Not only is school arduous for kids who have difficulty learning, but it is also tough for students who learn at rapid rates and thirst for advanced concepts. What do children do when they already know the content or when they learn quicker than their peers do? Do they “play school” nicely and follow along with the class? Do they disengage and get in trouble for being off-task? Or, do they find more entertaining (and distracting) ways to engage their brain and get labeled a behavior problem? Likewise, what do students who do not understand the content and need extra support do? The outcomes are similar for both of these groups of children on either side of the bell curve: masking, withdrawing, a lack of learning, and misbehaving.
When teaching a class of children with an enormous span of abilities, background knowledge, home support, and potential, there is no way that each lesson and topic can possibly meet the needs of every student. At some point or another, every child will encounter content that is too easy or too hard. Since there is no way to make curriculum and instruction “just right” for all learners, what can we do as parents?
- Get Informed and Involved: Most teachers send out weekly newsletters or daily updates of class activities. With heavily inundated inboxes and busy schedules, it is easy to disregard these notes. Pay attention to this communication to stay informed. In addition, explore the curriculum and instruction links on the district and school webpage. If you want to see the state standards for your child’s grade level, you can visit the Minnesota Department of Education website. Lastly, do not be afraid to ask the teacher for a curriculum overview that shows which units and skills are covered throughout the year. As a working parent, I am unable to volunteer in the classroom during the school day; however, there are other ways that I stay involved in my children’s education. A huge part of being involved is to stay informed with the aforementioned suggestions. The other part of parent involvement is going through your child’s folder each night, looking at homework together, conversing with your child about school, and checking in with the teacher about your child’s strengths and areas that need more focused attention.
- Don’t Accuse—Advocate: Even at a young age, it is important to teach our children self-advocacy skills so they can communicate their needs in a respectful yet confident manner. However, some children, especially when first entering school, have difficulty self-advocating; it is our job as parents to speak up for our children. Of course, in order for your advocacy to be effective, you want to think about your tone and the reasonableness of what you are requesting. Start by letting the teacher know what you are noticing at home with your child and communicating her or his needs. Then it is your turn to listen while you ask the teacher what can be done at school to support your child’s learning. If you disagree with the teacher’s suggestions, continue the discussion later after you have had time to process the teacher’s recommendations and brainstorm your own proposal. While thinking of your own ideas to share with the teacher, either before or after your initial conversation, consider that the teacher has to support more than twenty other children besides your own. Also, ensure your suggestions include what you, as the parent, are willing to do at home. Keep in mind that you are not accusing the teacher of what he or she is not doing; conversely, you are problem solving together to support your child. It is key to focus on solutions rather than problems.
- Put in the Work at Home: As stated earlier, the teacher has an entire class full of students to look out for—you have far less to support. It is imperative that you work with your child at home! For example, by reading with my child at home every night in kindergarten, I discovered that his assigned reading level was not appropriate. I then emailed his teacher requesting to have her check his reading at school; newly leveled books came home the following day. If I had my son read alone or on the school-suggested iPad reading app, I would not have known to reach out to the teacher. It took one quick, easy email to my son’s teacher to advocate for my son. The person our child is at school can be vastly different from the child we see at home. A child at school may mask when content is too difficult or easy, for fear of standing out. When you work with your child at home, you can personally gauge how well your child understands the concepts. This gives you an opportunity to provide additional support at home or enrichment to challenge your child. If you expect the teacher to do everything in his or her power to service your child, you must be willing to do the same at home.
This isn’t a fairytale where Goldilocks gets to try different options until everything in school is “just right,” nor should we try to create a world where everything is perfect for our children, tailored to their every need. They must hit walls where life is difficult—this is how they build and exercise resiliency, persistence, and grit. Even so, school should not be too hard or too easy all of the time: every child deserves to learn, and every child needs attention, support, and an advocate.