Care and Feeding

My Teen Is Drowning at In-Person School

A frustrated high schooler puts a book on her head.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by AntonioGuillem/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.

I have an eleventh grader. For the previous two years, seniors applying to colleges have been given a bit of a break with grades and SATs, rightfully acknowledging the chaos and stress they underwent. Many schools skipped requiring SATs entirely, and kids were given some grace with GPA, etc. I think this is a good thing and should continue, since standardized test scores and grades don’t give a great picture of someone’s potential. But, in addition, the current cohort of eleventh graders basically left school right as they were beginning a crucial time to learn study skills, ninth grade, and did not go back in person until late spring last year.

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For my kid, this has had an impact on her academic performance, but the school seems indifferent to this issue. She’s been a good student up until now, but her mid-term grades were abysmal. With a lot of hard work and help from us, she pulled all of them up except math, where she got her first ever grade below a C…an F. That won’t look great on college applications, and she was crushed. This trimester in math isn’t looking much better, even with so much hard work.

I guess my question is, will colleges next year, when she is applying, understand that these kids lost so much academic muscle building, and that they need some time to catch up? Her PSATs were also pretty bad, since she’s behind in a lot of this stuff. Can she also skip the SATs like last year’s seniors? We have no idea which schools will still be making them optional next year. It just seems like this cohort is going to fall in between the cracks, with a huge amount of learning loss but no acknowledgement from the high schools or colleges. What can we do as parents to help this kid reach her college goals in this environment? What are colleges expecting?

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—Grade Expectations

Dear Grade Expectations,

I know this is very stressful for you and especially for your daughter. As a high school teacher, I am familiar with the college application process, but not so much that I can tell you precisely what colleges are expecting right now. (A college counselor probably could!) However, I can tell you that most colleges accept most of the students who apply. While the SAT is an important admission requirement around the country, many institutions are dropping it completely—not just during the pandemic.

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As your daughter explores her postsecondary options with guidance from her academic counselor, she should take note of which schools require SAT or ACT scores. She should also categorize colleges as “safety schools” (where she is guaranteed admission), “good fit” schools (where applicants like her are often accepted), and “reach” schools (where it will be difficult for her to get in). When she applies to college next fall, she should have at least one “safety” school. If she’s applying to mostly “reach” schools, she should explore more “good fit” options.

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In addition, I would encourage her to consider starting out at a community college and then transferring after a year or two, especially if she continues to struggle in math (or generally) during her senior year. While some people look askance at community colleges, I do not! In fact, many of my former students have reported wonderful experiences at the community college in my city. Not only do they enjoy the cost savings compared to universities, they also appreciate the smaller class sizes. Community colleges often serve as a great place for students to do the “academic muscle building” you mentioned before entering a university environment.

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I recognize that you are frustrated with what feels like an unforgiving environment; you’d like the world to slow down and offer today’s high schoolers more grace as they re-adjust to school and try to make up for lost time. I’m sorry that your daughter is struggling. While you may not be able to change her high school experience, you can extend her the grace she needs by making sure you, as parents, are not putting additional pressure on her as far as college is concerned. You can help her see that there is more than one path to success, that her grades do not define her as a person, and that you are proud of her regardless of her SAT score.

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Best of luck to you and your daughter! Here’s hoping the New Year brings better luck than the last.

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

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As a working single mom, how do I find the time to help my fifth grader with the daily math and reading he is supposed to do? I get home from work and have approximately two hours with my kids, maybe 2.5 on a rare good day, and that has to encompass cooking dinner, doing dishes, packing lunch for the next day, and getting ready for bed. And some nights there are older sibling activities, so there are less than two hours that we are home. Do I have to move the math practice to the weekend? (Nobody wants to do schoolwork on the weekend.) Do I need to cultivate more independence in my child so he can do it without me, if he is home before me, or possibly while I’m cooking dinner? How important is homework at this age? Do kids need a break after the past two years of stress, or should I be pushing this so that when he starts middle school he isn’t “behind” (whatever that means in a post-pandemic world?)?

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—Homework Help

Dear Homework Help,

I’ve answered several questions about homework here before, and my opinions have not changed. Personally, I believe homework in elementary school serves very little purpose beyond providing an opportunity for students to hone their skills through repetition. Research also suggests that homework in the way the American education system approaches provides mixed results at best.

Given the issues homework presents for you and your child, you could start by asking your son’s teacher how homework assignments affect his grade or support his mastery of concepts. In many classrooms, homework is encouraged, but it’s often not required. Getting an understanding for how completing the assignments will impact his grade may provide some context to help you prioritize how your time as a family is spent.

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If his teacher is a proponent of homework, and not completing the assignments will impact his grades negatively, you could start implementing any one of the great suggestions you make. Allow your son to cultivate some more independence—let him give his homework a shot on his own, before you’re home, or while you’re cooking dinner. Yes, give him a bit of a break. I also don’t actually think it’s a bad idea to try a bit of math on the weekend. It could be a good time to reinforce the strategies he has learned over the week, since he might focus more easily on a calm day. In my experience some students can benefit from the consistency of doing math daily, even if it’s just a small amount on the weekend. Hope this helps!

