Teacher advice on class assignments, potty training, and starting kindergarten.

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 [email protected] or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My son is going into the eighth grade. He attends a K-8 school where he has been in the same two-class grade with the same group of students for many years. He has never asked me to do this, but this year he wants me to request that he doesn’t get put in the same class as Connor. Being in the same class as this student is really challenging for my son. This boy cannot sit still and is constantly talking, tapping his pencil on the table (or throwing it across the table), wiggling his leg up and down, and otherwise moving. My son cannot concentrate when they are assigned to the same table. Every year that he is in class with Connor, my son is insanely annoyed and angry. We have talked about Connor so many times over the years that I really don’t want to have to go through another year of hearing about it either.

When we do discuss Connor, we usually talk about constructive ways to deal with the situation. We have always taken the stance that part of life is finding ways to cope with challenging individuals. That said, I think we are all tired of the same dynamic with this student and my son just cannot imagine another year of being in the same classroom with him. I have never been comfortable asking a request like this from a school, and I believe they don’t even take these types of requests. Is it crazy to ask that they don’t put them together? I am out of ideas to help my son deal with the constant annoyances that this student brings to the table.

—Enough is Enough

Dear Enough,

It’s not crazy to ask that the boys be put in separate classes. Connor’s behavior is affecting your son emotionally and academically. You should make the request.

You should do it as diplomatically as possible, of course. I would frame Connor’s behavior issues as struggles he needs to cope with, as in, “Connor seems to struggle with sitting still and working quietly. Unfortunately, Connor’s struggles have had a negative impact on my son’s emotional state and academic performance.”

You may want to have the “struggle” conversation with your kid too. I’m glad you’ve discussed constructive ways to cope, but have you taken an empathetic view? Connor has it rough. School is almost certainly extremely challenging for him.

Anyway, make the request. The administration may or may not grant it, but it’s worth asking for.

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

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I have a five-year-old who’s ready in every way to start kindergarten this fall except one: He is not potty-trained. We’ve been trying for years. We’ve gotten overwhelmed, taken breaks, and tried again. We’ve tried stickers, bribes, exciting underpants with his favorite characters that he refuses to wear, pretty much everything. We’ve had him working on interoception with an occupational therapist, and have made small bits of excitedly celebrated progress that either doesn’t stick or plateaus. School starts soon, and my husband and I don’t know what to do. Can a kid go to kindergarten still wearing Pull-ups and unable to recognize when he needs to use the toilet? Kindergarten teachers don’t change diapers, right? I started to email someone at the school to try to start this conversation, but I wasn’t sure who to ask or what exactly I need to be asking for. It’s a Title I school that has a lot of resources, but presumably it also has a lot of demand for those resources. I’m also asking his pediatrician to see if we need a referral for another type of therapy and/or treatment for anxiety or ADHD (which I strongly suspect he has), but I don’t know that anything on that front can happen soon enough.

I want him in school.  He can change wet Pull-ups himself, and we can try to work on having him deal with dirty ones himself, too. Would it be sufficient to work on those skills with him and send him to kindergarten with the stuff he needs to change himself during the day? Will other kids be mocking him later if they remember him starting kindergarten in diapers? Or will being around a class full of kids who use the toilet be a great way to encourage him to use it, too?

We have considered not starting our son in kindergarten (which is not mandatory in our state) until after he has been fully vaccinated against Covid, since my husband is immunocompromised. That would buy us at least a couple more months to work on the toilet issue, but would leave him without much interaction with other kids and limit his progress on the rest of the stuff he should be learning at this age. Any suggestions? Ideas of who to talk to and what to ask for?

—Potty Anxiety

Dear Potty Anxiety,

Good news: Your child is not the first child to enter kindergarten with potty training difficulties. Your child is likely not the only child in his kindergarten class with potty training difficulties. These situations are far more common than you might think.

As a result, your kindergarten teacher, and likely your school nurse, are experts in this arena and will tell you exactly how to handle your son’s needs in preparation for the school year. They want your child in school and will help your son move past these difficulties sooner than later.

Contact your son’s teacher and/or the school nurse to alert them of the situation and request some guidance. They will help through the process and likely put your son on a path to glorious potty training excellence well before the end of his kindergarten year. Best of luck as he begins his first year!

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

Our little guy turns 5 seven weeks after the state kindergarten age cutoff. We attempted to waiver him in early through our district and he exceeded all the categories on the rubric except he “sorted incorrectly” so was denied.

He taught himself to read at 3.5. I promise you we aren’t pushy flashcard parents. He’s now reading at what I can guess is early second grade level. He also does at least kindergarten level math. He had great behavior in the district preschool program and is familiar and competent with non-academic school skills. He is social and funny and independent. He knows how to line up and wait his turn. He has good small and large motor skills.

