When School Isn’t Fun
School is in. For many kids, this is actually an exciting time where they see their friends again and enjoy learning new things. But not all. For some kids, this marks the start of times they cry at drop-off every morning, they refuse going to school, they plot ways to leave school if possible, and generally find themselves unhappy. If you’re the parent or teacher of the latter type of child, what are you to do?
Realize This Won’t “Just Pass”
Unfortunately, the common advice to parents from school administrators, some teachers, and even other parents is that this is normal and will pass in time. Some children will “adapt” in that they stop protesting, but very rarely do children spontaneously shift mindsets about school without support and help. Believing this will “just pass” is one way in which we as adults dismiss our children’s feelings and that’s not conducive to helping them in the long-term. What this doesn’t mean is that you have to accept a year of unhappiness, but rather that you will want to keep open a line of communication with your child, respecting their feelings and experiences as completely valid while helping them work on feeling safe and comfortable in their environment. And remember: Your child is not “being bad”, but communicating. There is a huge distinction.
Identify Potential Triggers
Did the child face bullying in a previous year? Does your child generally struggle with separation anxiety? Does your child have a learning disability or physical condition that makes the classroom overwhelming or more difficult to cope in? These are all valid reasons for a child to express continued unhappiness at the school environment and all valid reasons to work with the child to help solve the problem. Finding out what causes your child to feel anxiety and distress at school is paramount if we’re to help our kids and that means a lot of discussion and observation. Sit down with your child before or after school for as long as it takes to talk about what happened and how your child felt during the day. Your child may not have the awareness to know exactly what is wrong, but you as the parent can pay attention to elements of the day that sound more stressful and help your child open up about their emotions. By understanding the triggers, you can help your child find solutions that will hopefully work.
Sometimes when our children are anxious and stressed, it’s compounded by the fact that school seems like a place where you, the parent, are out of reach. Feeling like you’ve lost a lifeline to the person you feel most safe with can add extra stress to an otherwise difficult situation. If our children feel that they can reach out to us, though, this can help bolster their sense of security and ability to handle the problems that come their way, especially when this is modeled at home. Although schools may not want children running to call their mom or dad multiple times a week, I do hope that the well-being of the child takes precedent over any perceived inconvenience. If you think this will help your child, set it up with the school that your child knows they can call you to talk when they’re feeling especially overwhelmed or upset and that you will (to the best of your ability) be there to talk them through it over the phone.
Occasionally you may even need to pick up your child from school early if they’re having a particularly hard time. Although educators tend to look down upon this practice of taking your child, under the mistaken guise that it will instill “bad habits”, it actually can really help a child feel secure when they aren’t feeling safe. Of course it should be used as a last resort, after trying other techniques like talking on the phone, but it shouldn’t be ruled out nilly-willy. For many high-anxiety children, the built-in knowledge that they can “escape” the situation actually gives them confidence and security. Furthermore, your child continues to see you as being on “their side” which can help keep the lines of communication open and allows them to better listen to your advice and suggestions when you offer them.
Sometimes Real Change is Needed
In our societal view that all schools and all children are the same (yes, that is how society treats children and education), we ignore that sometimes a particular class or school is quite simply the wrong fit for a given child. When this is the case, the school and family need to be willing to pull the trigger and make the necessary changes to help the child. This may be as simple as a change in classrooms and teachers, it may be a change in schools, and it may even include pulling a child from the system they are in and homeschooling. Each child is different and will thrive in a different environment and it’s up to us to help our children find the environment that brings out their best, whatever that may be.