How to support kids who are scared about gun violence at school.

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 question is regarding school violence. We pulled our son from school yesterday at his request because another high school in the same district was evacuated due to reported gunshots (police eventually ruled it as a false alarm). The Oxford school shooting was only 45 minutes from us, and our district has had multiple threats over the past five years. My son has a great sense of humor that is always on, so when he called and begged to come home we knew he was beyond stressed. He does much better in classrooms than remotely, so we’re hesitant about pulling him and homeschooling. What else can be done to alleviate his stress and worry besides that?

—A Question I Hate to Have to Ask

Dear AQIHtHtA,

That is the big question, isn’t it? What can any of us do to feel safe in a society where gun violence has become so prevalent? How can kids learn when they don’t feel safe in their own school?

The unfortunate and alarming truth is that our kids—at least the students I teach and know—have become inured to this threat. Since kindergarten, they’ve been doing evacuation drills, sheltering in hard corners and barricading classroom doors. Like your son, many students (and teachers) have moments where the reality of the whole thing hits us. It’s an unavoidable act of our times, and we all have different ways of coping.

I think you did the right thing. When he felt unsafe, you pulled him out of school. That doesn’t mean he has to be permanently homeschooled. What was important was that when he felt stressed and vulnerable, you showed him that you care and respect his feelings.

From here, encourage him to join student organizations that work toward social change. These will give him an opportunity to contribute and feel part of a larger movement, instead of feeling helpless. Many schools have chapters of Students Demand Action, a national youth-run organization devoted to gun reform activism. Another organization is the Start with Hello  movement, which emerged from the Sandy Hook tragedy. Start with Hello focuses on creating a welcoming school climate to help prevent students from feeling ostracized and disaffected. If his school doesn’t have chapters of SDA or Start with Hello, he could start one, or he could check with his school about a comparable peer counseling or service-based extracurricular that shares a similar mission.

I know so many teenagers who feel that in a global society with world-sized problems, their individual efforts can’t change anything. But remind your son that hope is better than fear. Action, no matter how small, is better than turning our backs on the problem. These organizations aren’t going to solve these enormous problems overnight, but he may feel better and more secure if he’s making concrete efforts to help be part of a solution.

—Mr. Vona (high school teacher, Florida)

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How are teachers doing mid-pandemic as Covid numbers rise rapidly and political assaults on public education weigh you down? How can parents help support you and bear witness to the heavy weights you all struggle with? How can we help you?

—Helping Our Heroes

Dear HOH,

Thank you for asking! To support teachers during this most recent COVID spike, parents must continue to be vigilant despite everyone’s understandable weariness. Get your child the best mask possible: surgical masks are better than cloth; N95s and KN95s are best of all. Show your child how to pinch the mask at the nose to keep it from falling down, and make sure the mask fits properly: ask your student to talk and yawn while wearing it. If it falls down, help them adjust it or find one that fits better. If your kids are in middle or high school, emphasize that the mask needs to cover their nose to work effectively (and they better not be rolling their eyes at a teacher who asks them to pull it up!). Parents of kids who are showing COVID symptoms should keep them home from school. And get them vaccinated, for Pete’s sake! You’d think after two years of living through this pandemic, everyone would know these things by now, but I’m still fighting the good fight every day so clearly many parents either haven’t gotten the message or are just so fatigued they’re slipping up. Stay the course.

Next, be patient with your school as it grapples with substitute shortages. Teachers are getting sick, or their own kids are getting sick (my 3-year-old has COVID as I write this). This means they are going to be absent, often for long periods of time. It’s frustrating, yes, but it’s inevitable. School districts in my area are actually asking parents to become subs. At my daughter’s elementary school, parents were pushing for outdoor lunch but there was not sufficient staff to make it work. Undeterred, parents are now volunteering to facilitate lunch periods and many kids are eating outside. If you’re able to substitute teach, even for part of the week, or volunteer at the school in some capacity, that would be an enormous help to overworked school staff.

The political attacks on education require a different sort of support. I would be over the moon to see parents rallying in support of public education. If people are trying to ban books, ban masks, or exert control of the curriculum in order to whitewash history, use your voice to stand up for what is right. Your voice will be more powerful if you join with other parents. If you’re not sure where to start, find out what the teachers’ union is doing and ask how you can help.

Thank you for your letter, Helping Our Heroes. I appreciate your desire to help and hope you can find one tangible action to demonstrate your support for educators.

In solidarity,

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

I’m really hoping you can help me with a problem I’m having with my third grader. When she was in first grade, her teacher warned me that she was starting to not put forth her best effort with her schoolwork.

This year at conferences, her teacher expressed similar concerns about her motivation, and I decided to reach out to the school counselor. Anytime I try to talk to my daughter about putting forth her best effort she gets super upset, breaks down crying, and starts saying she’s bad at school. I have no idea where that’s coming from other than that she’s just a sensitive kid with big emotions. I was hoping the school counselor would be able to give me some guidance, but after he met with her, I never heard anything back.

