Care and Feeding

I’m So Worried My Kid Is Becoming “That Kid.” How Can I Keep That From Happening?

A boy looks sad 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 5-year-old had a fairly smooth transition to kindergarten after only limited preschool experiences (a half-day, 3-day-a-week outdoor nature school) because of Covid. He seems to have friends, be well liked by his classmates, and is testing academically at about average or a little above. He is an extremely bright and precocious kid, with a big vocabulary and big opinions. He likes to be “right” and sometimes struggles with agreeing to disagree.

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At our first quarterly conference with his teacher this week, we were pretty blind-sided to hear that he’s been “having a tough week.” He’s been struggling to stop talking/fidgeting when asked; he’s disrupting the class by chatting or not keeping his hands to himself; etc. It seems like his impulse control, which I would say has been at an age-appropriate level until recently, has really slipped in the classroom.

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He comes home happy most days, though he does express that the class can be loud and rowdy, and sometimes his friends are “bugging” him and it’s hard to listen to the teacher.

I’m at a loss, and I’m freaked out. Is something wrong? Do we need to evaluate him for…something? What can we do to help in the meantime? Our typical response is to remind him of the expectations, that hitting or shouting is never okay, and that his teacher needs his help keeping the room peaceful.

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I have so many theories—he’s been out sick with the flu; he’s overstimulated; he’s struggling to adjust; and on and on. I have no idea which of these might be accurate. It sounds like this particular class is a tough bunch overall—the teacher has alluded to quite a few high-needs kids, and it sounds like she’s spread pretty thin and overwhelmed herself.

I’m terrified that my child is going to earn a reputation as a “bad” kid (and worse, internalize that himself). I don’t know how to help him. I also want to support his teacher. I dread each afternoon knowing we might get a message from her that today was another hard day. I am heartbroken for my child, who is mostly kind, smart, and responsible.

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—Kindergarten Blues

Dear Kindergarten Blues,

Let me get this straight: your son’s teacher said he’s “having a bad week” and you’re terrified he’s going to earn a reputation as a bad kid permanently? I know parenting is hard and everything feels high stakes, but that seems like quite a jump. A bad week is exactly that—a bad week. His teacher didn’t say he’s “having a hard time” or “struggling,”—she said he’s having a bad week. I have bad weeks; you have bad weeks. We can’t hit the panic button every time someone has a bad week.

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Your theory about the flu is the other thing I want to hone in on. Your son is “having a bad week” immediately after getting over being sick. Being sick sucks. I hate being sick, and I am an adult who can understand and rationalize all the ways that being sick sucks. For example, last time I had the flu, I got wicked body aches. I hurt all over, constantly, and I couldn’t seem to stay the right temperature. That felt pretty awful, but I could talk myself down and remind myself these feelings were temporary. Your five-year-old son cannot do this. He doesn’t have the life experience, scientific knowledge, or cognitive ability to rationalize away something that feels bad. Being sick as a kid is so much worse than being sick as an adult because kids don’t know why they feel bad or if they’re ever going to feel better again. So, yeah, your son was probably having a bad week.

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Adding to that, if he was sick, I’m assuming you kept him home! Kindergarteners especially struggle with the transition between home-all-the-time and school when they get sick, go on breaks, etc. because home is a low-demand, high-attention environment. Even if they have siblings, a lot of attention is devoted to them for free, and they are rarely asked to work hard at home. At school, they share attention with classmates, and demand is pretty constant. It’s a tough thing to adjust to. He may need time to make that adjustment. It’s shitty timing that you had conferences while he was making that adjustment back to school mode, but again, all she said was he was “having a bad week.”

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There is merit to keeping an eye on some of  your theories—but the best thing you can do is breathe and follow up with the teacher in a week or two to ask if things have gotten better. If not, you can start asking questions about what’s going on and why, but I believe that things will settle down.

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

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I am a teacher in a neighboring school district. My family lives very close to the district border. My children go to a daycare/preschool program in the district I teach. My husband and I love the program, and the kids do really well. The problem is next year my oldest is going to kindergarten. She is supposed to attend the school district we live in. The school district we live in is very comparable to the district I work in—in fact on paper, it’s better—higher test scores, nicer facilities, and more educational opportunities due to finances. I attended that school district too and felt like I had a great education. If I was to send my child to the district I work in, I would have to pay tuition since we are out of the district. Yet, I feel conflicted. I love the district I teach in, and my spouse and I feel more connected to that community. The prospect of sending my kids to two different places feels like a logistical nightmare since we will need before school care. There is also a matter of values. If my child was attending our home district during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic I would have been disappointed in the response.

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It’s hard for me to rationalize spending thousands of dollars for a very similar school district, but I am having a hard time deciding. I have thought about sending my child to my work district until my youngest is also in elementary school, but I am not sure if that is the best idea. Any suggestions?

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—Burden of Choice

Dear Burden of Choice,

I understand your struggle completely. My wife and I purchased a home in the same school district where we teach. Our kids would have gone to the very school where we worked had things worked out. But after shaking hands with the homeowner on a Friday with assurances from our real estate agent that signatures could be inked on Monday, the homeowner held an open house over the weekend and sold the house to someone else, who eventually became a school administrator in our district.

