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 email@example.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
I made a big mistake, and I don’t know what to do about it. My son “Jordan” is in his last year of high school. He has always been a good student, but the beginning of last year was pretty rough for him, as it was for many kids. My son came home every day complaining about his biology teacher, “Mr. Owens”, and how he was disorganized, didn’t teach all the material on tests, didn’t explain concepts well, etc. Jordan normally gets As, but he was coming home with tests in the 60-70 percent range, which worried me.
One night, I decided to call Mr. Owens—but I didn’t tell my son. I thought it would be more helpful for Jordan that way, but was I ever wrong. Mr. Owens was very offended by the things I said and ended the call abruptly. Soon, my son was coming home saying that Mr. Owens was ignoring him when his hand was raised and answering his questions with “read the textbook” or “look it up.” Jordan and his lab partner submitted an identical project and my son was graded 20 percent lower than his partner. When I told Jordan why this might be, he was extremely angry. But despite all this, he passed the class and hoped not to get Mr. Owens next year. Well, of course he has Mr. Owens again, with no hope of switching classes, and things are only getting worse.
My son is working hard and trying to start fresh with this teacher, but Mr. Owens clearly hasn’t moved on. He docks significant marks on Jordan’s tests for things like “not using complex words” when kids with similar answers are doing well. Jordan says that other kids in the class have noticed how Mr. Owens treats him and they think it’s funny. Jordan certainly doesn’t, since this mark will be a very important one for college applications. My son is still upset with me, and I feel awful. My mistake is making life so much more difficult and stressful for him. I am hesitant to meddle again since I’m not sure if I can really improve the situation. Is there anything my son or I can/should do to possibly fix this?
Dear Meddlesome Mom,
It absolutely infuriates me when I hear about teacher retaliation. In my 20 years, I’ve been on the receiving end of a few condescending, rude, and downright offensive comments from parents, and I’ve never—not once—taken my feelings out on the kid. If everything your kid says is true, Mr. Owens is wrong, absolutely, and should be held to account. In addition, Mr. Owens should be grading with a rubric that the kids have access to from the beginning of the unit, so these seemingly subjective mark-downs, even if he were doing it to all the kids, are not best practice.
Notice I said “if everything your kid says is true.” I’m assuming it is because other kids are corroborating it. But the teacher-student-parent communication line is often little better than a game of Telephone, so it’s worth verifying.
You say you’re “hesitant to meddle again.” Have you asked your son what he wants? If he says he wants you to try and fix it, contact Mr. Owens and ask for a conference. If I were you, I’d cc the administration and request that they attend as well. (They need to be aware, in case Mr. Owens’ poor behavior is part of a pattern, and my hunch is that it is.) At the conference, state your case dispassionately—“When my son did X, Mr. Owens did Y”—and ask Mr. Owens if that jibes with his version of events.
However, if your son says, “Butt out, Mom,” you have a choice to make. Are you going to go against his wishes, or are you both going to learn a hard lesson—you about meddling, and him about… whatever he learns. Make the best of a bad situation. Speak truth to power. Who knows?
Slate needs your support right now. Sign up for Slate Plus to keep reading the advice you crave every week.
Do you have any tips or tricks for a preschooler (3.5-year-old) who insists on doing everything herself and won’t accept help? We are so happy that her preschool has an emphasis on teaching independent life skills, but we would like to drop her off at preschool and leave to start our own day on time for once? When we offer to help, she gets very upset. My husband especially is getting really frustrated because he’s the one dropping her off at school, and he needs to get to work himself. We’re both starting to get sick of being 20 minutes late to things because we’re dealing with a tantruming child who is upset because we wiped a runny nose for her. Any tips or tricks to avoid both child and parental meltdowns of frustration are appreciated!
Dear Tantrum Trouble,
It’s very important to find a balance between respecting her autonomy and getting things done. Sometimes, that balance comes from choosing your battles—did you need to wipe her nose, or could you have let her do it herself? Other times, that balance comes from setting yourself up for success beforehand. If you know she is going to want to dress herself, and it takes her 15 minutes to dress herself when it takes you 5, start asking her to get ready 10 minutes earlier than you normally would. Give yourself the extra time so that you won’t feel frazzled. You can also try to find ways to help her streamline on her own. Have her pick out outfits ahead of time, or limit her options so that she maintains the illusion of choice while still being able to effectively get things done.
