The stressful transition from summer vacation to the new school year is behind us but the struggles aren't necessarily over.
Our kids may show us in a number of ways that they are experiencing challenges at school. Some of these will be obvious (yelling, throwing things, reprimands by school staff, letters or notes in the communication book from the teacher). These deserve attention of course, but also look for more subtle changes in your child’s sleep patterns, energy level, time spent with friends, interest in their regular activities, or ability to complete homework.
Talk to your child
Get to the specifics of what’s going on. Here are some questions to consider:
- Is the work too tough?
- What work?
- Are peer relationships challenging?
- With whom?
- When are things going well?
- What days?
I am not suggesting you pepper your child with questions as soon as they walk in the door. How to talk with your child is such a big issue for so many parents that we’ll explore it more in-depth in a future post, but for now my tip is that conversations work best when they are reciprocal. Get your child talking about something (anything!) so that you get a back-and-forth dialogue going.
Depending on your relationship with your child, and/or the severity of the issue, it may take many days or weeks of just this shared dialogue before you can address your concerns. Car rides can be an especially good time to lay this foundation. It’s often easier for everyone if your eyes aren’t locked on one another while you chat. Be supportive, not dismissive when your child tells you what’s up. If you don’t understand, as more questions. Be open and tell them you’re trying to understand better.
Talk to the school staff
While you’re busy supporting your child, talk with someone who will listen and support you – it could be the teacher, guidance counsellor, vice principal, principal, or school social worker.
These conversations can be varying degrees of uncomfortable or challenging depending on the issue. Use your “customer service voice” to ensure interactions are positive and focused on shared goals. For example, you and the school staff both want your child to get an education and to be a functioning member of the school system. Keep in mind that the way that person talks to you might be foreshadowing how they talk to your child – good or not so good.
Everyone has rights, including you and your child. Organize a meeting with all those involved if possible, rather than waiting for ‘meet the teacher night’. Has the teacher read your child’s IEP? Do they understand it? Are the recommendations being carried out? Keep in mind that teachers have so many students with so many diverse needs, that they may need your help to bring to light what your child’s specific needs are. While that may be true, there is truth to the phrase “fair isn’t equal”. You are the expert on your child and you are their advocate to ensure their needs are met in the classroom. Give them as balanced a perspective as possible and provide the teacher with the information they need. The teacher may have read your child’s student record (for better or for worse) and they may have talked to another teacher (again, this could be great or not so great). Remember that you are collaborating with the teacher for shared goal.
Access supports outside the school
School staff can have varying degrees of knowledge about what services and supports to access. Child and youth mental health organizations exist in nearly every region now and can help with a variety of issues. Don’t let the “mental health” term scare you. Children and youth can access brief, walk-in, and short-term counselling for issues relating to problems with peers, family conflict, relationships, behaviour and more.
Focus on more than academics
For some parents, this statement brings about panic and anxiety. The fact is that school is about more than just academic achievements. We want our children to develop many different skills including independence, social skills, problem solving, responsibility, regulation of attention, emotional intelligence, flexibility, etc.
Focus on what things beyond academic learning motivate your child to attend school. Find ways for them to participate in the school community however they can. This is especially meaningful for teens who thrive on being part of a social network. High schools and middle schools have opportunities like clubs, groups, sports teams, committees, and bands that can help nourish out young people’s sense of belonging, keep them busy, and avoiding trouble.
Keep your worries in check
A few failed math tests won’t stop your child from getting into university. Hitting other children during circle time in kindergarten doesn’t mean your child has anger issues and will join a gang. It may sound silly but these are the kinds of worries parents have when things get rough.
Although it may look bleak, most children’s challenges with school are short-lived, and with the right supports and strategies, over time even the most challenging kids will grow to be successful, educated, contributing members of society. One of the wonderful things about children is that they grow, mature, and change quickly. The neuroplasticity of their developing brains often means that the challenges they are experiencing now could be a thing of the past in just a few months. Keep this in mind when you’re being called to pick up your suspended child, or signing a failed test.
Even if you are dealing with a teen who is repeating a year, or facing the prospect of not graduating, keep in mind that many successful people have taken the “roundabout” route to education. Keep your expectations in check and talk with your child about their realistic goals and how to attain them.
I have met children and families dealing with some of the most challenging issues, and there is always hope and something that can help right now to make a positive change. It can be helpful to tell our kids that we hear them, we’re listening and we are going to take action to help them. Allow your child to metaphorically hand over the problem to you. You can say “thanks for telling me that. Now I know, and we’re going to work together to make it better”. If it’s something your child has been dealing with or thinking about for a while, giving them hope might be just what they need right now.