Here’s the truth about your big concerns from the early years all the way through high school
From the first goodbye in kindergarten to the last day of twelfth grade, sending our kids to school means letting go a little bit every day. And for many parents, that nudge out of the nest brings up ALL the parental concerns. Questions run the gamut, from “Will my kindergartener get lost on her way to the bathroom? ” to “What if my college-bound kid doesn’t get good grades?” But teachers say to take a deep breath!
“What does worry actually contribute? A lot of times parents feel that it’s their responsibility and role to worry, but we’re having an epidemic of anxiety among young people right now. A lot of people point to technology, but I would also point to this culture of worry that parents have picked up,” said former Los Angeles school principal Bruce Harlan, who currently teaches middle school science.
Worried now? Don’t be. Whether you’ve got a kid just starting their school journey or a teen almost at the end, we talked to teachers about common parental concerns—and why you can rest easy knowing that your kids will be fine.
The Worry: Your child will get lost on the way to or from the bathroom (or the cafeteria or any other place inside the school).
The Truth: They might. But someone will help them find their way. “This happens all the time. It’s always within the first week. It’s all hands on deck that first week. Parents need to remember that school is a very safe place. There are teachers and support staff everywhere, and everybody knows that in the first few weeks of school, you’re going to find a random kindergartener wandering the halls,” said Los Angeles elementary school teacher Anne Vanderpool.
If your child is worried about getting lost, you can help ease the jitters by practicing. Stick around after school and walk around the school with your child (especially the way to and from the bathroom and classroom). By the first week or two of the school year, even the youngest of students will find their way.
The Worry: Your child will have a potty accident.
The Truth: Many do.
It is common for preschoolers, kindergarteners—and even older kids— to have an occasional accident said Amanda Yuill, a longtime teacher and educational spokesperson, on her website. “For this reason, it is a good idea to ask parents to send a labeled bag with extra clothes you can keep in the classroom if you are teaching kindergarten.” “If there is a child in an older class who still has trouble with this, you can do the same thing with just that child and not the whole class.”
Experts say some kids are just too shy to use the bathroom—whether it’s because they are too embarrassed to raise their hand to ask or they’re worried another schoolmate might hear them going (this is mortifying for some kids!). To help ease these worries (and yours), have a conversation with your child about their concerns—and how the alternative (wetting their pants) may actually be more problematic than not going in the first place. If they keep holding it in, talk to the teacher about letting your child use a single-stall bathroom (for instance, in the nurse’s office), which may alleviate their shyness.
The Worry: You’re wondering if you should hold your child back from kindergarten.
The Truth: More time is usually a good thing
According to Vanderpool, one of the most common questions she gets from parents is whether they should hold their younger children (those with late summer birthdays) back for kindergarten. She said she almost always thinks it’s a good idea to do so. “It varies by child, but always my reaction was to ask them a question back. I’d ask them, ‘Tell me when you had too much time to do something, and tell me when that was a problem for you.”’
Holding kids back—mainly when they are on the younger side for kinder—usually helps them by giving them the time they need to mature into ready-to-learn students. When it comes to kids in the middle of the age net, Vanderpool says the answer isn’t always as clear. “It might be OK. But then I ask the question, ‘How do you want your senior year to go? They’re going to be 18 before they start their senior year. Do you want them to be closer to 20 in their freshman year of college?'”
The Worry: Your kindergartener/first grader isn’t reading as well as some of her peers.
The Truth: Some kids take longer than others—and that’s OK.
AnnMarie Sossong, a reading specialist in Florida, told US News and World Report, “Some children are ready to learn to read at age 3, and some take much longer. I have seen both, and by age 12 or 13, they are reading at the same level, which seems counter-intuitive, but it is not. When they are ready, they are ready, and everything clicks.” And while there seems to be a national push for kids to read earlier and earlier, literacy expert Timothy Shanahan said children only really need to master around 20 sight words by the end of kindergarten and 100 by the end of first grade.
The Worry: Your child has separation anxiety when you drop him off.
The truth: Your kids are (almost always) fine once you leave.
The trick to easing the separation and making your child realize that school is non-negotiable is to be confident at dropoff. “It’s a transition issue. Most of the time, the parent has the hardest time with this—the kids are completely fine. Your child is probably four or five, and you’ve fixed everything up to this point. This is the first time they’re going to do it themselves. The worst thing you can do is tell them they can’t do it. Just swallow the tears for a minute, give them your brave face, and say, ‘I’m so proud of you. You’re going to be great. I’ll see you in a few hours,’” says Vanderpool.
The Worry: Your kid isn’t learning how to spell correctly.
The Truth: Spelling doesn’t matter until later on (and some teachers say it is a nonissue even then).
There’s no denying that kiddified spelling is adorable, but at what point should you correct those cute little misspells and teach your kid the proper way to spell those tricky words?
