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 email@example.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
My son is going into sixth grade this year, and it will be his first year in GATE. He has been bored in class, and we feel the academic challenge will benefit him. However, he’s really struggling with the idea from a friendship standpoint. He feels that the “best” socializing is in class, and since he won’t be in the same classes as his friends, it’s all “terrible.” He knows kids in his future classes and is friends with some—but is so scared about losing his core group.
I both totally understand his fear and have tried to talk through the idea that there are many possible outcomes. He could make new friends, stay close with his current group at recess and lunch, have a mix of new and old friends, etc. I’ve encouraged him to see those buddies this summer, but he’s not that interested (it’s not the same, he says).
I don’t want to negate his feelings but am trying to figure out how to help him through this tricky time. Any suggestions or recommendations?
Dear Friendship Fears,
It sounds like he doesn’t want your help right now, which is normal—this is a tricky age. While your son isn’t a teenager yet, he’s approaching adolescence, a time when many kids start to pull away from their parents. This may be why he is dismissing your ideas for how to maintain his friendships: he wants to maintain them independently, but fears he cannot when he’s no longer in classes with them. Your suggestions are all reasonable, of course, but he can’t hear them.
My recommendation is to stop trying to fix this for him and just listen. Sympathize. You can remind him that you have faith in him but avoid giving him advice he doesn’t want.
One thing I am wondering: does he agree that he was bored in class and needs more academic challenge? If he does, then that gives me hope he will adjust quickly to this new setting once school starts. If he’s 100 percent resistant to making the switch, it may be rough going for a while. I would evaluate how well he’s adapted at the end of the fall semester.
Good luck! Chances are, he will make friends in his new program. Whether or not he maintains his current friendships will be up to him. You and I both know that in life friendships come and go—but don’t tell him that! It counts as “advice.”
—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)
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My nephew is a highly intelligent 6-year-old in some ways (capable of building complex Lego sets fast, able to regurgitate precisely much of what he learns). But it’s hard to hold his attention for a long conversation, like even more than a couple words. For instance, once I asked, “What’s up buddy?” and he said, “How come you changed your voice when you talked to me?” Before I could state, “Because grown-ups sometimes change their voice around kids….” He ran off. He does not always maintain eye contact. ADHD is possible, but the kid is able to pay attention massively when he’s engaged—at a museum lecture, the Lego sets, drawing, etc. He does not have too many friends, and he does not really seek it out or worry about it. He does not engage in pretend play or make-believe type activities. He does have some hyperactive elements as mentioned. His parents brought it up to his pediatrician and they were told, “Well, he seems okay, but if his teachers are concerned we might be too…” I hate to pin a “pathology” on this kind and smart child. He might be on the spectrum, but so are many content and kind people. It seems weird to put the emphasis of this diagnosis on his burdened and hard-working non-medical teachers.
Should we try a special mental assessment? Does it matter? My assumption is that excellent services exist to help but that they need to start as early as possible.
—Should I Intervene?
Some facts: there are specialized assessments used to determine if a child is autistic; there are services to support autistic children as they go through school; there is research that services should start as early as possible. The most important fact: this is none of your business.
I understand that you are trying to help. I understand that you may be concerned about your nephew, that you think there may be something others are not seeing. I understand what it’s like to be a concerned bystander in the life of a child that is not yours. However, the is not yours part here is key. This is not your child. You are not his parent or guardian. And the evidence you have here to support the idea that he might be autistic isn’t particularly robust. Were you his parent, I would go over what I would look for as red flags but, again, you’re not his parent or guardian.
Furthermore, his parents have done exactly the right thing. They spoke to their doctor, and their doctor gave exactly the answer I would expect: that if there were concerns from school, they would look further into the matter. All of those wonderful services are there to support children who lack certain skills or who learn abilities slower than their peers. If no one at school has flagged that he lacks those skills or learns those abilities slower than his peers, an autism diagnosis does nothing. It’s just a label at that point. Labels can be extremely valuable, but I think if you only want the label for label’s sake, it’s best to wait until he can self-determine. Autism is not an automatic qualifying disability for most services, so he would not necessarily get any supports if he isn’t showing deficits, and if he is showing deficits, then a recommendation would be made to his parent or guardian about further assessment. What you can do is love him for who he is without worrying about the label.
—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)
My January-born grandson is starting kindergarten next month. He was placed in a pre-K/K combination class. He is very small in size, but based on his birthday, he is on the older side.
He can do an 18+ Lego in three days. He can easily count to 100, knows letter sounds, and can read sight words. He can do 500-piece adult jigsaw puzzles.
I want him to attend this creative, project-based K-8 school, but I am worried he will be bored, especially with a brand new teacher.
Should I look elsewhere so the teacher can just deal with one age group versus trying to keep this busy guy stimulated while dealing with younger kids as well? The school is so small, we could be facing a combo class ongoing as well.
Dear Stressed-Out Grandma,
First off, I’m assuming that you are your grandson’s caregiver. If not, I’d suggest that you offer the gentlest advice to your grandson’s parent or parents but refrain from stressing them or yourself out too much. Trust your grandson’s parents to make the best choice.
Also, no need to stress out because this model of schooling produces excellent results. It sounds like your grandson has some very good skills, but there is a lot more to learn in kindergarten beyond academics. In fact, the most important learning that takes place in kindergarten is social and emotional development, so regardless of what your grandson can do, there is most assuredly more to learn. My wife, a kindergarten teacher, would tell you that learning how to share, take turns, collaborate, be a good sport, socialize, listen, and cope are the most important things learned in kindergarten. Surely your grandson has room to grow.
Also, a pre-k/kindergarten class will give your grandson the opportunity to learn important skills like role modeling, leadership, empathy, patience, and kindness. He’ll be in a position to help others with skills that he has already learned, thus cementing his own pre-existing skills, while receiving additional instruction in areas where he needs to improve himself.
Remember: A multi-grade classroom is not an environment that teaches to the youngest or most struggling student but instead seeks to meet the needs of all and perhaps stretch those younger students beyond what they thought possible. The fact that the school and class sizes are small might prove to be a blessing in terms of the amount of individual attention that your grandson will receive.
It sounds like a wonderful opportunity for your grandson. Good luck!
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
Do you have any advice on how I should punish my 5-year-old for hitting, biting, and scratching classmates? By the time they get home from school, they don’t remember why they did it. Is a punishment hours after the incident effective?
—Punishment to Fit the Crime
The younger the child, the more immediate the consequence needs to be. With a 5-year-old child, the consequence must come almost immediately or it will be meaningless. The dots must quickly be connected. Ideally, the teacher will provide an immediate consequence for the behavior, which can and probably should include contacting you about the situation.
But what you can do after the fact is require your child to engage in empathy, by writing a letter of apology to the child who was harmed, drawing them a beautiful picture, baking the “feel better” cookies, or donating time and effort to a related cause. These are all important life skills that have great value and will help your child understand the world better even after the incident is in their rearview mirror.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
More Advice From Slate
My daughter’s sixth-grade elective teacher recently called me to tell me that my daughter is a great student, eager to learn, and very fun to have in class. Sounds great, right? But he also mentioned that he often asks her to partner with difficult students in class. When I asked my daughter about this, she said that these difficult students are often boys that don’t pay attention and don’t really want to be in the class. The more I think about it, I feel like it isn’t my daughter’s responsibility to manage these boys in class. What should I do?