Tips for helping your offbeat student navigate the waters at public school

Guest post by Ashby
School's out

It would be great if we could each design a school for our respective children — one that includes all their interests, works creatively on their weaknesses, improves upon their strengths, and teaches in the exact style that works best for them. The reality, though, is that most of us do or will send our children to public school.

As a public school teacher, I am the first to admit that there are flaws in the system, and that “offbeat kids” (and aren’t they all, really?) can get lost in the shuffle. No one wants their children to miss out on the opportunity to be themselves, and creativity and individuality can seem impossible in a large, standardized school environment. I have seen, though, that it can work.

At every school I’ve ever worked, there have been creative, open-minded, brilliant kids who thrive no matter what class they’re in. Since before I became a parent, I’ve been watching my students, trying to figure out what separates the kids who thrive from the kids who float along, and how to make sure my child is one of the thrivers. I don’t claim to have all the answers, or even most of them, but here are some tips I’ve picked up that may help your child reach their awesome, offbeat potential in the onbeat world of public school.

Raise a creative problem solver.

The biggest problem I see in public schools is an emphasis on content over process. With the standardization of education, there is just so much we’re required to fit into a school year. This focus on all the “stuff” leaves little room for teaching kids how to learn, how to solve problems, and to be curious and think creatively. I find myself standing in front of a group of kids daily, posing a problem and receiving blank stares in return. The kids in each class who are the most successful are always the ones who put their heads down and try to figure it out before simply asking for help. And in my experience, there are far too few of these kids left.

Teaching problem-solving starts early. Students who are encouraged to solve problems on their own at home learn that they’re capable of figuring things out independently, and they’re likely to carry that attitude over into school. Work through problems out-loud as you solve them at home, to demonstrate how the process works. Ask your child for their help with decision-making (even something as simple as choosing dinner) and then question them about why they made their choice. When kids are made aware of their thought process, they realize that they have the ability to systematically work through problems.

Also, make sure that your child is thinking about the problem they’re trying to solve. It’s easy to say “help me,” and doesn’t take any thought. In my classroom, my answer to the request, “Can you help me?” is always, “What’s your specific question?” Coming up with a direct question requires thinking about what the problem is, and analyzing what you don’t know. Usually, once they’ve come up with a specific question, the student realizes they actually know how to find the answer, too.

Keep the lines of communication open.

School is hard. Academics, socialization, time management, teachers — it’s a lot for a kid to handle. As the parent, it’s your job to support your child, and it’s difficult to support someone if you don’t know what’s going on. Talk to your kid — know their friends, their interests, their opinions about their teachers and classes. This is easier with a five-year-old who bounces through the door eager to tell you everything about their day than it is with a secretive teenager. But in my experience, teens actually do want to talk to you. They just don’t want you to know it! Ask direct questions about their day, questions that can’t be answered with a grunt or shrug. Encourage them to invite friends over, instead of always going to a friend’s house. Let them know that you’re available for homework help, even if you’re not totally comfortable with the subject — most of the “help” kids actually need on their work is of the encouraging, not instructional, variety.

When they do talk to you — LISTEN. I’m currently a high school teacher, working with at-risk teens, and I know firsthand how difficult it is sometimes to pay attention to what basically sounds like inane gossip. But when I find myself starting to drift off during the seventh repetition of “He said, and then she said, and then I was like oh no you did not!” I remind myself that it’s these conversations that make the more serious conversations possible — the ones about sex and friendship and the future. And it’s my willingness to listen to them that makes them willing to listen to me when I have something important to say.

Don’t forget to communicate with your child’s school, too. We all have very skewed perspectives about what’s happening in our lives, and it’s the same with kids. If you’re only getting one side of the story, you can assume it’s not the whole story. I don’t know a single teacher who doesn’t appreciate the parents that stay in touch — and not just when there are problems. If you want to be heard, make sure that your voice isn’t always a negative one. Talk to teachers about what’s going well, fill them in when you have problems going on at home that might affect your child, be willing to hear what the teacher has to say without getting defensive. Then, when you have a concern and want something changed, you’ll have a great base of communication to work from.

