Care and Feeding

At Our School, the Young Teens Are Not All Right

A 14-year-old boy wearing a backpack sadly looks down at the ground.
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 parent of a freshman, and while he is (I think) keeping it together for the moment, I am concerned about the school culture as a whole. People talk about the littles who never had normal school, and the bigs who graduated in a pandemic. And that’s all hard. But my kid has had three classmates commit suicide in the last year. The middle kids aren’t OK, either.

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How do I make sure my child’s mental health is supported in a world where therapists are overbooked, school counselors and psychologists are understaffed and overworked, and everyone is doing their best, but these kids are really struggling emotionally?

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—Lost at Sea

Dear Lost at Sea,

I know firsthand the pain of losing a student to suicide and have experienced the ways in which a tragic death can roil a school community. You refer to the deceased as classmates of your son’s, not friends, so I assume he did not know them well. All the same, the death of a peer can be difficult to process; I hope the school has provided crisis counseling to students and staff who need it and that your son has spoken with you about the impact their deaths have had on him. If not, that is a good place to start. During such conversations, parents often want to offer advice or try to “fix” the situation. I advise you to spend more time listening, acknowledging, and accepting however he feels.

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Another way to support your teen’s mental health is to be aware of warning signs of mental illness. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has published a list of warning signs on their website as well as a wealth of resources for support and education. I have learned a lot from presentations provided through NAMI. If your child’s school has not provided resources for students, I would alert them to NAMI as well, and also make sure they’re publicizing the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. In the meantime, make sure your son is aware of this resource as well.

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That said, your letter gives me the impression that you do not see warning signs in your son’s behavior right now, which is good news. As for how to support his overall emotional well-being? One way that he can protect his mental health in general is to have a balance between responsibilities and rest. While most teenagers do not have jobs or the responsibilities of an adult, they do often have lots of homework and obligations that come with extracurricular activities or even chores they must do at home. These are of course important! Equally important is time with friends, time to relax, and time for fun. Sometimes, in hopes that their freshman students will have a good start to high school, parents put lots of pressure on their ninth graders with respect to grades, athletics, or other activities. Don’t get me wrong–I think that it is generally good for parents to have high expectations and to be involved in their kids’ education. At the same time, I have seen how high expectations and high levels of parent involvement can be a source of stress that takes a toll on teenagers’ emotional well-being.

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Thank you for writing, Lost at Sea. I am glad that you are thinking about your son’s mental health, and I hope that he and his classmates are on the road to the recovery in the coming year.

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Best of luck,

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

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I am the mother of a three-year-old who, thanks to the combination of an excellent preschool and his own inquisitiveness, can already do basic arithmetic, sound out simple words, print his name, etc. Basically, he’s already made a significant start on what’s taught in kindergarten. I know it’s still a couple years into the future, but we have two main kindergarten options: the neighborhood public school we’re zoned for (which is a 20-minute walk or 5-minute bike ride away); or putting him in a K-5 Spanish dual immersion program at a different public school in our district (a 20-minute bike ride or 10-minute drive from our house). We’re thinking about doing the Spanish program partly because we don’t want him to be bored if he already knows most of the material being taught in regular kindergarten. But are we off base on this? Given that both options are part of our local public school program, do the benefits of going to school right down the street from our house outweigh the benefits of the bilingual program? (We do need to be thinking about this because the Spanish program requires applying for a spot in advance!)

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—Analysis Paralysis

Dear Analysis Paralysis,

I think that one of the mistakes parents make is to think about the school day in term of the content being taught, when in reality, some of the most important things that happen in any classroom have little to do with the actual content of the lessons.

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Yes, it’s critical that children learn to read, write well, and understand mathematics (amongst many other things), but learning to cooperate, collaborate, problem solve, socialize, establish foundational work habits, regulate emotions, and perhaps most important, develop a love for school and for learning, are just as important, if not more so.

So although the Spanish immersion program sounds excellent and is a perfectly reasonable choice, be sure to balance that against the time spent traveling and the friends that your child will make. Do you want those friends around the corner or several blocks away?