Now her teacher emailed me saying she did poorly on a math quiz, and that he has had to take fidget toys from her, as well as scraps of paper that she’s been drawing on instead of doing her work. I notice focus issues at home, too; she often doesn’t stay on task with her homework. I would like to leave it alone and let her deal with the natural consequences of not doing her work, but I feel like that just makes me look like an uninvolved or uncaring parent.

After her teacher reached out and asked me for suggestions, I decided to make a reward chart such that if she puts forth effort with her schoolwork we can have a fun afternoon together, but I’m not sure if this is the right approach? What are your thoughts? I would appreciate your advice.

—Missing Motivation

Dear MM,

It’s hard to know exactly what is needed without being directly involved, but it sounds as if your daughter might be struggling with confidence, self-esteem, or attention-related issues and could benefit from a meeting of the minds. Rewards charts can be helpful depending on the student, but in some cases, a lack of effort is only a manifestation of a more complex problem. More than likely, there is an underlying factor impacting her effort.

The sooner you identify that problem, the sooner you can respond.

I would ask to meet directly with the teacher and the school counselor to discuss ways of determining the root cause of the problem and brainstorm some possible accommodations. A plan should be put into place that seeks to identify your daughter’s specific struggle and develops a systematic means of addressing it.

Also, and this is important: Teachers don’t judge parents based upon the behavior of their child. Your daughter is a human being, separate and independent of who you are. We understand that the most involved parents in the world can have some of the most challenging children in existence, and conversely, a seemingly uninvolved parent can have a remarkably well-behaved and hardworking child. You should never be concerned about being perceived as an uninvolved or uncaring parent. You’re doing your best, which is all that any parent can ever do.

Best of luck.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

My son started kindergarten this year after spending over a year at home with just us (his parents), his brother, and a babysitter who came 4 hours a day. He is academically advanced compared to typical kindergarten readiness standards (he knows how to read, he multiplies 2-digit numbers in his head for fun, he likes to quiz us on world geography, etc.), but he has been undersocialized due to the pandemic, and he struggles with emotional regulation.

I knew that the academic stuff would present some challenges, but I also know that developmentally he has a lot to gain from what would otherwise be an age-appropriate school situation. Despite all my confidence to the contrary, so far, kindergarten has been horrible. He is exhibiting a level of defiance at school that is absolutely outrageous (we had to sit him down at home and make him do his online reading diagnostic because he refused to do it at school for 2 months; he regularly has tantrums in class).

Even worse, I feel like the staff at his school, especially his teachers, seem completely uninterested in collaborative problem-solving. I get that his behavior is unacceptable. I am mortified. I cry at least once a week about it. But it doesn’t help that when they call, they complain about his behavior but make no in-school recommendations and communicate irregularly.

They didn’t tell us for the two months that he was refusing to do his diagnostic, despite my asking a few times about why he was placed in such a low reading group. I met with his teachers and the guidance counselor to try to problem-solve together, but I was basically just lectured about his behavior. To say it was unproductive would be an understatement.

I don’t know what to do. We’re doing sticker charts, rewards for specific good behavior, consequences at home for poor behavior. Ultimately there’s only so much we can do at home to reinforce good behaviors at school. He needs help with emotional regulation, and we are working our butts off to try to get an appointment with a behavioral health appointment but that seems like it is at least months away.

In the meantime, we also need school-based interventions. I’m afraid my kid, who loves learning, is going to hate school; I’m afraid his teachers don’t like him and he can tell; I’m afraid he won’t be able to make friends because he is acting out. I’m considering asking to switch to the other kindergarten class, trying to transfer to a different public school, or pulling him out and homeschooling until first grade (though I don’t think this really helps anything in the long-term).

What do I do? I am at a loss and feel every day like I have failed as a parent because my child is (apparently!) so ill-equipped for the classroom. This sucks so much in ways I was never prepared for.

—Drowning

Dear Drowning,

First, I would take a deep breath. While his behavior may seem like an insurmountable hurdle, it’s quite common—especially among children who are beginning their educational career during the pandemic. It’s great that you’re working on getting an appointment with a behavioral health specialist. Ultimately, they will be able to provide the clearest picture of what’s going on with your son. They’ll also be able to provide strategies to be implemented both at home and school that will help him make better choices and self-regulate more effectively.

It’s likely that your district also has behavioral psychologists on staff who may be able to provide support more readily. If you haven’t already explored this option, I would go directly to the district office and request any information or support they may be able to offer in getting your son evaluated. I’d caution against changing classes or pulling him out to homeschool until you’ve got a clear understanding of what’s triggering these challenging behaviors for your son.

Based on what you’ve shared it seems like he may be experiencing extreme boredom or anxiety around transitioning out of the classroom. Shifting from the comforts of home to a more structured learning environment is often very difficult for children, and the pandemic in this case may be adding to that difficulty. In the meantime, I’d explore curricular resources such as Kelso’s Choices or Second Step to help build your son’s ability to self-regulate while you work to get an appointment scheduled with the behavioral specialist.

—Mr. Hersey (elementary school teacher, Washington)

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