Challenging Classrooms

By Ashley Jenkins


I enjoy seeing my former students in the hallways at school. When one of them came by my room to tell me she was moving to a new school, I asked her why. She replied, “My parents think I’m not being challenged enough.”

I wish I could say I was surprised, but this was not the first time I had heard this from a student. I sometimes hear this complaint from friends who are parents, too. When speaking with colleagues and other teacher friends, I found that this is something we have all heard more frequently as of late, as test scores, emphasis on STEM programs, and invitation letters for gifted programs are on many parents’ minds. While frustrated by these comments, I wanted to take a step back and evaluate my own classroom as well as find meaningful ways to have conversations with parents about this topic.

Ways to assess and enhance your own challenging environment:


Check in with students: This could be as simple as a walk around the room while students are doing independent work. Who is engaged? Are students clear about expectations? Do they need a lot of support? Are they aware of where to look for guidance and self-assessment?

Equally as important: carve out time for your higher-achieving students. We so often (myself included) can be guilty of assuming they can work independently and don’t need our help. Make sure they are clear that you are holding them to the same standards as everyone else.

Include more creativity: Some of my favorite activities I learned while taking gifted coursework involved creativity. These are always a big hit in my classroom with every student but especially with higher-achieving learners. Because most of our day is often filled with the same routines, getting the chance to be creative forces students to use a different part of their brain. One of my favorite activities I did when I taught third grade was tasking students to create an animal that could survive in multiple biomes during a unit on adaptations and habitats. I loved seeing the details in their art, and they were able to provide scientific evidence as to why their animal would survive. Of course, providing opportunities like these are much easier for me to do now that I’m teaching kindergarten than they may be if you are in a testing grade. Squeeze them in when you can.

Fast-forward: If a student has mastered a concept, don’t make them repeat it with the rest of the class. This is commonly known as curriculum compacting. If I’m doing a whole-class phonics lesson that my higher readers have already mastered, I allow them to independently read or work on a reading program on our class iPads while I work with the rest of the class.

Partner/small-group teach: I’m a firm believer that students learn more from talking to each other than they do listening to me. Research also shows that students benefit from conversation (Fisher, Frey & Rothenberg, 2008).  I have a student this year who excels in math. Rather than constantly giving him more to do, I found that he enjoyed explaining what he learned to his peers. And when students asked him questions, he often had to think about the answer and go back through his steps.

It’s never easy having a parent criticize your job, but if you are approached by a parent about the level of rigor their child is not getting, here are some helpful ways to approach:

Listen and home in on what their complaint is: Are they basing the level of challenge for their child on test scores, grades, amount of homework brought home, etc.? I find that sometimes parents make judgments only on evidence of one thing, and I have to remind myself that they don’t see everything that happens in the classroom every day. If they believe their child needs more challenge due to test scores, cross reference test data with classroom work and anecdotal data of what you see in class. I send home weekly classwork so parents can actually see what their child is working on, and I also keep some of their most important writings and projects for portfolios. Often, when I show parents these samples at conferences, they are blown away by the level of depth and rigor that their child is doing in the classroom. They just are not able to see this on a test score.

Be honest about what you are facing in the classroom: Most parents mean well. They don’t know the many levels you have to differentiate and plan for every day. I honestly tell them, in a respectful way: “One of the most difficult things about teaching is that there are (x) number of students, and one of me. I wish I had an unlimited amount of time to spend with everyone each day. I try to make up for this with allotted time for small groups each day. Here is how I am working with your child to meet their needs:____.” I have found that parents appreciate my honesty and it reminds them that I, too, am human.

Get their help: Is there an activity you would love to work on with your students needing more of a challenge, but you are short on time or it would be too much prep? See if the parents are willing to help. This year in my kindergarten class, I have a student reading much higher than the rest of her peers. I wanted to start a more advanced word study program with her but was always short on time to prep. I asked her mom if she would be willing to work with her on it at home and she happily obliged. This kept her in the loop of what her daughter needed to work on and saved me time. I required her to bring in her completed work to me and instead we could use our time to extend what she learned rather than teaching it from scratch. Both parties won. I’ve also had other parents offer to come in and print weekly readers or prep materials for higher students that maybe I would not have had time for otherwise. I find that most parents understand that it does take a village to teach a child, and students are much more successful when we work together.

Hopefully you will find some of these ideas helpful. What have you found to be successful in creating a challenging environment in your own classroom, as well as in communicating with parents?


Source: Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Rothenberg, C. (2008). Content-area conversations: How to plan discussion-based lessons for diverse language learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *