Educator and mom Kathleen Luttenegger preps a parent for tough conversations with her son’s teacher about an abundance of daily worksheets and concerns about the education he’s getting.

Q. My son’s first-grade teacher uses lots of math and literacy worksheets in her class. Sometimes 5 to 10 come home each day. The weekly homework packet is also made up of worksheets. With parent-teacher conferences coming up, what’s the best way to bring up the fact that I think she relies too heavily on worksheets and my son finds this kind of work boring?

A. First, let me say that children – especially young boys – need active and engaging learning environments. Sometimes worksheets are unavoidable and are necessary to provide practice in mastering skills. But, 10 worksheets a day is overkill.

Why worksheets?

There are so many factors that may be contributing to this teacher’s overuse of worksheets. I think it is important to understand some of the factors that may influence how you respond to this problem. With schools focusing primarily on student test scores, many teachers are under enormous pressure – even first and second grade teachers – to get students prepared for TCAP testing.  Unfortunately, this often means worksheets.

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Some schools have adopted strict guidelines requiring teachers to use specific curriculum in specific ways. Teachers in these schools may have very little say in how many and what kinds of worksheets they are required to use with their students. In these schools, every first-grader would likely have the same homework every night.

Another contributing factor may be increased class sizes. With school budgets stagnant or even decreased over the past several years, class sizes have risen in many Colorado schools. A teacher with 30 kids in the class may resort to using worksheets with students – other kinds of approaches may be more difficult with larger numbers of students.

Is this a school issue or a teacher issue?

If your son attends a school that has a great deal of pressure to raise test scores or that has been impacted by larger class sizes, the worksheet problem may be school-wide.  Have you spoken to other parents? Is this a problem that they see as well? Is this a problem at all grade levels? If so, the best chances for change include getting involved with the school and expressing your concerns to the administration. My guess is that one parent complaining about too many worksheets will not impact school-wide change.  However, if there are many parents expressing this same concern, you might be able to influence school policies in some ways.

If this is a school-wide problem, you may want to consider if this school is the right match for your son. Not every school is a good fit for every child. You still have time to look around and see if there is another school in your area that provides a more active and engaging environment for all students. For example, many districts now have STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) magnet schools. These types of schools often provide more hands-on types of activities that may suit the learning style and interests of your child. There may be charter schools in your area that are better suited to your son (e.g., expeditionary learning, Montessori, etc.). Even a different neighborhood elementary school in your area may provide a learning environment better suited to your son’s learning style.

Choosing to change schools is not easy. However, if it seems like this is a school-wide issue, it is not likely to change quickly. You and your son may both be happier in a different setting.

How should I approach the teacher?

It can be very challenging to address concerns with a teacher. Since you mentioned parent-teacher conferences, this is a good time to prepare your thoughts and be ready to discuss your concerns in a positive, proactive manner.

I would begin the conference by letting the teacher know that you are excited to hear about how your son is doing in school. Also let the teacher know that you have a few specific questions that you would like to ask, so to please leave a few minutes of time for these questions at the end. Be sure your body language and tone of voice show engagement and interest. You don’t want to put his teacher on the defensive.

Listen to what the teacher has to say about your son. Is he doing well in school? Is he making progress? Does she talk about him getting into trouble (mischief) at school?

After you have listened closely to the teacher, I would suggest sharing some positives about how your son learns best. Have there been any examples of activities this year (or even in the past) that have really engaged him in his learning? If so, share these with the teacher. Some examples might be:

  • I have noticed that my son learns best when he is able to move around a lot. He loved the game in math when students got to hop as they were working on math facts.
  • I have noticed that my son really enjoys working with partners or small groups at school. He couldn’t stop talking about sharing his writing with his friends in class.
  • My son talked a lot about the science experiment that you did in class with the students last month. He really seemed to enjoy the hands-on nature of the activity.
  • We really enjoyed the research project we worked on as a family last semester – it gave us time to look at books closely together.  And, he really enjoyed using the computer to create his poster.

After you have shared some examples of how he learns best, you can ask: “I am wondering what other opportunities my son will have to engage in more of these types of activities?” This will allow his teacher to highlight any similar kinds of activities planned for the upcoming weeks. If the teacher said that your son sometimes gets into trouble at school, you can use this opportunity to say that you notice he tends to be more on-task when he is really engaged in his learning. It is not uncommon for kids to make trouble when they aren’t really engaged at school.

Another approach you might take is to talk about homework. You can ask if there are there other ways he can show mastery of learning. For example, if he is working on basic math facts, could he practice them through computer/iPad games?  You could say: “I’ve noticed that my son has a worksheet each night practicing math facts. He seems to learn math facts more quickly using interactive games. Could we do 15 minutes of math games in place of the math facts worksheet?”

When is it time to talk with the principal?

I hope that your son’s teacher is open and willing to discuss your concerns. Some teachers will respond positively to this type of conversation and some won’t. I would suggest that if you try working with the teacher and nothing changes, you may want to set up a time to meet with the principal. Let the principal know your concerns, again focusing on the needs of your child. And, I would really focus on making sure that your child is placed in an active and engaging classroom for second grade that better meets his needs. By focusing on your child and his future needs, you will maintain a positive working relationship with the school, which is important if you expect to be there long-term.