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 firstname.lastname@example.org or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
My wife (and to a lesser extent I) have some concerns about our first grader daughter’s motivation to improve herself (I’m not sure I’m putting that exactly right, so bear with me).
The way my wife puts it, our daughter tends to assume that she is the best at everything, but when faced with an actual challenge in doing the thing, she immediately gets frustrated and wants to just give up rather than try.
This recently came up in the context of starting piano lessons. Per my wife, our daughter seemed to pick up the first lesson easily, and then went around for the next week talking about how great she is at piano. However, at the second lesson, she wasn’t immediately able to do it and she instantly wanted to quit. She has done this with things as varied as when she learned to read, to how she handles playing video games.
Perhaps relatedly, although she has always seemed fairly bright, she has always seemed incurious. She never really went through a “why” phase and, going back as long as I can remember, any time she has realized you were trying to teach her something, she would actively reject your doing so. For example, I can get her to do some fairly complicated (for her age) math, but if she realizes that I am trying to teach her math, she’s immediately done with the activity.
I am very open to the idea that this is merely age-appropriate, but my wife is concerned that it may not be. Any thoughts?
—Can’t Power Through
Generally speaking, with questions of temperament, I tend to err on the side of “it’s probably fine.” What you want to do here, I think, is teach your daughter to have a growth mindset. A growth mindset is moving away from fixed feelings like “I can’t” and learning to talk to oneself to say, “I’ll get better at this.” Things in life aren’t “fixed”; your child can learn to “grow.”
The best way to tell if this lack of growth mindset is an issue is if her behavior is disruptive to her learning in school, or if it is preventing her from doing something she seemed to love. I absolutely know students who get in their own way because the work is hard. If it gets to a point where they are refusing so much that they cannot initiate a difficult task, we reach out to the families and start working on small ways to build their skills. Likewise, if she is refusing opportunities (like piano!) because it was hard, that’s concerning because it is limiting her opportunities in life.
To build her understanding and appreciating of a growth mindset, think about how you praise her. Is it for something she intrinsically is—smart, pretty, athletic, etc.? Or is it something she has control over—her style, her accomplishment, how hard she worked?
This doesn’t just apply to your child either. One of the biggest ways kids learn social skills is by observing how we interact with others. What sorts of things do you thank your wife or praise her for? Things she controls, or things that are intrinsic to her? I know these categories are not fully discrete, but there is a big difference in the long run between saying “You’re good at making bread” and “Thank you for putting in the effort to make this bread” or “This bread is even better than the last one.” By valuing growth mindset in others, your daughter learns that perseverance is a valuable quality to have, rather than just natural-born smarts, looks, or gifts.
Likewise, when does she see you struggle with a new skill? You can’t expect kids to do things we ourselves refuse to do. If she sees you opting to continue with a challenge, she learns that what teachers call “productive struggle” (sitting with something that is challenging and continuing to try) is an experience adults have as well, rather than something we contrive for children for no good reason.
In addition, you can always externally reward perseverance. My wife (a brilliant reader!) always opted for picture books until someone rewarded her for every chapter book she read. Your daughter may acclimate to the feeling of productive struggle simply through—ironically—practicing how to stick with something that is hard. As she acclimates to it, she’ll hopefully become more persistent.
If it doesn’t, or if it gets in the way at school, that is when I would become concerned. Otherwise, treat it as a phase she will learn and grow past.
—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)
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I am a white mom in a semirural, very white, very red small town in the U.S. Midwest. Confederate flags are common, and when my church held a Black Lives Matter rally in the center of town, we faced blatant pushback ranging from disapproving comments to revving motorcycles driving by repeatedly to drown us out. To give you a sense of my community, I’m sad to say that my county was well represented in Washington on Jan. 6.
I might be a masochist, but I would like to encourage my school district (where my child is a middle school student) to add anti-racism/tolerance/anti-hate/critical thinking materials to their curriculum across all the schools. I’m certain kids need help dealing with events like the Uvalde and Buffalo grocery store tragedies, injustice in our legal system, and other news items, as well as not falling in with the white supremacy/red pill crowd online. Reaching kids is our only hope for lasting change.
How do I do this in a way that will have the best chance of success? I generally think our district administration (superintendent and principals) are good people. The school board is a mixed bag. What resources are available to me as a parent to prepare for presenting this idea, and how do I do it in a way that won’t rally the anti-CRT crowd to drive their metaphorical motorcycles over me?
And should I be concerned about backlash against me and against my child if I make a public statement?
—Change Has to Come
Dear Change Has to Come,
In my view, the best chance for success, which I define as work that will directly benefit students and continue for years to come, is a grassroots effort. Top-down mandates through school administration often result in one-time events, like a moment of silence or a brief discussion.
One way to tackle this work is to start a student organization. Student leaders can help reach their peers and teachers in effective ways. Many schools use the Anti-Defamation League’s Program, No Place for Hate. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s program, Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance), has a wealth of educational resources. Depending on your district’s rules, you may need to find a teacher sponsor to help you start a club, and you will also need to find out the school rules for volunteering with students (you may have to submit to a background check, for example).
If you’ve never worked with kids before, you might try starting a group at your church first. You would not have the same rules or red tape, and you could “practice” working with a group of kids from your church community. These kids may also have good ideas for how to implement the work within the local schools.
As far as potential backlash, you say that your school administrators are good people. Good people do not retaliate against children due to their parents’ activism. In the wider community, that is difficult for me to predict. If conservative parents believe that your work is partisan, they may be suspicious or fearful of you. You may have to be brave. I recommend recruiting like-minded folks who can tackle this work with you.
I commend you for taking this on! We do need to reach kids, and I have found as I’ve worked with children over the years that this current generation is far more likely to embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion than previous ones. Good luck!
—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)
I have two high schoolers—ninth and 12th graders—who have had the fortunate experience of having an amazing teacher in their lives this year, and we want to make sure we express our appreciation appropriately. We’ll write her a letter with a small gift and have made a donation to her program’s fund, but is it helpful or worthwhile at all for parents to send a letter with positive feedback to the administration? This teacher teaches performing arts and is new to the school this year (though not new to teaching). Despite the inherent challenges that come with change, her effect on my children, many other students, and the program itself has been nothing short of transformative. Her students are a small and sometimes overlooked group in a large school, and I feel like the admins should know that she is doing important, life-changing work as much as the higher-profile AP teachers or debate team or basketball team. Would a letter to the principal be appropriate? Email or traditional letter? Is there a way to make sure our feedback is kept in her employment file or something? Slightly complicating this is that we also have a new principal (who hired this teacher) who has had a much tougher transition year—so many challenges, in fact, that I worry they won’t be returning next year, and I don’t want our message to get lost in the shuffle if there is another transition.
I’m so happy to hear this uplifting story of an educator making a positive impact on students’ lives, and I am warmed by how much you are willing to do in support of this teacher. These kinds of gestures really make a difference. You should 100 percent send an email to the principal with your feedback. If you’re worried about it getting lost in the shuffle, I would say that sending an email is better than a piece of paper (in my state, our emails are public record), and CC the superintendent, school board members, whomever you deem fit—the more, the merrier. You won’t be bothering them; they want to hear these positive stories from stakeholders. Spread that love around and let the higher-ups know how wonderful this teacher is.
—Mr. Vona (high school teacher, Florida)
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