Care and Feeding

A Destructive Classmate Is Ruining My Kid’s School Year

A boy throws a paper airplane in his classroom.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Matt Ridley on Unsplash and Jupiterimages/Creatas Images/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 son “Jack” has been in sixth grade for a month now. He’s transitioned to middle school well, but he often comes home complaining about his classmate “Aiden.” Aiden is in most of Jack’s classes, and he’s really disruptive in all of them. My son says he talks and makes noises while the teacher is talking, messes with stuff on other kids’ desks, won’t follow directions, and tries to start arguments. Aiden isn’t the only kid to ever act up like that, but he does it the most often and the worst.

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Jack says the teachers send Aiden out sometimes (he says his social studies teacher does it almost every day), but he’s usually back quickly. Aiden isn’t violent, thankfully, so Jack isn’t scared or in physical danger, he’s just frustrated and in danger of falling behind in school. One day I asked how his day was and he said it was great, because Aiden was absent and they “actually got to do stuff.” Today, he came home really upset and freaking out about how he’s “going to fail math.” (Math has historically been a tough subject for Jack.) He was confused about something and needed help for the last 15 minutes of class, but both teachers were so busy with Aiden that they never got to him. One was dealing with Aiden and the other was on the phone calling different people to see if they could come get him.

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I’m sorry for whatever Aiden is going through that makes him act like this, but it is not okay for him to prevent other kids from learning! Do I complain to the teachers? The principal? Do I ask for my son’s schedule to be changed? I don’t even know how possible a schedule change is; Jack has ADHD and a learning disability, so he’s in math and ELA classes that have a second teacher, plus a special learning support class that Aiden is also in. And I’m worried about making my son go through the disruption of a schedule change only to end up in classes with another “Aiden.” What should I do? Please help!

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—Problem Child

Dear PC,

I always tell parents the same thing: Start with the teacher. Alert them of Jack’s anxiety and your own concerns and see what they have to say.

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I say “alert” because the verb you chose was “complain,” which isn’t what I would advise. The best way to help your son throughout his educational career is to partner with teachers and administrators whenever possible to solve problems, so rather than complaining, I would approach every meeting with every educator with an open mind and the goal to report concerns, gather facts, and decide together on the best course of action.

My wife and I have certainly had issues over the years with our own children, but in every case, we approached our children’s teachers and principals with an awareness that we might not have all the facts, and a certainty that the best way to solve a problem is to come together as a team. This has admittedly meant postponing a phone call or email for a day or two if I’m especially annoyed because I also know that little is accomplished through anger or outrage. You may get what you want, but your child won’t be better in the long run if you and your child’s teachers have a heated or antagonistic relationship.

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If there is no resolution after your conversation with the teacher, you may need to approach the principal in the same way. In fact, the teacher may ultimately want you to speak to the principal. In some cases, a teacher needs the support of parents in order to expedite a solution to a problem, but always start with the teacher. They are the ones who see your son every day and likely have the most information and influence over the problem.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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My newly 3-year-old son just started at our church’s Montessori preschool. Before this he was always home with me and his 20-month-old sister, so this is his first experience with school. I spoke with the teacher before he started, because he’s never shown any interest in dressing himself, and independence is a big thing in Montessori. She said that she was sure that seeing the other children dressing themselves would motivate him.

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They’ve been working on having all the children change into their indoor shoes once they get to school. My son though has refused to put his own shoes on. He says, “you do it for me” to the teacher, or tells her, “my mama will do it.” As a result, the teacher has kept him confined to a small towel all day (4 hours), until he “makes the right decision” to put on his shoes. This has been going on now for a week. It has turned into a battle of wills. The teacher is convinced that he can put his shoes on, and that he is stubborn. I asked her to please help him a little bit, but she is adamant that she will not make exceptions for him, as it’s important that he understand that he has to follow the rules like everyone else. Keeping him on a mat all day seems extreme. I don’t know what to do, other than to pull him out of this school. I am hesitant though, as I really wanted him to do Montessori and learn to be more independent (I haven’t been successful at fostering that in him). Just not like this!

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—Doubting Montessori

Dear Doubting,

The key to understanding Montessori schools is any school can claim to be a Montessori school without going through a certification process; no one is going to stop them.* Most preschools use at least some of Maria Montessori’s work in their programming—for example, blocks known as “Montessori blocks”—but a preschool can simply say they are using the Montessori method, whether or not it’s even true. All of which is to say that it’s possible your Montessori school isn’t right for your son. Maybe they are using a version of the Montessori method, but since that can vary wildly school to school, the mix they are using might not be the right mix for your child.

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I am uncomfortable with the behavioral intervention his teacher is using. This method is, technically speaking, a form of time-out, and there’s no reason to continue an ineffective behavior intervention beyond a week, especially one this restrictive. To be frank, I don’t even think she should have used time-out as a first strategy (if she absolutely must not help him, the strategy I would’ve used would have been hand-over-hand prompting to walk him through the steps, but even that seems like an extreme first step). I agree that this is a power struggle between her and her child, and that means no good is going to come of it.

