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Bears, Snakes, and Scales Oh My! Using Rating Scales to Troubleshoot at School

Updated: May 11, 2022

During the school year, you may find your 2e child saying, “I don’t like school.” You may ask them, “How was your day?” and they reply, “Bad!” but are unable to elaborate. Since parents and educators are better able to address challenges when we understand the specifics, we need a tool to help us get to the root of the problem.

Enter the rating scale*—it has helped my family narrow down the scope of school challenges year after year, and enabled us to problem solve, address issues, and track results. This should be done even when a child isn't having an issue so that it builds the foundation for communication.

How to use a rating scale:

  1. Grab a piece of paper and write down all parts of the school day, including all subjects, recess, lunch, homeroom, morning circle, and classes that only happen periodically. Include all parts of the day -- don't just focus on the trouble spots.

  2. Have your child choose one animal they love and one they don’t like (My kid loves bears and despises snakes, so those are the key points on our rating scale—you could also do this with Pokemon or any other item your child loves. Get creative! This strategy still works for us with our middle schooler; perhaps use a number scale for older kids).

  3. Go through each part of the school day and ask “Is that part of your day a bear or a snake or somewhere in between?” (My kids sometimes say “Oh, that activity is a bear head with a snake body” or figure out other ways to use the animals to show in-between ratings; my younger child came up with a 9 animal system!)

  4. Ask “why?” for each animal rating and write down the reason.

This tool helps kids unlock things that are difficult to convey and helps parents track patterns or target problematic parts of the day.

Example uses of this tool:

1) In early elementary school, my child came home repeatedly and said “School is boring.” But, I was left wondering,“What does that mean?” If I’m going to reach out to his teacher to collaborate on solutions, I prefer to have actionable requests. We used the above rating method for a few days and found most parts of his day were “bears” (so pretty good), but math and writing were snakes (not so good).

After asking why math is a snake, we determined the level of math in the class wasn’t interesting or engaging enough for my child. We partnered with the teacher to come up with an alternative plan for my child. I brought in some math puzzle books and math games for him and the entire class, which he used when the class was working on math for which he had already shown mastery. Plus, he ended up teaching a fun math card game to the entire class and math became a “bear” for him again!

For my child, writing is a “snake” because it’s too hard. We worked with the teacher on helping him generate ideas for his stories and to get more writing support. Writing may still be a “bear with a snake tail”, but it’s moving in the right direction. We can’t expect 100% “bears” every day!

2) My child went through a rough stretch of time in mid-elementary school and started to say he hated school. We used the rating scale and determined that almost his entire day was “snakes.” Even recess and lunch. Those are typically times that are restorative for children between more traditional learning parts of the day. However, for my son, who was having social difficulty on the playground, they were one more source of stress. He was going through day after day with only stress and nothing to look forward to.

As a result, we called an urgent meeting with my son’s team at school and shared the data with them. We partnered with the school to help my son find friends on the playground, made playdates with potential friends, encouraged him to participate in structured lunch activities such as noon art or the lunch bunch program, or chat with the teachers on duty.

We realized that small changes on the teacher’s part could make a huge difference for my child. For example, he had created an imaginary land full of rich detail in his mind, but his teacher wouldn’t allow him to use it in an assignment to create a drawing to show the difference between a rule and a law. We met with the teacher, explained how to support 2e students, and asked if she could provide flexibility when it didn’t interfere with her intended learning targets. The teacher separated the learning target from the method of showing mastery and things started to improve. In a different lesson focused on measuring things, the class was creating and measuring giant flowers; my child wanted to color his flower like a rainbow, rather than just plain green. While the teacher’s inclination was to say, “Leaves are supposed to be green,” she realized that the lesson was about measuring and not about botany, so she allowed all the students to color their flowers however they wanted; my son was much more engaged and got to express his individuality. The entire class loved the idea of creatively coloring their flowers. Slowly, “bears” started to reappear in the ratings.

3) My child arrived at his 1,000+ student middle school for the first time, with seven class changes per day: teachers, classrooms, expectations, and classmates. After a couple of weeks, he was deeply unhappy. We used the rating scale and, strangely, the classes themselves were mostly “bears.” We started to rate other aspects of the day and learned that his issues actually were with the many unpredictable interactions that occur each day at a large school, overall noise levels, and the executive functioning required to manage so much change. We realized that these issues, unlike the previous ones we had faced, were an immutable part of a large school and that my child would do better in a smaller environment with fewer changes throughout the day and more predictability in his interactions and expectations.

The “rating scales” tool has helped us in both large and small ways over elementary school and into middle school. Educators and parents can use this simple and effective tool to find out what parts of the school day are causing stress for their students, work together to understand why, try solutions, and track progress over time. Next time you find yourself wanting more specificity about your 2e student’s day, try this tool and look out for the “snakes.”

Please share with us if this tool has been helpful for you. What other tools have you found helpful in supporting your 2e student at school?

*Thanks to Dr. Kari Berquist for teaching us how to use this method!



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