Foster outside interests

School is not enough. I risk being blackballed from the teaching profession for saying this (no, not really — every teacher I’ve ever met agrees with me on this one), but it needs to be said. We’ve got too much to teach, too little time in which to teach it, too little money to teach it with, and too many kids to teach it to. There just aren’t the resources to provide for all of the non-academic interests of all our kids. But those interests need to be provided for. Even if your child loves school and excels, they need to have time to focus on other interests. If your child isn’t a natural academic, it is absolutely crucial that they be able to excel at something they love.

When school is your life things get stressful, and you end up with a very one-sided child who doesn’t have a lot of faith in their abilities.

Luckily, your community is a perfect place to turn when you want to get your child involved. Sign up for craft sessions at the library. Join the YMCA and take Zumba classes. Find a local musician willing to trade fiddle lesson for baked goods (I have a friend working this sweet deal right now!). It doesn’t even have to be a structured thing — one of my favorite students is currently directing and producing a musical with a group of his friends. They convinced the principal to let them use the school auditorium over the summer, and they’re doing everything from lighting to costumes to forming a multi-generational pit band. Even for families low on funds, there are tons of options for enrichment. The important thing is that your child doesn’t have all his eggs in the school basket; when school is your life things get stressful, and you end up with a very one-sided child who doesn’t have a lot of faith in their abilities.

Raise a Reader

I won’t go into too much detail about this one because I think it’s pretty obvious. Kids who read are also kids who write. They have better vocabularies and a more automatic grasp of grammar rules than non-recreational readers. Their classwork is easier because they don’t struggle through the reading tasks, so they’re able to focus on the content. They are more imaginative because they are exposed to experiences other than their own. The way to raise a reader? Read. Which brings me to …

Be their model

Whether they want you to know it or not, you are important to your child. Rarely do I meet a student’s parent without thinking, “Oh, now I see where he/she gets it.” We have more power than we think. When it comes to learning, I think the most important qualities that you can model for your kids are curiosity and diligence. Kids who are curious think about what they’re learning and go deeper. Kids who are diligent keep trying, even when it gets hard.

Curiosity is easy to model. Watch the History Channel and muse out loud about the show. Explore a new place when you go on vacation. Ask questions about things you’re unfamiliar with (“Hello sir. I see you have a peg leg and a parrot. Tell me, what’s it like to be a pirate?”). Ask your child questions. Try foods from another culture. I think humans are naturally curious, it just takes a little effort to get back to that place of open-mindedness.

Modeling diligence is hard work because it means, well, working hard. I do think, though, that this one comes naturally to a family that shares chores and jobs. Simply by doing what you need to do, and expecting your child to do the same, you’re demonstrating that we all have to work sometimes when we don’t want to.

All of this advice comes from my experiences — what I’ve learned working with elementary, middle, and high school students in a few different public school systems. Everyone’s school experience is different, and I am willing to bet that everyone who has sent a kid through school has some other advice to throw onto the table.

Comments on Tips for helping your offbeat student navigate the waters at public school

  1. As a teacher and future-offbeat-mama, I would urge parents to keep in mind that no matter what standards are at home, if your kids are going to a mainstream school, they NEED to understand that it is crucial that they do what their teacher tells them – things like being quiet when it’s time to be quiet and listen, staying in their seats, and following directions in general. I see a lot of parents who don’t think this is a big deal, but with 18, 25, 28 kids in a class, it really is! Not does it make your kid’s teacher’s job a little easier if they do these things, but it helps your kid do better and enjoy school more if they aren’t constantly disrupting the teacher while she’s trying to give instructions, get the class out to recess, etc.

    • My experience as a teacher was that it was my job to get the students to listen to me and treat me with respect. When I was able to get parents in for a conference they were often shocked to hear how much more well behaved their child was at school than at home. I do think parents should strive to teach their kids to be generally respectful, but the kids who heard “mind your teacher or else” at home, I often had to get them to relax a little and bond with me instead of fear me.
      I love all the tips in this article and agree completely. My main advice to parents was always to help their kids have opportunities to explore what they’re curious about and to let them read anything they wanted.