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If you want your child to learn Spanish in an immersive setting, choose that school. But if you’re making the choice because you’re worried that your child will be bored, trust that the teacher will find ways to challenge your child throughout the year, and that the multitude of other skills that your child will need to develop beyond the content of the lessons will challenge him as well.

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—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

My eighth grader is on the cusp of honors in every subject, but since she was fully virtual last year, she’s only enrolled in one honors class this year. None of her teachers believe in tons of homework because of the additional stress from the pandemic, which I am all for.

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However, my daughter has been recommended for four honors classes next year, IB, and eventually AP placement later in high school. This seems like it will be a super rigorous course load with a lot of required homework. She has a history of complaining when she’s assigned just a little more homework than her normal workload (this has happened twice before). So I’m worried that this will all be too much.

She is an extremely emotional and empathetic child, and when she feels overwhelmed, she completely shuts down. I have explained the potential workload to her. She is so honored to have been recommended and still wants to take every honors course she can. I definitely know she can do one or two advanced courses, but four seems like a lot. Is there a way to help her prepare now for what an honors course load will be like (either emotionally or practically?), so that she’s better equipped to handle it once it starts?

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—Easing In?

Dear Easing In,

Ah, to have students who are “prepared” for high school! I’m not sure there’s a way. All kids hit social and developmental rough patches, and they have to work through them on their own. Academically challenging classes can pile on the stress. I don’t envy you. It can be so hard to know what to expect.

To that end, if it’s possible in your area, reach out to teachers she may have next year. This may be difficult before you have a class schedule in hand, and if that’s the case, speaking to the high school guidance counselor or an administrator instead may help you get a feel for how much homework to expect with that advanced course load. From there, it might be helpful to engage in a sort of “homework experiment” with her eighth grade workload. Let’s say you get the sense that she’ll have two hours of homework each night (I hope not—it sounds like we share similar views on homework, but unfortunately not all educators and parents feel the way we do): When she sits down to do her eighth-grade homework, set a timer and have her work till it rings. If she’s done with her eighth-grade homework before the timer is up, she can study or read or do extra credit. See how it goes for a week and then talk with her about whether to keep the experiment going or not.

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This could give her a chance to experience what high school honors classes might be like and for her to make an informed choice about what is best for her. It’s difficult for us as parents to stand by while our kids make choices without the benefit of experience, but as much as we can we have to let them try. Whether she decides to drop some of the honors classes, pile more on, or make changes to her study habits, the choice will be hers, and she can be the one who learns from it. All that being said, a class schedule isn’t permanent. If she finds herself in too deep, remind her that she’s well within her rights to seek a schedule change.

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—Mr. Vona (high school teacher, Florida)

How much information do teachers want from parents about what I would call pre-bullying behaviors that are being reported to us from our kindergartner? For example, a student picking on them for what they eat for lunch, or for their clothes not being “fancy” enough?

My inclination is to share this information with the teacher because at this age I feel it can hopefully be nipped in the bud, but I also don’t want to be the annoying tattletale of a parent. How would a kindergarten teacher prefer we handle this? Should we tell the teacher, or are we supposed to butt out and try to give our child the tools to manage their own feelings and behaviors?

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—Butt In, or Butt Out?

Dear BIoBO,

I believe the correct approach is a combination of both solutions your mentioned. First, I would sit your kid down and get a good understanding of exactly what’s going on. Once you’ve got that information, I would work on strategies at home to manage their feelings. Self-regulation is one the most critical skills children begin to learn in kindergarten. Supporting your child with skills from resources like Second Step or Kelso’s Choice could help them think through how to respond in situations of potential bullying. Their teacher may already have a few socioemotional resources as a part of their curriculum you could use. After you’ve implemented these strategies, if your child still reports that they are being mistreated by another student, then I would bring in the teacher.

—Mr. Hersey (elementary school teacher, Washington)

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Could you explain the value teachers see in giving kindergartners’ homework? If I don’t make my child do it, will his teacher think I’m a terrible parent?

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