Another way to facilitate is to pre-set expectations. Obviously, it’s important to promote her independence, but it’s also important that she sees accepting help as a positive attribute. There are a few ways to do this. First, you can ask her for help…when you have time. There are lots of tasks you can do on your own that she could assist in small ways that won’t impact the outcome. If she sees that relationship as reciprocal, she may feel better about accepting help. Second, ask for help from one another. If she sees you asking her dad for help, and vice versa, she will see asking for and accepting help as normal. As a society, we generally fail to model important social skills for our kids—apologizing, asking for help, handling foods you do not like, etc. If you show her it’s okay and normal to ask for and accept help, she won’t mind when you want to help her so much. And when you do help her, try not to frame it as “you can’t do this,” but as “let me show you the way.” You can also ask her consent before helping, which may give her more control over the situation.
Finally, remember that she’s just a child. The stakes are not that high. If she makes it to school but her pants are on backwards because she dressed herself, either the teacher won’t care because, yay, she dressed herself, or they’ll ask her to fix it. If she’s got a snotty nose because she can’t figure out how to wipe it, she’s got a snotty nose. Sometimes, the best choice is to step back, and try to put this moment into perspective. These little moments of stress really aren’t worth an adult meltdown over. Most likely, that’s just lack-of-sleep plus global-pandemic stress talking, and it has nothing to do with your daughter. Try to appreciate her successes rather than fretting about the ways in which this growth is hard.
—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)
Dear Ask a Teacher,
I am an almost 13-year-old student in ninth grade. I have always been quite “bright” when it comes to school. In 2020 we went into lockdown. I had just applied to a boarding school for grades 8-12 and been accepted despite the fact that I had just turned 11. I ended up skipping grade 7 and my teacher taught almost nothing during the pandemic, so I pretty much skipped the second half of grade 6. Despite this, at the end of grade eight (I was 12.5) I ended up having the third-highest grade average in my grade level. Half the teachers at my school seem to know me now.
My issue is with my French class. Last year, I was in ninth grade French immersion. Unfortunately, tenth grade French immersion didn’t work with my schedule. Since I had done so well in ninth grade French, I got placed into cinema and literature studies 12, for twelfth graders. My problem is: this class is hard! I’m 12, and I’m struggling to keep up with the workload! My teacher hasn’t been any help. I’m very stressed from all the midterms I have coming up, and I’m wondering if it would be so bad to drop this class starting in second semester?
My hesitation is that I’ve been working towards getting a French and an English diploma when I graduate in 3.5 years. If I drop my current class, I’ll have to take Spanish this year, and I’m worried if I take Spanish this year, next year’s grade 10 French immersion will be hard for me. I’ve been working towards that French diploma since I was five: Should I potentially jeopardize it? I’m really stressed in the grade 12 class, and I feel really out of place since I’m 4-7 years younger than all of the kids in it. But is it a really bad idea to drop the class? Please help me!
—Grade 12 Classes are Too Much!
Dear Grade 12 Classes are Too Much,
Drop the class!
I know it’s weird advice coming from a teacher. People probably expect me to advise you to stick with it, to embrace the challenge, et cetera. However, being a 12 year-old freshman is challenging enough. I don’t know who thought it was a good idea to put you in this senior seminar, but they were obviously wrong.
I understand your concern about being unprepared for Grade 10 French, but I am sure you can figure that over the summer. Perhaps you can take an online French class? If not, find some study materials and devote time each day to help you brush up before the fall. I’m sure one of the French teachers can advise you.
There’s no shame in taking something off your plate to reduce your stress level. Sometimes, it’s the healthy choice.
My wife and I have a 5-year-old boy and a 5-month-old girl. Our son is very smart and goofy and generally sweet-natured and sensitive. He was in a local preschool that only shut down for a small part of the pandemic, and has now started kindergarten. Our preschool teacher said that, while our son had a bit of a sassy mouth, he was otherwise ready for kindergarten. We had some minor behavior issues while there, but we thought that it was a maturity thing that would sort itself out.
Now it seems we’re facing a firing squad of teachers and caregivers who all are complaining about his behavior, almost constantly. He is ahead of the curve for most concepts, but he can’t sit still and listen to directions. There’s a potential aspect of him being ADHD or having another issue, but he’s (a young) 5 years old and still awfully young for an official diagnosis (and we won’t discount the fact he has a new sibling). I don’t want to dismiss the teacher’s concerns—there are both minor issues and major issues that are brought up regularly. In addition to sitting still and following directions, he makes inappropriate jokes or comments (generally the nonsensical potty humor typical for a 5-year-old). More concerning, the teacher’s comments often are about how he can’t keep his hands to himself (a problem at any time, but heightened during COVID), and has had an incident of “pantsing” other children and pulling his own pants down to moon other children (he said both of these times were intended to be funny).
