Care and Feeding

Is It Really My Job to Mediate These Fights?

A boy and a girl fight in a classroom.
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 teach first grade, and I’m also a parent. I’m wondering what advice you would give to parents about when to talk to a teacher about interpersonal classroom issues, versus when parents should contact other parents about issues between kids. A lot of my students were virtual for much of last year, and their social skills aren’t as far along as they usually would be, so I understand that parents are dealing with a lot. But more parents than usual are reaching out to my colleagues and me to solve social issues between kids, when these social issues don’t disrupt the classroom, and really aren’t for me to mediate. Do you have any recommendations?

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—Their Problem or Mine?

Dear TPoM,

Social issues that don’t disrupt the classroom may still be impacting children in profound ways, and as educators, it’s our job to ensure that students feel safe and supported at school. The pandemic has placed enormous pressure on kids. Anxiety, fear, and dysregulation are on the rise, and yes, social skills acquisition has been delayed for many children.

This only makes dealing with these problems even more important.

As teachers, we must not only teach academics, but we must also instruct children on how to get along well with others and manage the multitude of emotions that result from social interactions.

My suggestion is to mediate when necessary, because every child should feel happy and safe when coming to school, but also educate students on managing these situations independently. There are many programs and a great deal of curriculum available to assist in this teaching, and if your district has not provided you with SEL resources, I would lobby hard on their behalf.

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Until then, use common sense. Pay attention to the types of problems that your students are experiencing and talk about these kinds of problems with your class. Equip your students with strategies for managing conflict. Role model likely scenarios. Ask your school librarian for books that address these issues, and speak to your school psychologist or social worker for support in designing instruction to meet the needs of your students.

Students often suffer in silence. They may not be creating havoc during your math class, but they may be suffering from great turmoil on the inside. Simply because their suffering is not impacting the school day does not make it any less critical to address.

Best of luck.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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I have a bit of a dilemma. I have two children, a 15-year-old son (Miles) and a 13-year old-kid (nonbinary) (Ray). My question is about Ray. Ray just turned 13 last month and is normally a very active member of their school community. Last year, Ray and Miles attended a boarding school a few hours away from home. They loved it, and the school had incredibly good Covid-19 protocols.

Ray has moderate to severe asthma. It is well managed and not a huge problem in day-to-day life, but definitely affects them and does also put them at slightly higher risk for Covid-19 complications, even if it’s omicron. Currently, I don’t want to send them back to school, in spite of the school’s Covid protocols.

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Since school went back after break, Ray has been doing online schooling, which the school offers in necessary cases. And they are struggling. They are neurodivergent and have trouble focusing for extended periods of time. The online schooling is currently hybrid, which often results in a Zoom lesson for the first 10-20 minutes of class and then worksheets to do at home, in which case the teachers turn off the zoom and focuses on their in-person class.

Ray either takes an hour to do a 10-minute task or gets so engrossed that they don’t notice when they need to stop. In short, it’s not working. I am hesitant to send Ray back to school because of the risk for them. I am confident that Ray will follow all necessary health precautions (N95 mask, etc.), but I don’t know whether it is worth sending them back (so that they can learn well) despite the risk. The school is currently fine with them returning whenever they feel comfortable, and we do too (whether in a week or a month, etc…). I would really appreciate some advice.

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—Worried About the Risk

Dear Worried About the Risk,

If it were me, I’d get Ray a COVID booster and send them back to school with plenty of N95 masks. I know that it’s hard right now, but I do think school is the best place for most kids to be. Students learn better in the classroom with their peers than over Zoom by themselves. In my view, attending school fully vaccinated with high quality masks is relatively safe and responsible. I promise that you are not a “bad parent” if you let them return.

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However, I’m obviously not a doctor and I am not able to calculate the risk or predict what would happen if Ray caught the virus. If you decide it’s not worth it, then just accept that their learning will suffer for the time being and know that they will need assistance getting caught up when they do return to regular school. You can afford boarding school, so I assume you can get them a private tutor next summer.

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How does Ray feel? At 13, they are old enough to contribute meaningfully to the conversation. I wouldn’t ask them if your mind is made up, but if you are still struggling after reading this, listen to what they want to do.

Good luck Worried, I know it’s not easy.

