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@example.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
I have a five-year-old who has autism and attends the public preschool program for kids with disabilities. Next year he will go to a regular kindergarten classroom. He transitioned from our private preschool to public school a few weeks ago, and it has been challenging at times. One thing that particularly bothers me is that in meetings and conversations with school staff, they always bring up the fact that he is very big for his age. He is over 4 feet tall and 65 pounds—basically the size of an eight- or nine-year-old. We’ve checked with his pediatrician, and they don’t have any concerns, he’s just a big guy. When people bring up his size, it is never in the context of him hurting anyone or acting out in any physical way, or anything where his size should be an issue. It’s always, “He was having a really hard time focusing on his work today. He’s just…so much bigger than the other kids. It’s crazy!”
I don’t know even know what they’re trying to say, but it makes me uncomfortable. One of the issues right now is that there are three-year-olds in his class who are on the opposite site of the growth chart, so I guess it’s possible that he seems particularly large. That won’t be as much of a problem in kindergarten, but he also towers over most kids his own age.
I am worried the teachers might be holding him to a higher standard of behavior or expectations because of his size. I also know that kids with disabilities are often physically handled in school more than typically developing kids. I have specifically instructed the school to not touch him, or hold him, because he doesn’t like it, and the response has always been that of course they wouldn’t do that.
He is capable of following verbal directions with visual supports when given enough processing time, and time to express his own feelings about what is going on. He is a smart kid who takes in a lot and takes a long time to figure out what he wants to say, so I also know that he is hearing everything said about him around him, and I’m worried about his sense of self-worth if the adults around him are constantly referring to his body as being abnormal in some way. Even now I will sometimes overhear him saying to himself, “I’m a REALLY big boy.”
There are other aspects of his education that I have already had to be a strong advocate about, and I feel like I have limited capital for “the small stuff.” So part of me wonders if should just let this one go, but they keep saying it, and it keeps bothering me. How do I bring this up with his team without sounding like I am micromanaging them or accusing them of handling him inappropriately? I have 17 more years of dealing with this district for my son if he stays in school until he’s 22, and I am cognizant of how many more important battles there may be ahead.
—It’s Not About His Size
Years ago, I adopted a policy: I will never comment on a student’s physical appearance, both because it’s not necessary or important, but also because a compliment about one student’s physical appearance is the absence of a compliment to another.
Not all teachers agree with this policy. Some think I’ve taken things too far. But I explain this policy to my students during the first week of school every year, and students wholeheartedly support it.
This means that when a student comes to school and says, “Do you like my new haircut?” or “Check out my new coat!” I always say, “I care about what you say or do, and that’s all.” Then I follow it with as compliment about something related to what the students says or does well.
All of this is to say: You should say something to these teachers. There is no reason for them to be mentioning your son’s size, and the sooner they stop saying it, the sooner it will cease to be relevant. I think you can bring it up very simply by sending an email to his principal or teacher and ask for it to be communicated to everyone who works with him.
Something like this: “Many of you have mentioned my son’s size to me many…