      • That’s awesome, and I have a similar philosophy when I have my own classroom and it’s worked well with most students. However, right now I’m subbing in a bunch of schools, and schools/teachers have a wide variety of classroom management strategies, which kids are expected to follow them no matter what. Helping your kid understand that this is a part of going to school is a good thing, because even though they might get a teacher who leads through engagement, like you or I, they might not… and not everyone is able to switch classrooms/schools based on the goodness of fit between teacher and student.

        • I agree with you fully on this one, Julie. It is definitely the teacher’s job to manage the class. But it is the PARENTS’ job to raise polite, respectful kids. If you want your kids to be successful in school (and not to interfere with other students’ school success), teaching them to be respectful is so important. I spend far too much time that I could be teaching, dealing with misbehavior. I LOVE the kids who know how to treat other people well.

  2. I have taught students from K to community college who come from all over the globe and a variety of backgrounds. I agree with all of the ideas mentioned in this post. I just want to piggyback on the idea of raising a creative problem solver. Offbeat or on, the most successful students are students who take responsibility for their own learning. Don’t always make it somebody else’s responsibility to tell you what to do or remind you to bring a paper or make sure you know what the directions are. Of course this varies with age, but even in Kindergarten a student can start learning to ask if they aren’t clear on a direction. Nothing makes me sadder than a community college student who says “I didn’t know” that an assignment is due, and it has been printed on the class webpage, syllabus, whiteboard, and/or discussed multiple times. The ability to share the responsibility of learning separates those that thrive from those that wither.

    • Yes! I agree completely, and this is a skill that manymanymany of the students I see lack. Making sure that our kids, from an early age, have responsibilities is a good first step to raising self-directed students. And as teachers, our big job is making the lessons motivating and relevant to draw in even the most reluctant learners.

  3. you sound like an amazing teacher!! i wish there were more like you!! i don’t know how to get my kids to do chores though, how does one do that? i am a single mom of five and i know the two older ones are old enough for chores. they refuse to do them though.

    • Oooh I hope someone else has some advice here, too – my son is 17 months old, so we’re still at the “put your book back on the shelf” stage! I do know that, in my classroom, creating an environment of shared responsibility has been key to having active, hard working students. In a classroom setting, this means making it really clear what everyone’s responsibilities are (I will post the schedule on the board, you will show up with a pencil, I will answer your questions, you will ask me when you don’t understand something, etc) and basically refusing to take over their job if they don’t do it. If a student isn’t listening when I give the assignment and asks me later, I tell them “I did my job, you didn’t do yours – so you’re going to have to figure this one out,” and then the student has to find another way to get the assignment (like my website, or another student). I’ve found that when kids realize that you’re actually NOT going to swoop in and save them, they’re suddenly capable of a whole lot more! However, I’m not sure how this translates to doing the dishes…..

    • With my son, getting him to consistently help out has taken years of daily reminding. In the beginning I explained to him that being part of a family means that we each have responsibilities, and then I laid out what his were. Then, every day, I reminded him to do them. The rule was, if he didn’t do what was expected then he was not allowed to watch TV/play with a certain toy/whatever until the chore was done. As he gets older we’ve started having him earn spending money by doing chores. The result is that I have an eleven-year-old who can mop floors, do dishes, clean bathrooms, do his own laundry and cook a few basic meals. I feel like those things are basic life skills and I will force him to learn them come hell or high water 😉

      It hasn’t been an easy road. I often feel like a nag, because he is not by nature a go-getter and if left to his own devices would choose to do nothing at all. But after many (many) years of daily reminders, he is generally helpful and fairly pleasant about it.