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I would suggest looking for another school, whether Montessori or not. This power struggle doesn’t bode well for this teacher’s ability to actually teach your child any independent skills, and it shows a rift in your son’s rapport with his teacher that I doubt is going to be mended. I would also, for the record, suggest working on putting on shoes (or dressing more generally) on his own. The only credit I will give your son’s teacher is that 3-year-olds generally have the capacity to learn to put on their own shoes. I don’t know if your son specifically has this skill, but he could. You can start by having him do the last step (velcroing or zipping boots or whatever) and then doing progressively less until he can do it on his own. One of the tenets of Montessori is that kids can do more on their own than we give them credit for. If you do less for your child, you can teach him some of that independence you were looking for regardless of what you do about preschool.

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

I am a seventh grader in a good school. I have good teachers, and a good workload. My problem is that I am on an IEP, and it causes me to miss classes I don’t want to miss for one-on-one meetings with teachers that have no benefit to me. I only get orchestra 3 times a week, and I really hate to miss it. Classes are less than an hour, and I have to get pulled 15 minutes before class ends.

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I am on the autism spectrum and have had trouble with social skills in the past, but I don’t have those problems anymore. Even if I explain that to my mom, she won’t take me off the IEP. The meetings mostly consist of the teacher asking if I have any concerns about school, friends, family, etc. and me shrugging and saying, “not really.” These meetings are a waste of my time, but to get rid of them, I have to get off the IEP. How do I bring up the subject with my mom, and convince her that I don’t need any extra help at school?

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—Ready to Drop It

Dear Ready to Drop It,

I’m sorry you’re struggling with this issue, but great job advocating for yourself! Let me start by countering one premise in your letter: You don’t have to “get off the IEP” in order to change this service. In fact, given your diagnosis, your school is unlikely to exit you from Exceptional Children services—that’s not a decision that’s made lightly. What you should remember is that people with autism and other disabilities fought hard to guarantee a “free and appropriate public education” (FAPE) for all children, and schools need to document that they are providing it. One way to do that is with IEPs. The good news is IEPs can be modified at any given time.

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So, what does that mean for you now? You should begin by talking to your mom. If you can, leave behind any emotional charge that may have existed in previous conversations with her. If you come at her with anger, annoyance, or resentment, the conversation likely won’t go well. I recommend you get curious instead. What does she want these meetings to do for you? Why does she feel like they’re important? It probably doesn’t feel like it sometimes, but parents don’t make decisions about their kids’ educations arbitrarily. Your mom believes the meetings are providing some kind of support that you need.

Once you understand her point of view, counter it… gently. You can say something like, “Mom, I understand you want me to get support with [xyz], but I’m not getting that from these teacher conferences.”

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Then I’d explain how important orchestra is to you. What do you learn? How does it make you feel? Perhaps it’s even meeting the need that your mom thinks the conferences are! Tell her how missing class affects you in a negative way.

Next, be ready to compromise. If your mom is unwilling to let go of the conferences completely, could they happen at a different time? Could you meet less? Would once a week work? What about once a month?

I commend you for wanting to be an advocate for yourself. I hope your mom listens!

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

Our family consists of an 8-year-old, 4-year-old, and a 2-month-old baby. There’s a discussion about having our 4-year-old start school early. Her birthday is within a week of the cutoff date. She is developing well and loves her Montessori school. My plan was to stay home, educate her and our baby. My partner believes she should start earlier. But a year early makes me very concerned. Is there advice you have about discussing my fears about her being the youngest in her class?

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— Thoughtful in Texas

Dear Thoughtful in Texas,

Whenever I am asked this question—and it comes up a lot—I say this:

I don’t believe anything bad can happen from holding back your child for one more year except that she will be better prepared to take advantage of the education being offered, better prepared to resolve conflicts amongst her peers, and more likely to feel confident about herself and her abilities in the classroom.

There is some conflicting research on how age affects academic performance, but I look to the research that shows the compounding advantages to the oldest children in their grade levels are profound. This is not to say that the youngest children in the class won’t perform brilliantly, but statistically speaking, the advantages that the eldest children possess in school more often yield positive results. Listen to the recent episode “Outliers, Revisited” on Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History for some more insight into this.

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Even better, you’ll be gifting her an extra year of childhood. By holding her back a year, that means she will have one more year under your roof before graduating high school and launching herself into the world. I can’t imagine a greater gift to offer a human being than allowing her to be free from adulthood for one more blessed year.

I hope this helps.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

Correction, Oct. 7, 2022: This article originally misstated that there is no Montessori certification process. There is a Montessori certification process, but schools do not have to be certified to call themselves Montessori schools.

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