First-grader writes letter to senator: 'All we do is work...I need a break'

A letter from Sophie Mullins.
A letter from Sophie Mullins.Courtesy Mullins Family.

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By Lisa Flam

Work, work, work.

As many parents know, even the youngest students are feeling overwhelmed by busy schedules and the increased workload that comes with tougher educational standards sweeping the country — and the accompanying stress that often comes along for the ride.

A West Virginia first-grader took to pencil and paper and wrote Sen. Joe Manchin to share her experience.

“All we do is work work work. I need a break. Can you please help?” 6-year-old Sophie Mullins wrote on lined paper.

The letter Sophie Mullins wrote to her senator.Today

The West Virginia Democrat picked up the phone and gave Sophie a ring Wednesday at Gauley River Elementary School in Craigsville, W.Va. His office posted a video of the call on YouTube.

“You’re working all the time, aren’t you?” Manchin says. “So what I’m doing is, see, I’m giving you a break right now. I wanted you to take a little bit of time off since you work so hard.”

“I do,” Sophie says, adding that she does math, reading and writing.

“If you work hard, it’s going to pay off,” Manchin tells her, and urges her to “keep working hard on your studies so you get smarter so you can help us.”

Sophie stepped out from class on Thursday and told TODAY Moms that she wrote the letter at home because her math homework “was kind of too hard.” And sometimes, she said, she feels sleepy while doing schoolwork.

The letter to Manchin grew out of a running family joke, said her mom, Sarah Mullins.

Sophie, an only child, missed her parents and was nervous when she first started elementary school, Mullins said. She noticed there was no more nap time in kindergarten and that first grade is harder.

“‘It’s hard? Oh well, you should write your congressman,” Mullins said, describing a typical conversation with her daughter. “Any time she’d complain about anything, 'Well, guess you should write him.' We just kept saying that and it grew and grew.”

The note, Mullins said, seemed to be her daughter saying, “Oh gosh, everything’s hard.”

“She missed spending as much time at home as she used to with us and sometimes when you start something new it seems hard,” Mullins said. “So a lot of it was the newness of everything and this is harder than kindergarten.”

Manchin’s call made Sophie feel happy. “That’s the first time I got a call from my senator,” Sophie said. She likes school and said she knows it’s important to learn “so you can go to the next grade and so you won’t be behind.”

Sophie’s principal, Christina Bailey, says the first-grader is a good student and hard worker, who might be feeling some growing pains.

“First grade is a huge transition from kindergarten, so the work is a little bit tougher and more difficult,” Bailey said. “There are high expectations for students across the nation.”

And Bailey agrees with Sophie’s message. “First grade is hard and kids do need a break.”

Educational psychologist Michele Borba said most kids feel like Sophie does.

“She probably could have put most every kid’s name in the United States of America on that note,” she said. “Most kids are feeling the push, the crunch, the pressure and the stress.”

Students are feeling it younger these days, Borba says, because the work they are doing today is what kids two to three grades ahead USED to be doing.

“Sandbox, blocks and dress-up are no more,” she said. “It’s much harder. We’ve crunched all the work and curriculum down.”

To help give kids some relief, especially when they feel worn down from doing homework for long periods, Borba recommends breaking the work up into chunks. Kids can complete the easier work in the car in the afternoon if they have to so by the time they sit down for the harder stuff, there’s less to do.

Parents also can help their children build breaks into their workload by setting a timer.

“When the timer goes off, let’s get a glass of water or run as fast as we can,” Borba urges parents to tell their stressed-out kids. “You’ll jump-start your kid’s brain and he’ll be able to work longer. They need the physical.”

But, parents (especially those finding themselves unable to solve grade school math problems) take note: The stress doesn’t always come from tougher spelling words or meatier texts. Kids are feeding off their parents’ stress, Borba says.

“Very often it’s not the work, it’s the stress from us,” Borba says. “So take a breath yourself, Mom. Our kids are telling us it’s not just the homework, it’s the look on our faces.”