Not in kindergarten or first grade, say teachers. “There’s a heavier focus on fluency and building confidence [in kinder and first grade], and then you circle back to the nitty gritty later in second and third grade,” said Vanderpool. Even later on, when they’re in upper grades, spelling isn’t the obstacle it used to be, with some teachers admitting that in the age of spell-check and voice type, spelling isn’t as important as it used to be. Dierdre Amey, a third and fourth-grade teacher in Philadelphia, PA, says, “Don’t sweat it if your students are not the best spellers in the upper grades. There are so many strategies and accommodations available for their children via computer.”
The Worry: Your child doesn’t seem to like school.
The Truth: How worried you should be depends on the reason.
This is a tricky one, teachers say, since some kids may legitimately be struggling while others don’t like school simply because they’d rather be elsewhere. “Ask your child, ‘Why?’ He might say, ‘Oh, it’s boring.’ Or, ‘I don’t have any friends.’ Or, ‘It’s too hard.’ All of these are great responses that should be explored. Sometimes it’s just a preference; there’s no real good reason; it’s just that your child would rather be home playing video games,” said Vanderpool.
For better or worse, not liking school is a common predicament—especially as kids get older. A 2020 survey of more than 21,000 American high schoolers showed that the top two feelings students said they experienced at school were “stressed” (79.8 percent) and “bored” (69.5 percent), with nearly 75 percent of their self-reported feelings about school being negative.
Friendships play a big part. According to a University of Illinois study, kids with “reciprocal friendships” were more likely to like school and be more academically successful. Similarly, a Gallup poll found that friendships were the biggest predictor of student engagement in both fifth grade and 11th. Talk to your child about whether they have friends at school; if not, try to set up some time with their peers to forge better relationships.
“If we are to help kids gain happiness from their education in the short and long term, we need to bring to bear more resources to facilitate friendship, which tends to solve both the loneliness and boredom problems.” Arthur C Brooks writes in The Atlantic.
The Worry: Your kids’ teachers don’t give enough homework—or your kid doesn’t want to do it.
The Truth: Homework isn’t how young kids learn best anyway.
Dierde Amey, who has been teaching elementary school for 19 years, says “It is the least effective method for learning at a young age.” In fact, a study from the University of Missouri found no academic advantage to doling out homework in elementary school. For middle schoolers, however, homework does help—but only if the work lasts between one to two hours per night (after that, achievement levels don’t change, experts say).
The Worry: Your child didn’t get a school award.
The Truth: Don’t make awards a big deal.
If your school does a “Student of the Month” certificate (or anything like that), it may be disappointing when you don’t see your little scholar standing in the spotlight. Try not to worry.
“Short of a Nobel or Pulitzer, most awards don’t really have a long-term effect on anyone’s life. How many adults can truly point to a childhood award making a deep impact on their future?” teacher Braden Bell told the Washington Post. Parents can use these moments to build empathy, as he did himself when his son didn’t get an award in kindergarten—but a good friend did. “I explained that feelings are like living things, whichever one he fed would get bigger. He realized that he had a choice: He could focus on his own unhappiness or be happy for his friend.”
The Worry: Your child didn’t get into the Gifted and Talented program.
The Truth: It doesn’t mean your child isn’t smart.
Parents often misunderstand the Gifted and Talented (GATE) program as a Smart Kids Club. But teachers say that’s not really the case. “The Gifted and Talented program is not for good students. It’s for kids who learn differently, who can excel in a program that offers a different style of learning,” said Vanderpool. Of course, this reality doesn’t stop parents from wondering how they can “get their child into” the program.
“Holy moly, I had so many parents want to have a personal conference with me about how they’re going to GATE test and their expectation for this child to pass. My greatest recommendation is for parents to be a little more informed and realize it might not be a good fit for your child,” she says.
If your child does get into the program, take that as a cue that maybe your child needs alternative types of teaching, and discuss how you can accommodate these needs at home and as your child grows.
The Worry: Your kid lost (or keeps losing) a game.
The Truth: Consider it a win.
You’re holding your breath as your child steps up to the plate. They swing… miss… and strike out. What do you do now? Cheer, of course! “They don’t have to win. All you really need to say to your kid after a game—win or lose—is ‘I love watching you play,'” said Bruce Harlan, who also worked as a swim coach before his experience teaching middle school.
Here’s the real win: Losing has been shown to help kids. A 2019 Brigham Young University study found that high school students who had participated in youth sports showed higher levels of resilience—as well as self-regulation and empathy—than students who didn’t participate.
“Learning to cope with loss is important because they’re not always going to win later in life. It’s an important skill to develop, to lose with grace, not to blame other people, and to take responsibility for the loss,” psychologist Dr. Kate Lund said in this article.
Parental Concerns About Middle & High School
The Worry: Your child is dealing with social drama.
The Truth: Don’t get involved (unless you have to).
