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.
I am a straight-A, 16-year-old girl, and I live in a rural, close-knit area. Most years my “low” grades are in the 93-95 range, and I’m a year (or more) ahead in most of my classes. I have a sibling in college who calls me for help on his homework. In other words, I’m a really good student and always have been. However, I have also had anxiety for as long as I can remember and have been suicidal on and off since I was in fourth grade. Last year, during the height of all-virtual schooling, I had a mental health crisis which ended with me attempting suicide. Since then I started seeing a therapist weekly, and a few months ago, I finally settled with a therapist that seems trustworthy and helpful who’s brought something to my attention.
I’m a very picky eater and sensitive about light, sound, and smell. I’m incredibly clumsy to the point that I still can’t really tie my shoes and tell the difference between left and right with consistency. I have barely legible handwriting and bump into things all the time. My reaction to pain is sort of dull so I have bruised marks on my hips and lower back from hitting desks and such by accident. Most of this stuff hasn’t been a big problem (besides being humiliating, which is why I mentioned it to my therapist). Most of my teachers just let me type or abbreviate any long passages, and I usually sit close to the front where there’s less to crash into when I stand/sit. I don’t eat in public so no one outside of my family really knows anything about my diet.
My therapist (who lives in a substantially larger city) was the first person to tell me that in a larger school system (or college) a lot of my accommodations would probably require an IEP or 504, and a lot of stuff I go through isn’t really as “normal” as I thought it was. Well, now I’m worried. I plan to go to college and wonder if I should get any evaluations, so I don’t get screwed over when I have to turn in a handwritten essay or can’t wear earplugs in class. Every resource I’ve looked at seems to consider middle school a “late” diagnosis, and I’m halfway through high school.
Would there still be a point in seeking an evaluation for these potential issues, and could I still get help from school? Also, how should I go about bringing the issue to my parent’s attention? Normally I would tell this sort of a thing to my dad, since my mom has always not-so-subtly thought my clumsiness and picky eating was the result of being spoiled and lazy. However, my dad died several years ago so that’s off the table. I’m also terrible at asking for help. I don’t think my mom would really consider any sort evaluation without a doctor’s opinion recommending it, if that helps.
—A Really Good Student
Dear A Really Good Student,
Your letter is heartbreaking. You’ve been through so much, with the death of your father and your own suicide attempts, that I’m amazed you’re able to think about college at all. You have much to be proud of: your strength of perseverance and your academic achievements. But let’s not make this about college. You’ve experienced trauma that needs addressing, and the biggest priority here should be your own mental wellness.
I want to make you and any teenager who is struggling with suicidal thoughts aware of the National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, which is now as simple as calling or texting 988. A lot of people have difficulty asking for help. Please, reach out when you are struggling.
I’m glad you have found a supportive therapist and that they are encouraging you to seek the help you need and deserve. Perhaps their recommendation for further evaluation would be enough to convince your mother? You could also speak to a guidance counselor or one of the people at your school who handles IEPs to learn specifics about what the evaluation process might entail. Coming to your mother with a complete plan might reduce some of her hesitancy. Normally I wouldn’t want to place that burden on a student’s shoulders, but you are clearly someone who takes charge of their own education and has the work ethic to seek answers and an action plan.
The so-called “late” timing of a potential diagnosis and whatever IEP or 504 plan you may receive as a result should NOT deter you from seeking help. While it is true that those specific plans (the ones a student receives in primary or secondary school) do not follow you to college, every university I looked into had an office for providing accommodations. They have to in order to remain compliant with the ADA and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
So, it’s worth it to be evaluated, even late in high school. And it’s normal. I see students go through that process as juniors and seniors all the time. Because it isn’t just about getting extended time on tests. It’s about knowing yourself, so you can be better to yourself. Whatever you discover through these evaluations will surely help you seek better care, in school and out. Take care of yourself, kiddo, and good luck.
—Mr. Vona, high school teacher, Florida)
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Do you have tips for post-school collapse? My second grader started school this week and is an absolute mess after school. I know it’s normal, and I’m not upset with her, just looking to move through it quickly and with the least stress to everyone. Going to her room to do something relaxing feels like punishment to her in this mood, but free play leads to dramatic conflicts with her little sister. Doing activities leads to meltdowns. I already make sure she has a snack and bathroom break immediately after school.
—Home With Tears
First, I’m not sure how normal an everyday post-school collapse really is, so if it continues on a regular basis for an extended period of time, you may want to investigate further. My concern is that something might be going on during the school day that is causing your child stress or discomfort, and she is releasing that stress at home.
