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 high schooler experienced a traumatic assault a few months ago. She is in therapy and on medication, too. But she does not want me to disclose the event to any of her teachers. She’s struggling mightily with her schoolwork, due to lack of sleep, an inability to focus, and trying to cope with her emotions, and I feel like they should know. Do you have any thoughts or recommendations? She did let me talk to the counselor at school—do you know if they share this kind of information with teachers? And if so, do you know how or if they might support her because of it? I am obviously a wreck about the event, but I also hate to see her not getting any additional support she might be able to get from her teachers, in the way of extensions or anything else that might help.
Dear Barely Afloat,
My heart goes out to your daughter and your family as you navigate these rough waters.
If you asked the counselor not to disclose the event, they would definitely keep this information confidential. I will add that the counselor does not have to explain exactly what happened to the teachers in order for your daughter to receive additional assistance during this time of recovery. The teachers can be informed that she has experienced a trauma and is struggling academically as a result, but that she does not wish to discuss the event with her teachers. You can request that she receive extensions on assignments. If she has fallen behind and has a lot of work to make up, ask that they help her prioritize the most important assignments she must do in order to pass so she knows where to focus her energy. She might also ask for permission to visit the counselor, if that would help, or to take short breaks when she’s struggling.
I would also discuss the possibility of setting up a 504 plan with the counselor and therapist, which would make these accommodations official and mandatory. I know students who have had 504 plans due to diagnoses like anxiety, depression, or PTSD. Again, the 504 would not describe the traumatic event—only the qualifying health impairment and the accommodations.
Please reassure your daughter that she does not need to share the story of what happened in order to receive support from her teachers.
I’ll be thinking of you, Barely Afloat, and wishing you the strength you need to weather this storm.
—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)
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I have a daughter in second grade. After a very tumultuous kindergarten and first grade year, we made the decision to move her to a private school. The decision ended up paying off big time and she is really thriving. I made sure to inform her teacher of her struggles at her former school, and those are struggles that we are still working through today. However, there has been improvement.
Here’s my question: my husband is absent a lot, due to work. We also recently invested in some real estate that is 3.5 hours from where we live, so he’s been spending weeklong trips over there fixing it up. This is temporary, but it leaves me solo parenting most of the time. It can make it difficult for me to manage getting her to do things like homework (minimal as it is), especially for a child who isn’t used to homework and has a really hard time focusing.
I’m not one to give my life story to the teacher, but do I tell her that my husband is gone a lot right now? I’m not sure if this information would be beneficial for her to know.
Dear Temporarily Alone,
Yes. Absolutely. Speak to the teacher about your situation.
As a teacher, I want to know about anything that might be impacting a child’s school day. Though teachers like to think we have a lot of control over how our students perform and behave in school, so much of who they are and how they act is a result of what is happening outside the walls of the school. The more we know about what is going on at home, the better we can react and adjust to changing circumstances and accommodate a child’s needs in school.
Teachers often spend more time with a child during a school day than a parent, so there is no such thing as oversharing. In the best cases, teachers and parents form strong partnerships on behalf of a child, so the sharing of information is critical. Don’t be shy. Let the teacher know about the changes that you and your child are dealing with so that they can see your child in the clearest, most accurate light.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
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My third grader is struggling with school. Academically and socially he is doing great, but emotionally he is having a hard time. He has always had a hard time with separation anxiety, and with COVID and a teacher strike for 3 weeks in our district last spring, he has yet to have a “normal” school year. He says he hates school, the pace of the classroom feels overwhelming, and he has a hard time finding anything he likes about it. He is seeing a therapist, and we’ve had good conversations with his teacher, but I’m wondering if you have recommendations about how to build positive associations with school. I hate to think my child, who loves reading and learning, has such negative feelings about school, especially since he has so many years to go.
Dear Think Positive,
This answer isn’t going to help you much, but almost all of the responsibility for solving this problem falls on the shoulders of the teacher. It’s going to be difficult—if not impossible—for you to instill positive feelings about school in your child if you’re never in that setting and don’t have a complete understanding of the dynamics that your child is encountering on a daily basis.
I fundamentally believe that after keeping children safe, a teacher’s most important job is making school a place that child love. Everything flows from a child’s happiness and their desire to engage in learning. Hopefully, your child’s teacher feels the same.
I would remain in regular communication with the teacher, to keep them abreast to what your child is saying and how he is feeling.
If I learned that one of my students did not like school, I would ask that child to create three lists with me:
1. Things about school that the student does not like;
2. Things that the student thinks are missing from the school day;
3. Things that the student likes or loves about school.
It’s essentially a “Delete, Add, and Keep” list. I’d be clear before making the lists that I am not planning to grant any wishes, though if they are doable and reasonable, I might. But understanding the barriers to your child’s happiness with clarity and specificity might be the first step in understanding what you and your child’s teachers can do to foster more positivity about school.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
My two mixed race elementary school-aged kids are struggling with how race is introduced in public schools. Well-meaning teachers introduce it through books about African-American heroes like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Their stories are inextricably linked to the notion that Black people were treated as second-class citizens and that is the message my kids are taking away. That’s also the message that my kids are hearing from their peers, both having come home telling stories about how their friends tell them “Black people were treated very badly in the past.” Through this, they have learned that being Black is bad.
Do you have any ideas about how we can better teach our kids in school about issues related to race without the framing of any non-white race as “bad”?
—How to Talk About Race
The complexities of conversations about race in a public-school setting are many.
Most curriculum omit many truths about our history, and most teachers are undersupported in improving the culturally responsive teaching practices. That said, there are routes of advocacy you can take to try to improve the way issues related to race are discussed at your kids’ school.
I’d begin by taking the issue to the classroom teacher and giving them an opportunity to remedy the situation. It could be solved with a simple classroom discussion or clarification, though it’s more likely it will need to be a regular part of classroom conversation to have a long-lasting impact. If your child’s teacher is not receptive, or if things don’t improve, you can escalate the issue by talking to the principal, or even the superintendent or your school board. Getting involved in advocacy groups like your school’s PTA could also be helpful, especially if you’re interested in trying to make changes to the curriculum.
A more effective immediate strategy may be to supplement your children’s learning at home. Often the best way to prepare your children to handle microaggressions at school is to equip them with supportive language at home. I’d begin with books like, So You Want to Talk About Race by Iljeoma Oluo and White Fragility by Dr. Robin DiAngelo. As a kid I struggled with explaining why certain jokes, conversations, and interactions with my white classmates were racist and made me feel uncomfortable. These books do a great job of equipping the reader with language they can use to affirm their experience and hold others accountable for their actions and words.
Hope this helps!
—Mr. Hersey (elementary school teacher, Washington)
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My daughter is a freshman in high school, and she recently got an assignment in life sciences that seems inappropriate. The assignment is for the kids to identify someone in their family who died of cancer, and then students are supposed to research that kind of cancer and create a poster presentation to display for the entire school. This seems like a terrible idea, and an invasion of privacy. Should I talk to the teacher?