts implicitly. I know many families who “shopped” for the right therapist before finding the one who made all the difference in the life of their child. Ask for referrals. Try a couple on for size. Finding the right person could make all the difference.

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Best of luck.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

More Advice From Slate

My daughter’s sixth-grade elective teacher recently called me to tell me that my daughter is a great student, eager to learn, and very fun to have in class. Sounds great, right? But he also mentioned that he often asks her to partner with difficult students in class. When I asked my daughter about this, she said that these difficult students are often boys that don’t pay attention and don’t really want to be in the class. I feel like he is putting an unfair burden on her. Is it worth going back to the teacher to have a discussion with him about this?

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