In terms of what options might be best, I would first ask your child what she wants to do after school. She probably has a good idea of what would make her happiest, and it might be a different thing each day, depending on any number of factors. Perhaps you and your child could make a list of preferred options and consult that list at the end of each school day for the one she’s in the mood for at that moment.
I might also suggest that you add a walk to that list. There is an enormous amount of science behind the regulating power of a walk, both in terms of exercise, the visual experience with nature, and the meditative quality of moving through the world absent any urgency or purpose. A brief walk to nowhere or to a place of interest in your neighborhood might be just what your child needs to release the stressors of the school day and approach the remainder of the day in a more calm and productive way.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)*
I recently read an article about teachers who are taking a program to get licensed to carry a firearm in order to defend their students in case of an attack. What are your opinions on this phenomenon?
Dear Reading Up,
I’ll do you one better and give you not just my opinion but those from five different polls of educators. Teachers overwhelmingly do not want guns in the classroom. Many students in low-income areas already feel like they exist in a school-to-prison pipeline. Arming teachers is akin to making us guards. We want kids to feel safe in our classrooms and for many of them, seeing a gun on our hip or knowing there’s one in our desk will make them feel anything but welcome. It will drive them from the classroom towards ineffective online programs or push them into a fearful silence, rather than allowing them to form bonds with positive role models.
Not only do we know that guns will ruin the positive environment of our school and classrooms, we know after the horrific events in Uvalde how pointless armed teachers would be. Nearly 400 well-armed and well-trained law enforcement officers were on the scene and they failed to prevent that tragic massacre. Guns simply aren’t the solution.
—Mr. Vona (high school teacher, Florida)
My husband and I are wrestling with how to handle concerns we have regarding the quality of our daughter’s preschool. Our daughter is 4 and has one more year in her Spanish immersion preschool. This is the same school her older brother attended a few years ago.
We loved the school when her brother attended, but they have a new director. Our favorite teacher there left because she did not like the new leadership at the school, and we’re also finding the new leader a poor fit for us. We plan to keep her there for one more year because our daughter likes it and because the Spanish is important to us. But I’m wondering how much the quality of a preschool matters for future success?
Once my daughter starts kindergarten next year, my husband wants to send our daughter to an aftercare program that’s farther away because it has an excellent reputation for academics. I’d prefer to send her to where her brother goes—aftercare at our elementary school a block from home, which offers some Spanish. It’s convenient, and our son enjoys it. What are your thoughts on her preschool and aftercare next year?
—How Much Does It Matter?
To be blunt, this decision is not likely to have a lasting impact on your child, so honestly, I would do whatever is easiest. The quality of a preschool matters a lot for the future success of a child whose life outside of school is lacking in terms of enrichment. That is absolutely true. But unless the preschool is doing active harm, it’s unlikely that the difference between two comparable preschool programs is going to matter.
Do both schools have play-based or exploratory curricula? Do both have clean, welcoming spaces? Do both have other children for your child to play with? Do both provide enriching opportunities (field trips, or cooking time, or a wide variety of toys and books)? If you can confidently say yes to these questions, congratulations! Both options are fine and you cannot choose wrong. Likewise for aftercare. I’m of the personal opinion that kids deserve a rest from academics after school—think about how it feels to have to go to a second job after a full day at the first, and then recall that she’ll be 5 and does not yet have the stamina that you have. But truly, even that’s a personal preference. There’s no real research to suggest that afterschool programs that are academic in nature are harmful, and most take into consideration that kids are already a little brain-fried when they write their programs.
All things being equal, here is what I would do: leave her at the preschool she likes because she likes it, and send her to the aftercare program with her brother because it is convenient and he seems to like it. Why add stops to your afternoon pickup or force your child to acclimate to a new environment? But if you aren’t feeling strongly and your husband is—or circumstances change—there’s nothing wrong with moving her, or trying one for a year and moving her if it doesn’t work. She’s little, and kids bounce back so easily from changes like this.
I know it can be hard for parents of young kids to hear and accept advice that boils down to “this decision will not matter long-term,” but I really do not think this decision will matter long-term, so whatever feels right or works easiest for your family is the right choice.
—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)
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Christmas concert was this week, and Emma asked each parent to pay $50 for the concert costume. I’ve just picked up the costume, and it has a price tag for $25 still attached. Emma is a very kind teacher, and my daughter very much wants to continue classes with her, but I feel a bit annoyed. I was led to believe she wasn’t making a profit on costumes, and if I’d known she was going to charge us twice the price, I would have gone to the store and purchased it myself. Should I say something to her?
Correction, Aug. 26, 2022: This column originally misattributed a response by Matthew Dicks to John Eric Vona.