School struggles: What should parents do?

It happens from time to time that a child starts coming home from school with unfavourable reports on their day. They may not gel particularly well with their teacher. They may be having issues with friends or perhaps they’re encountering a bully. It may be cross-country season and your child is perhaps not a fan of the school’s ‘everyone gives it a go’ policy. Whatever the issue, sometimes kids drag their feet to school and later bring home backpacks overflowing with confronting emotions.

School is a key part of childhood, and thus parenting, so we have an entire school and learning hub on our website. In this article we’ll take a look at some of the challenges kids may face, and what parents can do to help.

Teacher vs Student

Sometimes a student simply doesn’t get on that well with a teacher. There could be several reasons for the clash, and there are definitely two sides to every tale! It’s tough when your child doesn’t seem happy with their teacher, but like so many school reports say – there’s always room for improvement!

Firstly, prioritise hearing your child’s version of events. You’re their best mediator – which is ideally demonstrated by listening and empathising, rather than leaping into the classroom and jumping to conclusions.

Help your child define the problem. With some gentle probing, “She doesn’t like me” may be articulated more meaningfully as “She gets frustrated with me when I’m slow at my maths exercises.” Which in turn can illuminate an issue that could be addressed with a conversation with the teacher, some maths support at home or some extra tutoring.

If there are any problems in classrooms, teachers really do want to know about them. Making an appointment (ie not broaching an issue right on bell time when they’re trying to settle 25 excited kids) to talk to your child’s teacher is a really productive step, especially when you take the stance of wanting to gain understanding so you can help more constructively. Teaching can be a challenging and thankless role, so coming in with loads of grace and appreciation (as opposed to criticism and complaints) really, truly helps.

If you have the time, volunteering to help at school or on a field trip is a wonderful way to glean insights into classroom dynamics and teaching styles. We’re not encouraging espionage by any stretch, but helping out is a powerful gesture of support for both teachers and students, and a great pathway for building relationships with staff.

Lots of seemingly big problems can be helped with simple conversations. If our children can depend on us for advocacy, and their teachers can depend on us for support rather than critique, our child’s classroom experience can be transformed. That’s not to say there is never a case to go further up the school hierarchy if you’re concerned about your child’s wellbeing. Schools have formal complaint procedures in place and information should be accessible on their websites.

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Friends and Foes

It’s helpful to have ongoing conversations with our kids about friendship issues and bullying in general terms, before any issues arise. Relationship problems can pop up at any time for kids, so prepping them with a bit of insider knowledge and self-awareness before they’re faced with a tension is an effective strategy. This article, How to talk about: Standing up to bullies reminds us of the value of establishing  family ‘rules’ – the code of conduct that underpins who you are as a family and the type of people you are raising your kids to be. Conversations like this can equip our kids to recognise unacceptable behaviour amongst their peers and give them tools to push back, rather than accept the status quo and fall into sheep formation. Our schools need young people who can bravely counter the behaviour of bullies and the family unit is a vital training ground for this sort of character development.

Bullying is very distressing for a child of any age, and rightly so. Our priority as parents is to let our children know that we are on their side and will take them seriously. We are their safe person and they can come to us with any concerns.

If your child is being bullied, your first job is to listen. Let your child know that this is a valid concern – any type of bullying behaviour is unacceptable. Reassure them that it is not their fault and encourage them that you will work together to resolve this problem. Ask your child what they want you to do to help. They may already have some ideas. And then it is important to report bullying to the school. Explain to your child that this doesn’t mean they’re going to be outed as a ‘nark’, but that reporting any bullying is important for everyone’s safety. Reporting on what’s happening takes courage, so remind your child that they are being really brave in talking about it, and their bravery means that more kids – including the bully – will be helped in the long run.

Gather up the facts and make an appointment to talk to your child’s teacher. Schools take bullying very seriously and your child’s school will have procedures in place for handling these issues and looking after the interests of all the students involved.

Regularly check in with your child on how they’re feeling and keep an eye on their behaviour, following up with the school if required. Contact the Police if bullying ever involves criminal behaviour or is a threat to your child’s safety in the community rather than in school.

School’s dumb, I don’t want to go

Kids digging their toes in about going school is a tricky one to navigate. It can be frustrating for parents, especially when the defiant behaviour really heats up two minutes before you’re supposed to be in the car! In the moment, the best strategy is to calmly stick to the routine of getting everyone out the door, without entering into a complex negotiation.

“Everyone is going to school or work today, and tonight we’re having hamburgers for tea.”

Later on, perhaps over hamburgers, open up the conversation about school and try a few leading questions – chances are there will be some underlying issues that have cast a shadow over your child’s school experience. Try not to panic – it could actually be that next week’s cross-country race has tipped your child’s world upside down. Or it could be something more concerning – hence the need for a gentle line of questioning.

Parents to the rescue

As parents, we don’t need to fix everything for our kids. There are aspects of school that will test the mettle of a child (cross-country running, for example!), but that’s actually a good thing. Pushing beyond our comfort zones into things that challenge us, physically and emotionally, can be healthy for our development as capable and resilient humans.

Positioning ourselves as a reliable listening ear, rather than a superhero who swoops in to save the day, is the ideal way to support our kids. As we listen with empathy, and gently guide our kids towards some strategies and solutions, we’re empowering them to problem-solve for themselves. 

Pause, Hold and Engage

Let’s be honest, all of the responses suggested above are probably easier said than done. And all of them are best outworked from a place of calm – which is definitely easier said than done! But staying calm is key when it comes to supporting our kids through struggles at school. They are looking to us and will model their own responses on ours. Calm breeds calm – in other words, calm parents raise calm children.

Panic and anxiety are understandable responses when a parent sees their precious child hurting. Our brilliant brains are wired to actively respond to threatening situations. Mama and Papa Bear are ready and willing to fight for their cubs! Attack mode is not that productive though, and when our kids are resisting their education, a calm and constructive response from Mum and Dad is required. Step in Pause, Hold and Engage.

Pause, Hold, Engage is a simple phrase we can use to bring our brain’s threat level down, help our prefrontal cortex to do the work it was designed to do (think strategically!) and, in the process, make sure we practise some empathy and self-compassion. We can use it to calm our brain when we feel overwhelmed and it is also useful as an ongoing tool to check-in with ourselves. (And yes, we can teach our kids to Pause, Hold and Engage too – equally helpful!)

  • Pause
    Pause is about stopping and taking a slow, deep breath (or 3 or 10). Oxygen is a gift to the brain and nervous system and a very quick and effective way to calm things down a bit.
  • Hold
    When we ‘hold’, we gather information about ourselves and our surroundings. We use ‘hold’ to notice our thoughts and feelings based on the situation we’re in. Once we have that information, we can use it to better understand what’s happening, and we can formulate a plan with empathy and compassion. To do this, try asking yourself the following questions:

    • What is happening for me right now?
    • What is happening around me?
    • How does that make me feel?
  • Engage
    Once we’re calm and our self-care is activated, we can ‘engage’ our constructive ideas and put them into action.


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About Author

Linde-Marie Amersfoort

Linde-Marie is our Child and Family Psychologist at Parenting Place. On top of her clinical practice work, she also works in our research team developing and evaluating our parenting programmes. She is Christchurch-based and in her free-time loves to explore the Port Hills and surrounding areas. Linde-Marie has a blog where she shares her thoughts and experiences on parenting her two teenage children. You can email Linde-Marie at lindemarie.amersfoort@parentingplace.nz or read her blog here.

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