Heart to Heart: French immersion?


My otherwise well adjusted daughter is attending a French Immersion program in second grade. She often does not want to go to school, feins tummy aches or headaches to stay home and turns into a ‘wild child’ in the evenings when I try to help her with a bit of homework. What should I do?

Sincerely, Second thoughts


Dear Second thoughts,

French Immersion programming is a wonderful option for a lot of children. But it is not for everyone.

In the Ottawa area it started in response to a political situation in this community where employment opportunities were enhanced for those who could handle Canada’s two official languages. Parents came to see that if possible, mastering the two languages in the school system was a big plus for their children. School boards responded to the demand and the French Immersion programming flourished, implemented in many different ways in the various schools.

I enrolled my own three children in this program and taught for eight years in a French Immersion school, as an English-to-French Immersion teacher. Large numbers of my friends and clients had their children in this program too.

Of course you understand that children communicate their feelings through their behaviour. Parents need to learn to read behaviour and then explore it when out of the ordinary behaviours show up and are unexpected. In your daughter’s case she is screaming to you, “Mom, I am stressed and having trouble at school!"

Your challenge is to figure out why. Einstein once said that 95 per cent of the solution to a problem is defining it correctly. When you get that answer for your daughter’s problem, the way forward should be pretty clear.

I suggest you start with an open conversation with your child attempting to find out what she likes about her class and what she does not. If you have a partner, that person could explore this topic as well. Listen to clues about what the problem might be. It might be a social problem but is more likely an academic one if she is doing well socially in other areas of her life, and relatively happy up to this point with school.

Next, make an appointment with your child’s teachers. Sometimes it is wise to talk to the French teacher and the English teacher separately because your child might be functioning quite differently in the two classes. This will help avoid one teacher’s perspective dominating the discussion for any reason.  Have your questions written out and make notes in a notebook about the responses so you ensure you have covered everything in the interviews and have a record to reflect on later. Be sure to ask direct and pointed questions about the teachers’ perceptions of your child’s adjustment to her class including social and academic spheres. If her trouble seems to be academic, try to get a read on her level of academic success compared to her peers by asking in which quartile of the 22 children in the group your child falls. Be concerned if she is regularly achieving in the main critical subject areas in the weakest quadrant. Follow up with questions relating to the teacher’s opinion as to why your daughter seems to be in that category. Then ask for suggestions about ways to improve her adjustment or performance.

Testing by specialists with the school board may be in order at some point and can be very informative. As you probably are aware, this kind of assessment is available for a fee privately with some of Ottawa’s seasoned psychologists, as well, and might be a quicker route to gaining the information you seek.

You might also want to consider a class visit to observe your daughter at work in school. You might be able to volunteer to do something for the teacher in the classroom so your child feels comfortable that you are joining her group. This kind of parental assessment opportunity can be helpful because no one knows a child better than a parent. Note unobtrusively your child’s attention span, interest in lessons, ability to respond to the teachers directions and check out her notebooks and desk at the break. Note her organization, completion of assignments, and get a sense of whether she is meeting with success most of the time in her work. She should be feeling good about her ability to meet class expectations almost all the time and that should show in her classroom performance to you and her teachers.

In my experience, teachers are often not able to tell parents honestly and directly that their youngsters would be happier and more successful in a one language program. There are reasons this is often the case which are sometimes more political than child centred, unfortunately. Be aware of this when you look at your daughter’s placement for sure. I saw many children who were under considerable stress at school because this programming was just not for them. I saw little ones forced to do hours of nightly homework, work with tutors outside school hours, receive extra help with resource teachers and volunteers and still lag behind the average. It was obvious to me that they were unhappy, stressed and unsuccessful. I often thought these youngsters would be much better served in a one language program but . . . . My own daughter in fifth grade French Immersion, arrived home with a fall report card having failed every single subject!

Astounded that my quite bright and popular child had such a report card, my husband and I undertook a quest to find out why. No one had indicated she was in trouble, or that she was performing anything less than average. We thought everything was under control and she was meeting her expected milestones in every grade at an average level. We were wrong!

We learned a great deal in this experience. Against all the advice of the professionals in her extensive and very professional workup, we moved her to an English program in a portable with 37 kids in sixth grade and to an amazing teacher. While it was hard for her emotionally to change schools, programs and friends, she blossomed in a few months into a B+ student who was very happy, much more successful and well-adjusted preteen, with a ton of friends. It was the best move for my daughter who went on to finish a business administration degree with straight A's and has a successful career. She studies French on her own in a way that suits her and can converse quite well.

There are many ways to learn a second language. There is early Immersion, late Immersion, summer exchanges, a post secondary gap year in a French setting, lessons on tape and so on. Learning that second language or not learning it should not be the top priority for children. Enjoying their school experience, advancing according to their abilities and developing a love of learning that lasts a lifetime, should be.

Try to make this happen for your daughter should performance outcomes be the problem you identify. I wish you the best with this challenging parenting problem.

Sincerely, Adele

I'm looking forward to your questions! Email me at maryadeleblair@gmail.com and please put Heart to Heart in the subject line. Note that all columns will remain anonymous.

Photo: EB Pilgrim, Pixabay