We’ve tried to talk to him about body autonomy and consent and it seems to be an incredibly difficult concept for him to grasp. Our teacher has started him with a social worker at the school (we haven’t heard from them yet), and we’ve started taking him to a psychologist. But the comments keep coming from the teachers, with little context and little indication they are talking with each other at all. We’ve heard from his main teacher, his after-school program director (same school, and who’s given him a strike already in a 3-strike system), and today we heard from his PE teacher—whose solution to him not sitting still has been to have him sit out the class!
We don’t want him labeled as a problem child right off the bat in kindergarten only to follow for future grades, and we’re working hard at home to find triggers, correct his behavior when needed, and try to use positive reinforcement when we get a good report. But he’s sensitive, and every bit of negative feedback seems to create a regression. How do we balance our genuine attempts at helping our child with the constant negative feedback from the other adults in his life?
—Feeling Beaten Down
Dear Feeling Beaten Down,
There’s a lot going on in this poor kid’s life! For many children, the birth of a sibling is the source of behavioral changes, as their home environment is thrown into chaos. Even for the world’s greatest parents, a newborn is a source of stress, and your son undoubtably knows it. On top of that, he’s newly in kindergarten, after 2 years of pandemic-preschool (already a departure from “normal” preschool). Expectations are different. In many parts of the country, even COVID-related policies are different—at my district, last year the expectation was that kids stay 6 feet from one another, but now they’re down to 3 feet. He may be acting out simply because his world feels as though he is in flux. That’s not to discount the possibility that he does have ADHD.
All of that is to say that there are many reasons he might be acting out, but what concerns me more is the fact that it doesn’t seem like you’re having team-wide conversations. The most important strategy when approaching a behavioral concern is consistency. If every conversation is separate, how can there be consistency between teachers, or between you and the school? I would say that if the behaviors are so severe that you’re getting near-constant complaints, it’s long past time that you had a “team” meeting with his teacher, the principal, the social worker, and any staff who may be working at the school to address these behaviors. At our school, the counselor or psychologist almost always attends these meetings and speaks on behalf of the special ed department if we aren’t already involved. And if there are concerns at the meeting that warrant diagnosis, then we do get involved.
If this hasn’t already been offered to you, why don’t you suggest it? Email whoever you feel most comfortable with and request a team meeting. Use that exact language: “I think it would be helpful to have a team meeting to address these behaviors” will make it clear to the school that you want people there. They can decide exactly who, but it sounds to me as though it needs to be a more comprehensive, holistic approach.
Another important piece to addressing concerning behaviors is positive reinforcement for appropriate behaviors. If you are told all the time that you are bad, you have no frame of reference for what is good. This would be like teaching a math lesson in which you presented a variety of incorrect methods for solving a problem. Yes, error analysis is an important part of how we learn, but we do need a correct example to compare to. Likewise for behaviors, your son needs examples of him meeting behavioral expectations so that when he doesn’t, he can compare the appropriate behaviors to the inappropriate ones. At the team meeting, you should ask what positive interventions the school uses, and see if you can start him on some kind of sticker chart or informal positive behavior plan to help him notice when he is making the right choice. Not only will that give him that point of reference for his own behavior, but it may help his teachers notice that he is not always bad (no kid is always bad—even the most challenging!).
As a final thought, you may want to use a social story to address this specific behavior. Obviously, consent is a challenging topic, but kids are capable of tackling challenging topics. There are a few books on consent for kids, which you can use to help with that conversation. For this behavior, though, I think a social story may be helpful in connecting the concept of consent with the reality of why his behavior is unacceptable. When the social worker gets in touch with you, ask if she can help you craft a social story that explains that “it’s okay to play jokes sometimes, but it’s not okay to pants people” or “it’s not okay to touch people without asking” depending on what she thinks is appropriate for his needs. Good luck.
—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)
More Advice From Slate
My daughter is a freshman in high school, and she recently got an assignment in life sciences that seems inappropriate. The assignment is for the kids to identify someone in their family who died of cancer, and then students are supposed to research that kind of cancer and create a poster presentation to display for the entire school. This seems like a terrible idea, and an invasion of privacy. Should I talk to the teacher?