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—Mr. Hersey (elementary school teacher, Washington)

My wife and I tried to do everything right this year, but we seem to have made all the mistakes we were trying to avoid. My daughter started Kindergarten this year. We’ve been renting but wanted to buy a house and really pushed to find a place before the school year started. And we did! Just as the school year was getting ready to begin we found a house in a town we liked and started the process of buying it. We reached out to the town’s department of education, and they granted us permission to start our daughter at the school early so she wouldn’t need to switch systems. My daughter started school and after about a month or so she was thriving and loving school. Her teacher was giving us glowing remarks and all was well in the world. As you’ve probably guessed…things fell through with the house and we had to bring her back to the town we’re currently renting in and now things are…different?

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It seems like the schools were taking different approaches to the curriculum, so she was behind on some material and ahead on others. She’s getting feedback written on papers about needing to work on handwriting (she does) and just doesn’t seem as excited about school anymore. If this isn’t bad enough…we’ve just found a new house and we’re planning on moving extremely soon and she will now be attending her third new school in the first semester of kindergarten. Everyone keeps telling me “kids are resilient, she’ll be fine” but all I’m seeing is my kid entering yet another school where she’s in a different curriculum being told she’s doing things wrong and behind (or maybe it’s just us who is being told this?) while needing to start over socially. What can I do to ease this third transition for my child?

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—Third Time’s Not a Charm

Dear TTNaC,

At the risk of sounding like everyone else you’ve spoken to, kids are resilient and she’ll be fine. It sucks that she isn’t as happy at this new school, and it sucks that you have to move her—no one likes to move, especially mid-year—but that isn’t deal-breaking. In fact, since she isn’t having the best time at this school, maybe a new place will give you a chance to set her up better this time.

You can do that in a few ways. The first is to reach out to her school and ask if they can tell you what kids have been working on. At my school, the kindergarten teachers send out regular “newsletters” that describe what academic skills we have been practicing. Even just getting copies of those would give you a sense of how the curricula compare. (Hopefully, this school’s curricula is comparable to at least one of the others she’s attended.) If she has some background knowledge in whatever they’re working on, this third transition shouldn’t be as challenging for her, as she will feel successful in the classroom.

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You can also look for social supports. New kids do well when someone is welcoming to them, and while I can’t imagine that the teachers at School #2 weren’t welcoming, it might help if she can meet some friends. Since it’s break, and (in most of the country) the weather has been mild, you might be able to set up some playdates in a park somewhere so she could meet someone and have a familiar face at school. You may also be able to tour the new school (depending on their COVID rules) and show her the places she’s going to go, or meet the teacher she’s going to have. People, adults and children alike, are more comfortable when things are familiar, so creating familiarity with this new situation can help.

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My last tip is to support her at home. Talk about how to make friends at school. There are books like Geraldine or First Day Jitters about going to a new school. Additionally, keeping as many things consistent at home as you can may give her a sense of stability. Whatever your routines were in the old house, as long as they work, try and maintain them. Moving is stressful, and as adults, sometimes we think easing up on routines will ease up on stress, but it’s actually the opposite! Kids thrive on structure, so if you can keep some of her home-structures in place, the new structures of a new school may feel more manageable for her.

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

My fifth grade daughter has been involved in “girl drama” this year. This is a first for her, as in the past she has always been friends with lots of kids and (as far as we know) has never had social issues. This year there seem to be a few things going on. She used to be friends with one child, but the relationship has soured and the girls are both using poor judgement in how they treat each other. Also, there is at least one other girl who tells kids lies in order to create drama. For example, she told my child that one of her closest friends hated her. When she asked her friend, of course it wasn’t true. This may be how the other friendship went bad, but there is too much water under the bridge by now.

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Generally, I let her navigate this situation and have offered support and advice. The other mom has been texting me whenever she hears that my child has done something wrong, but I do not inform her when her child is the one making poor judgements. She says my child is bullying her child. My child is not a bully, but I do teach her stand up for herself. Should I be telling the girl’s mother every time her daughter does something to mine? What else can I do to help my daughter?

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—Tattle Tales

Dear Tattle Tales,

I suspect that reporting to the other girl’s mother about everything she has done wrong will lead to no positive outcome. I think your best bet is to minimize your contact with this mother as much as possible and keep interactions as neutral as possible. I’ll also add that a child’s perception of events is even less reliable than an adult’s, so it’s likely that neither you nor this other mother is getting the full or entirely accurate version of events.

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I would suggest that you bring this issue to your child’s teacher. I assume that most of the problems are happening or at least originating at school, and teachers, school psychologists, and social workers are adept at mediating these kinds of issues and establishing clear boundaries for students moving forward.

It’s also helpful to keep in mind that this is an unfortunate but common problem for kids (and many adults), and that the skills required to navigate these problems will prove useful in the coming years. While we would like our kids to avoid dealing with unkindness and cruelty, these are often powerful learning experiences for children, and I would try to frame this experience in these terms for your daughter.

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It might help a bit to know it’s common, expected, and unfortunately a part of growing up.

Best of luck.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

More Advice From Slate

I have been teaching elementary school for several years, and I’m moving to a new school next year where the parents are notoriously…. intense. I am all about parents advocating for their kids, and I form strong relationships with families, which helps us all do the best for their student. But, I’m very petite and look quite young. Upon meeting me, parents regularly ask me if I’m a new teacher, and when I say that I’ve actually been teaching for many years, they ask how old I am. I don’t feel like I need to reveal my age to them, but I’m not sure how to respond to this (very rude and inappropriate) question in a way that still communicates that I’m interested in having a positive relationship. My strategy in the past has been to say “older than I look!” It usually works okay. But recently I met some parents at my new school for a summer class I’ll be teaching, and two parents would. not. drop. it. It was extremely awkward. Any advice?

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