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Instead, we moved to the next town over, less than five minutes from our school, thereby placing out children—an infant and a toddler at the time—in a different school district.

Thankfully, we couldn’t be more pleased. This is not to say you should make the same choice, but from what you write, the only real barrier to sending your child to the school district in which you live is logistics. Those are real concerns but certainly solvable. My wife and I have had two different people provide before-school care for our kids over the last eight years, and we are so grateful that they’ve had these additional adults in their lives whom they trust and adore.

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As for the way your school district handled the pandemic, I would give them a pass. We were, as they say, building the plane while already flying. Lots of good and bad decisions were made when it came to managing the crisis, but if these decisions were made in good faith, I think you can excuse a school district that was not ready for a once-in-a-century event.

Like you, my wife and I felt deeply connected to the district in which we teach. My wife lived in the town and attended school in our district. Today she teaches alongside some of the people who once taught her.

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But I can assure you that we feel just as connected to our children’s school district now, and because of this, we feel far more connected to the town in which we live. Our children attend school with the neighborhood children, and we are incredibly pleased with the education they are receiving. Also, because our kids are living and going to school in town, my son plays Little League with his school friends. They both joined Scout troops with kids from their schools. The kids whom they sit in class with are also the kids whom they spend their time with in organized sports and the like. That might not happen for your kids if they attended school in the neighboring town.

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If you have the money to spend to move your child out of the district, and it’s important to you, by all means do so. But as teachers, I suspect that you don’t have piles of disposable income at your fingertips. If that’s the case, I would calculate the cost over the long term and ask yourself if that money couldn’t be better spent on your children in another way. I understand the security of connection, understanding, and familiarity that your own school district brings, but your hometown school district is also filled with loving, hard-working professionals who, by your own account, are doing a remarkable job.

Sending your children to those schools, alongside their neighborhood pals, might be the best idea. If I were in your shoes, I’d use some of that money you would have spent on tuition to instead hire a wonderful person to provide before-school care for your kids (which will make your life easier, too) and put the rest aside for college, vacations, summer camps, and the like.

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It’s a hard decision, I know. Best of luck with it.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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I have a 3-½-year-old boy who has been home with us or his grandparents throughout the pandemic. We are looking for a preschool program to enroll him in next fall, which will technically be for pre-K. I’ve read a lot about how play-based early childhood education has good evidence behind it, so I’m really looking for a school that adopts this philosophy. What’s been challenging is that most of the schools I’ve looked into adopt their own curriculum, so it’s hard to tell if their program aligns with my hopes for my son’s experience. Most of the pre-K programs I’ve toured have a focus on academics but do mention “play.” I want our kid to be ready for kindergarten, but I don’t feel he needs to master skills typical of a kindergarten graduate in this program, such as counting to 100 (he’s already counting to 20) or reading (although he may start on his own), but would love a focus on social-emotional learning. I want him to continue to love learning and hope to find a child-directed play based preschool program as his introduction to school. How should I evaluate the preschools I’ve toured to find the best fit for my son? Any recommendations for a parent to learn more about the evidence behind early childhood education to be better informed?

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—Lifelong Love of Learning

Dear Lifelong Love of Learning,

I have good news for you, LLL! Most preschools in the US are play-based. The fact of the matter is that early childhood educators (ECE) know little kids need play. It’s not some super scientific secret that researchers have to teach ECEs—ECEs know kids need play and want to let kids play. You probably can send him anywhere and be fine.

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That being said, there are things you can do to evaluate a preschool—namely, visit! I know you said you’ve toured, which means you are on the right track. When you were in each room, what was the environment like? Were toys out? Or away, but in bins labeled clearly? In my classroom, because of the needs of my students, I had most of my toys either up high or in closed bins, but they were visible and had small white labels so we could find the toys we wanted. What were the teachers doing? What were they like? I had parents walk in for their tour during circle time, where we worked on our pre-academic skills, but we began with a movement/action song and incorporated play skills into our lesson. If you got a good feeling from the teachers, that’s a good sign.

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You can also look up the preschool and see what curricula they are running. There are a few that are explicitly social-emotional learning (SEL). The ones that immediately come to mind are Zones of Regulation, Second Start, or The Creative Curriculum, but if the school names a curriculum on their website, you can look it up and see if it has an SEL component. You can also ask the school administrator (whoever you’ve been contacting for tours and whatnot) what the SEL curriculum (or what the general curriculum) is. Getting that info directly would give you information about what kind of play skills, social-emotional skills, or even pre-academic skills they’re focused on. Knowing the curriculum’s name can tell you, at the very least, what the school admin’s priorities are, and thus what the school culture was like.

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Finally, trust your gut feeling. All of the schools you visit are probably fine, so consider the one that gives you the best feeling. Worst case scenario, remember if it winds up being a bad match, you can always move your kid to a different preschool without any real long-term consequences.

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

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