Care and Feeding

I Don’t Know How to Help My Daughter Navigate Her Toxic “Friendships”

Two 12-year-old girls gossiping at school.
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 daughter is 12 and started middle school this year. She’s become best friends with two girls she went to elementary school with, and it seems to be a toxic triad. She comes home sobbing after school once every week or so, because the other two excluded her, or spread false rumors about her, or criticized her clothes. It’s affecting her eating, she’s suddenly obsessed with her appearance, and, of course, this is all happening as she is hitting puberty and becoming more oppositional. I navigated a lot of bureaucracy to get her into therapy covered by my insurance, but of course, she doesn’t like the therapist (and honestly, I don’t blame her). I’m working on another therapy solution. Any advice on helping her navigate these friendships in the meantime? I feel wildly protective but she is very attached to these girls, and anything remotely negative I say about them is counterproductive.

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—Mean Girls

Dear MG,

First, if my kid were acting like a jerk, I’d want to know, wouldn’t you? How well do you know these girls’ parents? Do you feel comfortable having an uncomfortable conversation with them?

Another tack you could take would be to hang out together—you, your daughter, and the girls, and the girls’ parents if you want. Some of the hardest and most important lessons I learned as a kid were that other people… were people. Putting your daughter in the context of her family could make the girls realize that she’s not just an ornament on their school triad. Putting them in theirs could make your daughter see that they are not cruel to her when their parents are watching, so it shouldn’t be OK for them to treat her that way when they’re not.

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More importantly, I think, is getting your daughter involved in something else. Right now, her identity is wrapped up in being part of this clique—give her the opportunity to step outside of it and see herself in a new light. Gymnastics, horseback riding, mathletes, pottery—something that will build her competence and confidence. Bonus: She will probably make new and better friends.

Last, and you’re probably already doing this, talk to her about puberty: how appearance is the least interesting thing about a person, how her appearance will change—it’s supposed to change, how the images we see on TV and social media are unrealistic for 98 percent of the population, whether due to genetics or finances, how the sooner she can learn to accept and appreciate her body, the happier she’ll be. Good luck!

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

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Can you explain the rationale to have combined grade-level classes? I thought those were a relic of a former time, but it looks like there’s one on the horizon at my child’s school (a 2/3 combo). Should I try to avoid it? For what it’s worth, the teacher is supposed to be great. But I can’t help but feel it might be a hard situation for any kid to be in.

—A Thing of the Past?

Dear Past,

Children have enormous variability in skill level, both in terms of overall academic ability and proficiency in specific areas of the curriculum, so combined grade-level classes acknowledge and honor that variability and help students learn at a pace that is most appropriate for them. By having two grade levels in a classroom, students who are ready to take the next step have an easier time accessing advanced instruction, while students who require reteaching and additional practice also have that level of instruction available to them.

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Multiple grade level classrooms also give students a chance to serve as mentors and role models for younger students, and it affords younger students access to those mentors and role models. This can be enormously beneficial in building a student’s confidence and leadership skills while also developing goal setting strategies.

When younger students see older students doing advanced work, they are more likely to work harder to reach that same level of achievement.

Students also often spend two years with the same teacher, which allows them to hit the ground running during that second year when both the students and teacher know one another well, making more productive use of their time.

All this said, it’s often a heavier lift for the teacher involved, so it’s good to hear that the teacher’s reputation is excellent. It’s an absolutely doable and effective model of instruction, and it can be incredibly rewarding, but the amount of preparation required is certainly increased for the teacher.

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If your child ends up in the class, I think they’ll do well, and honestly, if I was given the option of placing my own child in a mixed grade class with an excellent teacher, I think I’d probably take it. That said, it’s not a make-or-break decision. Your child will likely do well in either model.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

When’s the ideal time, and what is the ideal way, for a parent to make a class request? There’s one teacher I really don’t want my kid to have, and there’s also one kid I really don’t want in my child’s third grade class. I feel like it might be too much to mention both, and I feel like having a better teacher is probably more important than this obnoxious and annoying classmate (there’s no bullying; just a bit of a leach, and looking for my child to have a more independent experience, especially since I feel like this kid is a bad influence on my kid). I also don’t really know how to word it. My desire to not have “Ms. Smith” comes from her reputation—overly strict, grouchy, phoning it in. Do you have any advice?

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—Too Many Requests?

Dear Too Many Requests,

I would make your request in writing. To be honest, you may already be too late for the rapidly approaching school year unless your school districts starts later in the fall. Most schools decide upon fall classes as early as April or May, so you’d generally want to submit your request much earlier than this point in the summer. Your school may even have solicited parental input at some point already, so your first step is to determine if any of this is even possible. If so, your advantage is that you’re not requesting a specific teacher but instead requesting that your child not be assigned to a particular teacher. That’s a much easier request to accommodate, and frankly, if a parent didn’t want their child in my class, I wouldn’t want that child in my class.

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Why start off on the wrong foot?

You’ll need to explain your preference as diplomatically as possible. I would indicate that based upon first-hand accounts of the teacher’s style from friends and neighbors, you suspect that a pairing of your child and the teacher would not produce ideal results. Nothing against the teacher, of course. Simply a mismatch of personalities.

I’d also prioritize teacher over student. Obnoxious and annoying classmates are an issue in every classroom. Kids don’t always get along. You happen to know about this particular child’s annoying proclivities, but by avoiding this student, your child might end up in a classroom with an even more difficult student. I would avoid making the request about the student altogether, or alternatively, you could send a letter to the principal about the teacher request and ask your child’s current teacher to assist in separating the two kids. You might come across as less needy or demanding this way.

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—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

What’s the best way to try to get a favorable class assignment for the fall? Our principal doesn’t like pushy parents. We have one third grade teacher who’s fabulous, another who is just fine, and a third who’s really abysmal. She’s definitely overdue to retire and grumpy most of the time. My kid is a bit unfocused, and I’m worried she’s going to continually harp on him. I’d love to get my kid into the fabulous class. If I make a request, do you think the principal would go for it at all, or is it more likely to backfire? Any suggestions?

—Pushy Parent?

Dear Pushy,

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I do not think there is any harm in making a request, regardless of the principal’s philosophy. I’ve worked for principals who love parent involvement and others who prefer a more hands-off relationship. In both cases, they usually honor classroom assignment requests, the rationale being that it can be very disruptive to make a classroom change mid-year once teachers have already built a classroom culture and individual student relationships.

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That said, it is a little late in the game, so I’d act quickly. Most schools don’t make classroom assignments randomly. For example, in mid-May my teaching team looks at all the known incoming students from the previous grade and equally balances our classes based on reading level, test scores, gender, IEPs and several other metrics. This process usually takes at least a couple of days to complete and verify, so even a small change can throw a major wrench into the grade-band assignment plan.

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When you make the request, be sure to acknowledge that the assignments are likely already made, as well as give a thoughtful reason you’d like your child placed in the specific teacher’s class (other than saying that the other two teachers aren’t as good). If I were you, I’d send the principal an email saying something like, “Hello, I know classroom assignments are likely already determined or in the works, but I’d like to request my child be placed in Ms. Fabulous Teacher’s class if possible. My child is very excited about the possibility of being a part of Ms. Fabulous Teacher’s class because (reason).” Good luck!

—Mr. Hersey (elementary school teacher, Washington)

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