It's back-to-school time, so I spent an early evening this week checking in with my friends about how their kids are doing after a couple of days in their new classes. One report got my fellow mothers and me scowling. At one school, a trio of bullies who had teamed up for a reign of minor terror in third grade last year were separated into three different classes for fourth grade—but then, on the second day of school, two of them were suddenly back together in one classroom. Clearly, one of the kid's parents had called and asked for a switch. And the school had caved in.
This seemed like exquisitely bad judgment on all sides. Teams of elementary-school teachers often meet for hours to hash out classroom assignments, taking great care over the combinations of kids they're building. Parents generally shouldn't try to influence which classes their children are in, and schools shouldn't give in to them when they do meddle. And certainly they shouldn't change class assignments after the fact. The policy of the Henry Barnard Laboratory School, based at Rhode Island College, strikes the proper discouraging tone:
Once faculty have made their student assignment recommendations to the Henry Barnard School administration, it is extremely difficult to make changes and maintain the goals of our placement procedure. Moving a student from one classroom assignment to another inevitably changes the environment of both classrooms. For that reason, administrative changes during the summer to classroom assignments will be extremely rare.
The hard truth about meddling is that when parents insist on a particular class assignment for their children, they can end up helping their own kid at the expense of someone else's. Class assignments are a zero-sum game: If your kid gets the teacher you like and escapes the mediocre or rotten alternative, another kid will be taking his place. For sure, parents talk themselves around this. They say it's their job to put their own kids' interests first. Or if they have an older child who has had a run-in with a teacher, they figure the family has already done its time and now deserves a break. Or they talk in code about how a teacher or a combination of classmates is just not the right fit for their child, though they're sure the setting will do everyone else's just fine.
I hope I never go down this road. It's the mommy/daddy version of backroom dealing. And it succumbs to the temptation to try to perfect every aspect of our children's lives. As my colleague Hanna Rosin put it about her oldest child's progress through elementary school, "Every year I have thought about lobbying for a particular teacher or to have a particular friend in her class. And every year I have resisted. I never once regretted that. She's had teachers who were, yes, slightly petty, and yellers, and also teachers who favor her. What happened to her? Nothing. She learned that—gasp!—adults are flawed, too."
Some schools don't see the hands-off parent as the virtuous parent, though. At Orangewood Elementary, a public school in Phoenix, Ariz., parents are invited to request a class assignment ahead of time, so long as they follow an established set of rules. The principal, Andree Charlson, explained to me that she asks parents first to sit in on the class they think they want, to see whether the teacher's instructional method really appeals to them rather than going on vague hearsay. She honors requests only when they jibe with her own and her teachers' sense of what makes for a good class mix. That includes balancing the number of boys and girls, including a range of ability levels, and not putting too many kids with behavioral problems in the same classroom.
When parents talk about their children's traits and the match they see with a particular teacher's instructional method, Charlson tries to accommodate them. This is part of valuing parents as partners in their children's education, she says.
What if a parent asks for her child to be in the same class as a friend? There's a narrower opening for such requests. "Best friends? We don't do that," Charlson said, "unless the children need that social interaction to support their education." And if a pair of friends mistreats other kids when they're together, the request should go nowhere, said Charlson and the other principals I talked to. In case you had any doubt, there is research to support this: "Although having friends is typically thought to be beneficial, having aggressive friends may negatively affect the adjustment of youth," write University of Missouri professor Amanda Rose and her colleagues in a 2004 article in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. Interestingly, Rose says that there's no consensus about whether bullies have fewer or poorer-quality friendships than other kids. Some studies show that their friendships offer similar levels of "companionship, help and guidance, conflict resolution, and conflict." Other research has found that the friendships of aggressive kids are less intimate and affectionate and involve greater power differences. But however these friendships serve the bullies themselves, they seem like a danger for other children. Everyone knows that two or three mean kids are harder to shrug off or stare down than one.
If two kids have a strong friendship that doesn't hurt the kids around them because they're nonexclusive and pull other children into their orbit, should schools let the friends move from grade to grade together? About this one I'm not a purist. We expect a lot of children to adjust to a new ecosystem every year. The mantra that they should start afresh each time by mixing with a new set of peers, rather than building on old attachments, has always seemed a bit much to me. I remember dreading each new year of elementary school, because my class list didn't include my closest friend of the year before. What if adults were told every September that they had to stop eating lunch or IM-ing with the colleagues they get along with best and must forge a whole new set of relationships? We wouldn't put up with it for a second.
And so I was sweating when I recently opened the letter with my older son's class list for this coming year. He and his close friend were together, as it turned out, and I took this as vote of confidence in the open, outward-looking nature of their relationship. Maybe it's a healthier friendship than mine were in elementary school. In any case, for this smooth start to the school year, I am grateful.
A version of this article also appears in DoubleX.