Our older kid’s principal let us know of a district policy that states that if he attends an accredited kindergarten successfully for 8 weeks he can then enroll in the district. We found an alternative school in a small district within the state, and they’ll happily have him start on his fifth birthday. We’ll teach him at home and check in with a teacher once a week. The alternative school district had him take an assessment and he scored well above the minimum scores for 99th percentile. He’s ready for kindergarten!

With this timeline he’ll be able to start at local school after winter break. It’s a big district, but I am worried the district is going to treat us differently because we are basically using a loophole to get what our kid needs. I already was very vocal when they announced a pre-vaccine return to in-person school when our area was at the height of a COVID surge, so the administration is already familiar with me and my unwillingness to take accept non-committal political answers.

Do you think my fears are warranted: Will they somehow treat our son or us differently because we found a way around their policies? Do district higher ups holds grudges? Will this “insubordination” follow us through the rest of their school time?

We understand early entrance has its positives and negatives. We’ve done much research and talked to many teachers that know our kid. We did not waiver in his sister when we had the chance. This decision is right for this kid!

—Jumping Through Loopholes

Dear Jumping,

Have no fear. For many reasons, you and your child will not be treated any differently.

Your primary and most important source of contact with the school will always be your child’s teacher, and teachers do not care about these things one bit. We’re in the business of keeping kids safe, happy, and engaged in learning, regardless of how they landed in our classrooms.

Also, even if administrators in the school are annoyed with your “insubordination,” you are a decidedly small potato in the field of enormous spuds that your administrators face on a weekly basis. Your maneuvering to enroll your child in the school might annoy an administrator if they feel it was bending the rules too far, but it will be quickly forgotten.

Plus, teachers and administrators—almost always—care deeply about children. No matter how difficult a parent might be, I cannot think of a single instance in my 23-year career where the aggravation, irritation, and annoyance that a teacher or administrator might feel toward a parent was directed at a student. Kids are never to blame for their parents’ behavior.

Lastly, I’ll add that there is nothing wrong with being the squeaky wheel. Over the course of my career, I have counseled some parents to squeak a little more often in order to ensure that their child is receiving all of the services available to them. Administrators and teachers are attuned to those squeaky wheels, and rather than making those wheels squeak more, we almost always work hard to reduce the squeaking by ensuring that they feel like their child is being treated fairly and well.

Make your decision on the merits, absent any fear of retribution. It won’t happen.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

I’ve been steeling myself to write this letter for some time. When I was seven years old, I was repeatedly molested by a man who taught at a local school. I wasn’t in his school system at the time, but he taught my age group. He was investigated for the sexual abuse of a younger child in special ed, but the courts did not find enough evidence to formally charge him with anything (likely due to the child’s lack of ability to communicate); afterwards, he left the school system and found a new one in a different state.

I unfortunately do not know the finer details of the court investigation because of how young I was at the time, and I haven’t been able to find any record of it due to its confidential nature. Eleven years have passed, and I guess coming of age has made me feel responsible that this man is still out in the world, and I want to do something. I know this man is a pedophile. I know that he is still teaching in a public school system. I know which school system that is, and I know how to contact it. I’m certain that he is abusing other kids there.

When he was abusing me, this man threatened to retaliate if I ever told people about what he was doing. This makes me extremely hesitant to reach out to the authorities publicly; I believe that he was telling the truth when he made those threats, and besides, he is highly charismatic and seems to be well-liked by his community. He’s extremely active in social justice efforts (youth ones, that is) and community events.

I’m at a loss for how I can go about challenging this man. Is there any way you’d suggest anonymously reaching out to the school system (or to proper law enforcement) to effectively advise that this individual be investigated? Would a fully anonymous tip even be enough to warrant law enforcement to look into this man? How would an investigation (formal or informal) even work in the public school system, with a tenured teacher? I’m toeing the line between personal safety and effective actions here, so any insight into my situation would be greatly appreciated.

—Revisiting My Past

Dear RMP,

My heart goes out to you. I am so sorry this happened to you, and I am angry that this man has continued to abuse children with impunity for so many years. Unfortunately, my expertise is not in the law, and so I do not have the answers to your questions, but there are organizations out there who help survivors of abuse.

RAINN operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline, which is free and confidential. They will connect you with mental health support if you need it and can also advise you about the process of reporting abuse. Additionally, their website has quite a bit of information about reporting sexual abuse and the criminal justice system.

I hope that you have received therapy to address the trauma you experienced. This process may cause that trauma to resurface; I advise you to seek out a mental health professional who can support you during this time. I encourage you to reach out to loved ones who can be there for you as well.

This man terrorized you into silence for many years, and I know that fear is real and palpable. You are brave for surviving, and you are brave for wanting to hold him accountable. You have a difficult decision to make, and I want you to know that I am in your corner.

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

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