  4. I’m reposting this!
    As a pre-school teacher, I understand how important problem solving skills are. When your child is young, don’t open their food for them. Really. Let THEM figure it out. Let them figure out how to get it out of the rapper (sure some of them are even tough for us, but give them the chance to TRY!).
    Most kids just give up and say “I need help” because they KNOW adults will do it for them. Not me. I tell them “I need for you to try. Nothing more. Just try and figure it out”. If given a few extra minutes, they mostly figure the problem out on their own. They can do it on their own. They just need to tool to do it!

  5. Some of these might be more difficult for parents of kids with learning disabilites – raising a reader is a lot harder with a kid can’t read well, for example.

    Other than that niggle, I thought it was a great piece. 🙂 Thank you for sharing your perspective!

    • my son has autism and my other kids can’t read yet. i read to them all for 45 minutes a night at bedtime. you can raise a reader by reading to them or you can get them books on tape to listen too. or you could take them to story time at the library to listen to someone else read. they don’t have to be able to read it themselves to be a reader.

      • While I agree, that doesn’t really work in the context of the post, especially “Their classwork is easier because they don’t struggle through the reading tasks, so they’re able to focus on the content.”

        • I am originally a special ed teacher and while I agree that many of these things are HARDER with a student with a learning disability, I think they’re even MORE essential for struggling learners. “Learning Disability” does not mean “can’t read” – if I believed that I would be a really ineffective teacher. I think that what Jessica is doing with her kids – laying the foundation for reading by making it enjoyable – is perfect. When kids learn early on that reading is fun and interesting, they’re going to be much more likely to put in the extra effort it takes to read later.

        • As a first grade teacher, I understand that reading is difficult. However, reading is much more than just reading words. For struggling kids it is important to “read” and explain the pictures. Students should also be able to retell a story after listening to it. These are essential reading skills.
          So often children can read words but have no comprehension.
          Reading is so much more than just decoding and knowing sight words.

      • There’s another thing you can do to turn your child into a reader: Let your child see you reading. From the earliest age, I remember seeing both my parents reading. I learned to read at age 4, and now have 2 bookshelves overflowing with books. I love escaping into a story and reading and learning new things, and I think it’s because I saw from an early age that reading is enjoyable rather than a chore.

  6. I’m a teacher, rather than a mother (yet), but somewhat ironically, I never went to school myself until college; I was home/unschooled.

    I know that every child is different and not everything works with every child, but two thoughts:

    1)It is much easier for both teacher and student if the student knows the appropriate way and time to ask for help or discuss a problem. I write out all directions for each assignment, hand out that paper, read it to the class, and post it on my website. Yet, as soon as we begin reading, hands start popping up all over. I had to start refusing to answer any questions until the directions have been read aloud once — because most of those questions (when is it due? how long?) are answered in an organized way in the handout. I would never refuse help to a child, but they do need to learn to use their own resources first. The same when a child is upset or angry over something that happened in a classroom — one student contradicting a teacher over a minute matter can hold up an entire lesson and waste the whole period, and result in confusing the rest of the class. I’m always happy to talk to students individually and address their concerns — and even make changes or admit to the class that I was wrong about something — but that conversation HAS to happen privately. Some kids have trouble realizing this, but if you think about it, it’s a life-skill — you can’t just start yelling at your boss in the middle of a meeting! Learning to use the resources around you is another life-skill. Teaching/modeling appropriate conflict skills in the home would be helpful to a child. It’s also in the child’s best self-interest — A private request, “Excuse me, miss, but would it be possible for me to ___________ instead?” is SO much more likely to result in a “yes,” than “Hey, I can’t do that!” yelled out in the middle of classroom discussion!! I try to teach this through role-play in the classroom.

    As was said above, the teacher *does* need first of all to be in control of the classroom, and students need to respect that as the first step in learning. I feel weird saying that, and it took a long time for me to become comfortable with my own authority (because I’m not really an authoritarian person), but if there is not order in the classroom (esp a large one), nothing else will get done. I’m all for discussing the best way to do things, and negotiating things together as a class, but we can’t have the discussion about bathroom policies EVERY time someone has to go!

