Care and Feeding

My Son Is Failing Math

What can I do to help him?

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.

My freshman son has an IEP—you can’t really tell when you first meet him, but he is autistic. Since middle school (he’s now in Algebra), he’s struggled in math. He needs clear instructions and a classroom environment that’s not too distracting (no kids yelling, water bottles flying, etc.). He is in general education for all his classes.

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His current math teacher is a little out there—she uses dreams to explain functions, talks a lot about Star Wars and her nephew, and— according to my son—just vomits out occasional instructions. He currently has a 22 percent in this class. He does the worksheets she sends home, but some things he just doesn’t understand. He does not want a tutor to come to our house. I’ve been in touch with his IEP case carrier who seems to really care about his success, and we talked to his case carrier about the option of moving him to the special day math class. (My friend’s son is in it, and it really seems to help him). The case carrier agreed, but then told my son he wants to wait until the end of the year. I feel like the move should be made ASAP, while my son still has a chance to reach the learning targets and get a passing grade for this quarter. Your thoughts?

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—Math Move?

Dear Math Move,

My answer depends on your school calendar. It’s now May 5. I’m going to assume your son still has more than a month left of school, in which case you should push to move him. A student can learn a lot in a month.

If he has a month or less, I would ask how many school days are going to be disrupted with state testing, field trips, and other end-of-year activities, then make your decision about whether it’s worth it. (It might still be, depending on how quickly your son responds to specialized instruction.)

My question is, how does he have a 22? What accommodations are on his IEP? Has the teacher been following them? For example, does he have extra time for assignments? If so, double-check that the teacher has not taken off points for late work. Does he have access to teacher notes? Ask him to procure them. Is the case manager supposed to push in to your son’s class or pull him out to support him? Make sure he’s had that small-group or one-on-one time.

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If he’s receiving all his accommodations… they’re not working. Whether or not he stays in the mainstream class, it seems like his IEP needs to be amended.

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

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Do you have any tips for helping our preschooler learn impulse control? He’s almost 4, and we’re having issues with wild behavior (throwing, jumping, kicking) and doing things like getting snacks right before meal time, taking toys from younger brother, purposefully missing the potty when he pees, etc.

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It’s been a tough couple of weeks between a miscarriage and business travel, so we know that is part of it. We’re trying to do 10 minutes of focused attention a day too. What else can we do? He knows he’s making bad choices but can’t help himself. How do we start teaching him impulse control and other executive functions skills? Or do we just have to wait it out?

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—Out of Control

Dear Out of Control,

There is a part of me that thinks waiting it out may be the best thing, but there are also things you can do to mitigate these issues. You’ve had a tough few weeks, which means he has too, and some of this is just normal “kids lash out” stuff. When you have had time to emotionally recover, he will begin to emotionally recover. Obviously, though, you don’t want these to become habits. Unfortunately, these impulses are pretty varied in form, so you might need a multi-pronged approach.

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A lot of the physical behaviors can be eased by offering appropriate outlets—we don’t jump on the furniture, but we can jump in this location. Jumping, throwing, and kicking are all sensory-seeking behaviors (i.e. behaviors that provide the actor with input into their joints). Often, kids who emit these behaviors actually benefit from having some “heavy work” chores to do. Activities like hauling around the laundry basket, carrying grocery bags, taking out the garbage; anything that engages lifting or carrying muscles can provide input to those same muscles and ease the urge to perform those actions. Similarly, the playground is a parent’s greatest tool! Go jump on the jungle gym, climb, slide, etc. because those activities provide the proprioceptive and vestibular input that satisfies the sensory-seeking impulse. After bathtime is another great time for input—dry him down with the towel pretty firmly, and offer a little massage around his joints with deep pressure.

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For the more defiant behaviors (mis-aiming when he pees, taking things from his brother, ill-timed snacking), it does depend on your kid’s personality. Generally, I advise incorporating your child into “adult” tasks as a good way to both spend extra time with your child and support good decision-making. For example, when your child wants a snack, as him to help prepare dinner. Cooking is a great time for pre-academic learning and bonding; and also, if he is cooking, he is less likely to be snacking. If he pees outside the toilet, he can certainly help clean it up. Make sure to keep this matter-of-fact rather than punitive. He cleans up other messes he makes, after all. Getting a towel for the bathroom floor doesn’t have to be any different. And if he is fighting with his brother, I would generally hold firm that we cannot take from others. Have him return it and go through the process of asking.

