Your child looks a bit pale. They’ve gone very quiet. They don’t want to see their usual friends, have lost their appetite, and seem reluctant to go to school. You can’t get much out of them, but you can sense that something’s wrong. What should you do?
First of all, don’t panic. Sooner or later most children hit a problem in school. After all, school is exactly like the rest of life – there’s always change afoot and some bumps along the way.
Running into difficulties is completely normal, and can even be helpful to a child’s growth and development. Of course, they can be horribly painful at the time, but they can also bring great benefits in their wake. Wrestling with uncomfortable situations and finding solutions is how we all learn to grow the inner strength and confidence we need to lead full, happy lives.
It’s also worth pointing out that a child who never has a problem might be very lucky, but also might be a child who is working overtime to be good, fit in, keep a low profile and do exactly what their teachers and parents expect. And, while such meek compliance might work well in the short term and even garner trophies and prizes, it is not a great quality for building a good career or developing strong relationships in adult life.
In fact, most school problems are small and temporary. They might involve falling out with a friend, failing to master long division, or hating this year’s English teacher. Some problems, of course, are bigger, and occasionally they can turn into something that needs major intervention. Learning difficulties, entrenched bullying and teenage mental health issues are all sadly on the rise and need skilled help and support. But be very careful not to jump to conclusions about what a problem consists of. You might decide that your son no longer wants to go to school because he is being bullied on the school bus. He might not want to take the bus because it makes him feel sick when it goes round bends, but he doesn’t want to admit it because it’ll make him look like a wimp.
If you sense your child is running into difficulties, watch, wait and learn. Try and probe gently and sensitively what you think might be wrong – driving in the car together, with no eye contact, is often a good time for this.
Of course, if your child is very small, it’s up to you to resolve the problem and it makes sense to talk to their teacher as soon as possible. It may also help to talk to other parents, but be careful to avoid confrontation. “Your child’s bullying mine” will not get you very far. “Our children seem to be having a problem. I thought we ought to see what we can do…” will be much more productive.
If your child is older, take more time. Make it crystal clear to them that you’re on their side, that you want them to be happy and you will do anything that might help make things better. Don’t make light of their worries, but show you understand how painful it must be for them and how upset they are.
If it’s something to do with friends or bullying, try and suggest how they can stand up for themselves, feel strong inside, resolve conflicts and minimise social media pressures. Give them space to make their own decisions, but offer help when you can, especially if it’s something specific and practical. “Everyone’s teasing me about these horrible glasses!”
Do your utmost to empower your child to help themselves. That way they’ll grow stronger and more confident – and more able to avoid future problems. But if the problem persists, go and speak to your child’s teacher or tutor. However be careful to avoid outright blame. Collaboration will always be better, if you can get it. On the other hand, once a problem has been aired and shared, stay on the case to ensure the school does everything in its power to defuse and resolve the situation. With nasty, ingrained bullying, for example, it’s very hard for parents ever to go it alone.
Learning problems are rather different. If you feel your child is struggling, don’t hesitate to talk to the school about it and about what can be done. It may be a temporary glitch that can be resolved with some extra teaching or tutoring, or it may be the first signs of a learning difficulty that needs specialist support. If the problem persists, and the school is not taking effective action, roll up your sleeves and insist that they do.
Bigger problems will always need your full-on involvement. Whatever the issue, listen to your instincts and don’t brush your worries under the carpet. If you think your daughter looks too thin, don’t tell yourself ‘it’s only because she does so much sport’ and decide that everything is fine. Watch, listen and sensitively probe for more information.
Whatever the problem, though, try and remain as calm and logical as possible. More than anything else, your child needs your loving (but not suffocating) attention and support. Gather as much information as you can. Ask the school for help, advice and action, and be quietly and determinedly persistent if you feel you are not getting it.
Arm yourself with professional guidance – there are many excellent websites which offer advice to parents on issues like bullying, truanting, drugs and self-harm – and ask yourself honestly whether there is anything going on at home that could be contributing to the problem. If you’ve been piling on the pressure for good exam results, you might need to back off. If everyone in the house is over-worked and over-stressed then that might be something to think about as well. As a last resort, you might want to consider whether a move to another school could be helpful.
But extreme situations are rare, and schools are getting much more sophisticated and sympathetic in dealing with them. Meanwhile, most other school problems are like passing showers, disappearing just as quickly as they appear. And, in all probability, the only person who has lost any sleep over them is you!
Hilary Wilce is an education writer, writing tutor and life coach. Her books Backbone: developing the character your child needs to succeed and The Six Secrets of School Success are available on Amazon.
- words: Hilary Wilce
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