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

My daughter is in third grade at a school that is the product of a merger of a “high performing” school and a “low performing” school. The last two years have obviously been challenging for everyone, but for some more than others. There are children in her class that can barely read (and some who can’t read at all). There are children in her class that lash out at others, behave inappropriately, and generally make it obvious that they are struggling in school both academically and socially. The class is small (15 kids) and the teacher is experienced and competent. And yet, the year is half over and these children clearly need help. What can I do to facilitate this? I have reached out to the principal, and he says he will “look into it.” Are there other resources I could try to tap into? How can I these get these children the support they need? What support is even available to them?

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—There Must Be a Way to Help

Dear There Must Be a Way,

First, thank you. Your response to this situation is both noble and appreciated. Teachers are struggling in more ways than you could imagine given the state of the pandemic. Add a merger like this, and I would imagine that the teachers in your daughter’s school are working to the bone to help their students.

If your school allows for volunteers, and if your daughter’s teacher is amenable, that would be enormously helpful. One of my student’s parents is coordinating classroom volunteers for me this year, and every time I have another pair of adult hands in the classroom, learning improves dramatically. You could begin volunteering yourself if that’s possible, and you could reach out the other parents to see if they might be interested, too. Work schedules make this impossible for many parents, but every little bit helps.

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You might also look into ways to ensure that all students have access to the internet at home. The digital divide can really cause enormous problems for kids starting in third grade, and teachers have little control over it, so if there are students without access to online resources at home, maybe look for ways to fund that need? Talk to your school’s PTA. Grants and fundraisers could probably help a great deal, too.

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Lastly, ask the teacher directly what you can do to help. Simple tasks like organizing weekend reading material for students, mentoring a student online for an hour on a weekend, or preparing materials for lessons can free a teacher up to plan lessons, design individualized instruction, and work directly with students.

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Knowing the state that teachers are in these days, I’ll also add that a note of appreciation would surely be welcomed. My wife and I make it a point of thanking our children’s teachers whenever possible, going so far as to writing to their administrators to praise their skill and expertise. Boosting the spirits of a struggling teacher—and most are struggling these days—can mean a lot.

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—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

My daughter turned six in June. She attended a great preschool/pre-k program from 3-4, and in March of 2020 her teacher felt she was more than ready—socially and academically—to start kindergarten in the fall of 2020, in spite of being on the younger side.

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Then, of course, the pandemic happened. After a false start with the district’s online program, we elected to homeschool her for the past year. We’re now faced with deciding whether to start her with kindergarten or first grade in the public elementary school in the fall.

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Academically, she is meeting (and in many cases, far excelling) the state standards to enter first grade. Her handwriting and fine motor control are decent, she can count to 100, and she’s starting to learn how to read. However, I find myself concerned about whether she will be able to adapt to the stricter classroom environment, not to mention whether she’ll be able to adapt socially after being stuck home with her dad for over a year. I think he and I have done a great job helping her grow academically and emotionally, but we’re just two people! To add to it, I was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, and I recognize that she has quite a few of my childhood and adult behaviors. Plunging her into a more structured environment seems like it could be helpful—or it could be a disaster. On the other hand, I’m worried she’ll be terribly bored in kindergarten, and that she’ll feel like she’s behind her friends who are entering first grade in the fall.

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I recognize that in terms of social skills, a lot of her peers will likely be in the same boat, but I find myself stymied and need to make a decision in time for school registration next month. I’ve asked to chat with folks at the school, but I’ve had trouble setting something up. My gut says to start with first grade and she’ll figure it out, but I keep second-guessing myself.

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What would you recommend?

—Stymied

Dear Stymied,

Keep pushing the folks at school to talk to you. They’re the ones that will be able to answer this question best. But looking from the outside, here are my thoughts.

Any teacher worth her salt will differentiate based on student needs. That includes curriculum, social-emotional support, and classroom expectations. There are going to be kids in your daughter’s class that are more academically advanced and those that are behind. Some will be very mature for their age, some less so. Yes, the kids who have been in the school setting will likely adapt more quickly to the classroom routines, but kids who were homeschooled or remote-schooled, or who are just forgetful, may need extra modeling of the expectations.

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Your daughter will experience challenges in either situation, and she’ll be fine either way. So, foremost, let yourself off the hook a little bit. If it were my kid, I’d put her in first, but do what your gut says.

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

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