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I see two themes here overall. The first is: show him there is a way to get what he wants. If he’s hungry, help cook. If he wants his brother’s toy, ask him. If he wants to throw, go outside with a baseball. The second is: We have to be considerate of others. No one wants to use the bathroom when there is pee on the floor/wall/seat. Everyone deserves respect for their property (or their turn with shared property, like toys). He, too, deserves respect, which is why you are giving him access to what he needs. Depending on how well he handles this sort of conversation, you can be frank about how you would like him to learn these two themes, and what strategies you are going to use as a family to incorporate them. Between that approach and giving him (and yourselves!) time, my guess is these behaviors will ease.

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

Do you have any recommendations for go-to strategies for anger, anxiety, and meltdowns in teens? I am asking generally, but am particularly interested in strategies that might help those with autism and additional learning disabilities—verbal but selective mutism or Tourettic-type anger with verbal outbursts?

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—Tempering Their Temper

Dear Tempering,

There’s a saying in the medical field: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. You can’t “cure” an outburst, but the most effective strategy is to stop them by addressing the source of the outburst before it happens. That’s obviously difficult to do, but if you can identify ways to help your teen avoid reaching that state of extreme distress, it will make both of your lives easier and more pleasant. If the stress source is anxiety, anxiety is particularly well suited to being somewhat assuaged. Give your child as much information as you can about whatever they’re anxious about, so that they can prepare and anticipate what is going to happen. You can use pictures or social stories to prep them for whatever activities you’re engaging in. I would make this part of your routine—do it even before going somewhere that doesn’t tend to set them off so they don’t associate the social stories with stressful situations. The more they are prepared and know what to expect, the less likely an unfamiliar situation will bother them.

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Along with emotional preparation, I would work with them on physically preparing. Selective mutism can make a situation scarier for the person who has it. Imagine being in a stressful situation and suddenly being unable to explain what you need or why you are upset. It suddenly becomes that much more distressing. Anticipating that that might happen causes anxiety, too. I would talk to your child’s speech pathologist or psychologist (if you have one) about options for visuals. Even something as simple as a picture of “I am upset” can provide them with some agency in the situation, which may help. If not, maybe a signal system could help—you could ask them to show you with their fingers how they feel on a scale of 1-5 (with one extreme being “good to go” and one being “we need to stop and let me gather myself,” for example). If your child has any coping mechanisms, visuals for that may help as well. Again, working with your child and their learning team at school, you can make a list of coping mechanisms for heightened emotions, and then put them on pictures.

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If your child doesn’t have pre-learned coping strategies, you can practice some at home. I like to recommend an array of different kinds of strategies: deep breathing, cold water, deep pressure (like a firm hug or a hand massage), a guided meditation (if your child is able to use those apps), a favorite song or video, etc. Anything that can help them relax in the moment can help. Try using these strategies at home during calm situations to make sure they are familiar and relaxing. If there are times where it is easier for your child to talk, try them during those times so you can get verbal feedback as much as possible.

Finally, when your child is in the midst of a stressful moment, try to catch your child at the first signs of some distress. Using a check-in, as mentioned above, can help, but if your child struggles with self-reflection, you can also work on recognizing the signs of distress. I have lived with people who have panic attacks, and stepping in to help at the first sign of a panic attack has always made it easier for them to come down off that ledge, so to speak. You can always present them with the visual of the coping strategies you’ve practiced and have them point, or you can just pick one and say, “Hey, we’re doing a 2-minute meditation; come over to this corner with me and I’ll grab the iPad.” As much as you can help avoid full-meltdown-mode, it will be easier to cope with difficult emotions, and eventually, your teen will learn to activate those strategies on their own.

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

Any ideas for a gift that a fifth grade class can give to their school? Our first choice is to plant a tree, but we’re not sure that will work with the current landscape plan for the school, so we (a contingent of parents) are trying to think of something else that would be useful, memorable but not require any effort on the part of the teachers/administration. Thanks!

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The tree sounds lovely, but if that doesn’t work, a bench with a plaque, placed in a strategically lovely place is something that has worked well in my school.

If your school doesn’t have a Buddy Bench yet—a place to sit for kids who are looking for a recess playmate—that might also be a great option.

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You could also consider making a purchase for the library—a set or collection of books with book plates inside indicating that the gift was made from a particular class. You could consult your librarian or even the students themselves for books that would be especially appealing.

You might also ask the principal for a wish list of things that the school could use. Years ago, a class donated a new sound system for our auditorium based upon our principal’s request. It wasn’t terribly expensive but made an enormous impact on our assemblies, and we made a point of mentioning the class and their gift a couple times a year during an assembly.

There may be something similar that your school needs that you don’t know about, and those often make the best gifts.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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