    2) Positive Parent/Teacher communication. This is more for the parents than the student, but if a parent has a special request or a problem with a classroom policy, etc: I have always been told that my first communication with parents needs to be positive: “Your daughter is a great writer” before “Your daughter stabbed another students with a pencil.” I try to do this, or at least to start conversations with a positive: “I really appreciate X’s class participation and I don’t want to stifle her enthusiasm, but I’m having trouble communicating to her the need to let other students also have a say.” I just wish parents would do the same thing, sometimes! It makes all the difference in the world whether the parents starts off with, “I really appreciate all you’re doing for X in class, but I was wondering about the incident that happened yesterday morning. . . ” rather than starting off belligerently. Again, the first way is much more likely to get you what you wanted in the first place!

    A recommendation to older offbeat students would be the “Teenage Liberation Handbook” by Grace Llewellyn. It’s an awesome resource, created for unschooling teenagers, but it has lots of extra-curricular ideas for schooling ones as well. One of the reasons I went into education is that, as a homeschooled student, I was so involved in my learning, and excited about it; I wanted other kids to feel that they were an active participant in their educations, not that education was something someone else does “to” them.

    And, in the end, the students are the ones in charge — they will grow into their own people and make their own decisions anyway. Hopefully all kids get a good school experience, but in the worst case scenario — fill up non-school time with the good stuff, and they’re pretty resilient!

  7. This is a terrific post!

    I think the experience of working with at-risk groups (I’m also a veteran of that) gives you much more insight into the way of being you need to cultivate within yourself, and you articulate it so well!

    PS I have a five (tomorrow) year old who bounces through the door COMPLETELY UNABLE to remember what she’s done at school.

  8. THIS!!! I 100% agree with everything you wrote here. When I was an elementary school teacher I used almost exactly this same script for telling every parent how to support their children. They would sometimes look disappointed because what they wanted was a quick fix.

    I taught in a school that was all minority students predominantly from families below the poverty line. These are not concepts that require a lot of money. They require parents to enhance the quality of time spent with their children, not even necessarily the quantity. Too often I see parents of all different races and economic classes interacting more with their electronic devices than their children. Parents ride the bus or shop while texting or yelling into their cell phones and children miss out on valuable learning time.

  9. Good stuff here… I think for younger kids the parents’ responsibility by the time they start school is to bring kids who, as far as possible, are ready for school. That doesn’t mean reading, writing and speaking Cantonese, as some parents might have it, but ready to pay attention,to relate appropriatley to others, to be interested in things and to have respect for adults around them.

    Sadly, some parents do just shrug their shoulders and say ‘It’s the teachers job to make them behave!’

  10. it’s great to hear things from teachers’ perspectives, but where are the parents-who’re-not-teachers in this discussion? i hope more of you/us post.

    i could not agree more about parents teaching kids to learn, problem solve without doing everything for them, show respect, and feel part of something bigger than themselves, beginning with their family and household. regarding that last item: re-read the Little House on the Prairie books for a great example. the kids are so proud of everything they do to help their family survive.

    i say this as a stepmom of a wonderful boy who was failed on all the stuff i just listed, by his own personality, his mom, dad, stepdad, me, everyone. now he’s an exceptionally miserable teen getting into trouble with school and shoplifting. i’m not sure what-all we could have actually *done* to hone those qualities in him (god knows we tried), but lacking those qualities and skills is making his life much more difficult.

  11. one more thing — regular public schools can be great. private schools with small classes can give kids a very skewed perspective on both the world and education, expecting to have loads of attention and help at all times.

    and alternative, groovy, progressive schools can seriously mess up a kid who’s already creative and wild. a creative kid doesn’t always need to be encouraged to simply be more expressive; some would thrive far better in a school with more structure. (again, see my stepson as an example.)

  12. I would also add: be sure to provide some chill-out time. School can be an information overload and extremely overstimulating, especially to introverted kids. While communication and involvement are key, kids need some time just to putz around, think things out, and breathe, without your interference, just like adults do!

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