Harlan, who has been working with kids for 33 years, says “Adolescents ride an emotional roller coaster. The role of the parent is to be steady and calm and not ride that roller coaster with them. This is normal socialization. Kids are going to get feedback from their peers—and often not in a gentle way—about how to be. That is how they learn, and sometimes it is painful.”
That means if your daughter comes home complaining that a friend was mean to her in school, resist the urge to call that friend’s mom. “It sends a bad message to the kids that, ‘Wow, this thing that I brought home must be really important because now all the adults are getting involved,'” says Harlan.
The other unintended consequence is that kids might stop sharing their troubles with parents to avoid them stepping in (which can be embarrassing for most kids). “You want open communication, but sometimes kids will stop telling their parents because they don’t want their parents to overreact,” Harlan said.
The Worry: You’re putting too much pressure on grades.
The Truth: The grades aren’t what matters most.
Sure, you want your kids to do well in school—but how much pressure is too much? “Don’t care more than your kid cares. The teacher will reach out if concerned. And stay off the grading websites,” said Kate England, a 10th-grade civics teacher in Abington, PA.
Instead, focus on effort… and kindness. It sounds hokey, but experts say that if parents worry less about grades and more about teaching decency, good grades will follow naturally. A study done by Arizona State University found that teaching children kindness and compassion—instead of focusing solely on academic achievement and extracurricular activities—helped kids do better in school. Researchers looked at the school performance of 506 sixth-grade students, then asked what their parents valued the most about them. The kids that performed the best in school were the ones whose parents seemed to value kindness more than grades.
In this article, Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at ASU said, “When parents emphasize children’s achievement much more than their compassion and decency during the formative years, they are sowing the seeds of stress and poorer well-being. In order to foster well-being and academic success during the critical years surrounding early adolescence. . . parents should accentuate kindness and respect for others at least as much as (or more than) stellar academic performance and extracurricular accolades.”
The Worry: Your child wants to be/can’t get into AP classes?
The Truth: AP Classes aren’t always a good thing.
AP classes sound good. After all, they give your kid a chance to earn college credit while still in high school (Woohoo! No math class freshman year at university!). But many teachers advise against them—and some, like these eight private schools in Washington DC—are doing away with them altogether.
“The truth is that college courses, which demand critical thinking and rigorous analysis, look nothing like AP courses, which stress breadth over depth. Moving away from AP courses will allow us to offer courses that are foundational, allow for authentic engagement with the world and demonstrate respect for students’ intellectual curiosity and interests,” the schools said in a joint statement published by The Washington Post.
Instead of worrying about AP courses, let your kids enroll in interesting electives. “Let them take cooking, sewing, and art even though those classes don’t boost GPAs. They make for a well-rounded student who isn’t stressed beyond belief,” advises England, a teacher of 17 years.
Harlan echoed her thoughts. “There’s no joy in AP classes. It’s a drill-and-kill type of instructional style that is so old-fashioned and goes against everything we know. . . Even the colleges don’t like them because once you’ve gotten credit, you cant retake it in college… but you don’t get the same level of instruction you do in college.”
The Worry: Your child’s SAT scores aren’t great.
The Truth: SATs aren’t always required.
While SATs used to be the gold standard by which every student measured their college-bound worth, that has changed. Today more than 80 percent of US colleges have “test-optional” applications, meaning SAT scores are not required for admission. The California State University system went a step further when it announced in 2022 that it won’t accept SATs or ACTs in the application process for any of its 23 schools—so kids don’t have to worry about whether or not they should “option-in” their scores when applying.
“The era of standardized testing is starting to slide away,” Harlan said, adding that the same is true for tests kids take in elementary and middle school. “Most of the high schools in our area aren’t even accepting them anymore.”
The Worry: Your kid isn’t who you thought they’d be.
The truth: Love the kid you’ve got.
Parents often despair when their kids grow up to be a different person they’d imagined they would be—whether that means that you expected your kid to love sports and they only love computers; or whether you hoped for a cheerleader and got a bookworm. All this worry goes nowhere, experts say.
“Parents start to graph out the life of their kids, and they extrapolate all the way to graduate school. That is not fair to the kids. It’s their life, their ups, and downs,” Harlan said. Instead, he emphasized loving the kid you have. “You don’t order a fully-baked human being when you have a kid. Stop worrying about how you thought things would go for your kid.”
And don’t feel guilty about your feelings. Doctors say it’s normal to feel some loss when our children don’t grow up to be what we thought they’d be. But don’t let those expectations dictate how you treat your child. “When our fantasies about our children do not coincide with their interests, talents, and tendencies, our expectations can strike a debilitating blow to our children’s development. Accepting these losses and mourning them opens our eyes to what we can celebrate about our children.” psychotherapist David Braucher said in Psychology Today.
Related: 14 Secrets to Being a Happy Parent