Tackling Challenging School Issues

The following is a revised version of an article published in The Geelong Advertiser “Education Guide” supplement on May 13, 2008. Chris Mackey responded to questions put to him by journalist, Margaret Linley, who edited the original article. Additional input has been provided by Laura Capitanio, Child Clinical Psychologist.

As parents we can struggle to know what is the right thing to do if our child encounters seemingly insurmountable problems at their school and is miserable and frustrated. Should we tell them to stick it out or do we transfer them to another school? Is there a right time to bail from a school or are we just teaching our children to run away from their problems?

Chris Mackey, Geelong psychologist, looks at some big issues and discusses way to tackle them.

Bullying
My child is being bullied and excluded from the group. She is no longer happy to go to school and wants to change to another school where she says she will be happy.

  • Your child can gain a lot by attempting to deal with the problem in the current school environment.  Your child can learn additional resources and strategies to tackle such problem issues.  The list below provides a few examples:
  • The child can learn the various channels that are available to voice his/her concerns (such as parents and academic staff).  To achieve an effective outcome, it is important that collaboration between parents, academic staff and the child occurs.  It also informs others (e.g., academic staff) about the problem issue, and indicates that it is being monitored.
  • The child can learn adaptive strategies (with the input from adults) that help build upon his/her own emotional resilience, and strengthen optimism and hope.  Strategies include management of emotional wellbeing and perspective, and encouragement to maintain social networks.  Strategies in conflict resolution and assertiveness via a combination of humour and deflection can be most useful.  These strategies show the child how to respond to such problem issues without avoidance.  These strategies may also help the child attain a greater level of academic achievement, social and emotional wellbeing, and physical health.
  • The child can learn that appropriate assistance and support can be given (as either a school or individual intervention) to identify appropriate and inappropriate behaviours to student peers, and to help create positive change in the school environment.
  • The child can thus learn that it is possible to face such problem issues that may seem insurmountable, and learn strategies for the future. However, there are ongoing risks if the issue continues to be unresolved even after active attempts to address it.  The child can begin to experience a sense of helplessness.  The child’s psychological state may worsen, and he or she may experience a constellation of associated problems including academic and social difficulties (e.g., social withdrawal and disconnection).  It may then be far preferable for the child to attend another school.  The child can learn the constructive lesson that s/he does not have to accept the problem issue indefinitely because active attempts were made to improve it.  It is important to acknowledge that if the child has chosen to attend another school, there would need to need to be ongoing effort from the parents and child to assist the change to be worthwhile.

Strained Teacher-Child Relations
There is a teacher at school who is making my child’s life hell. He no longer wants to go to school and is losing all interest.

If it is an isolated situation (i.e., just one teacher rather than several teachers), discuss with your child about how they approach the class and how they might manage their responsibility for their own behaviours and actions. Your child might then consider strategies to help them be less of a target.

If the difficulty continues, it might be worthwhile to discuss concerns with the teacher and perhaps the principal. This informs others (e.g., the teacher) about the problem issues, and indicates that it is being monitored.

If the negative interaction with the teacher persists but the child has still been able to learn in other classes and interact well with others, then the goal might be to limit (or contain) the negative effects. Encourage your child to accept that all individuals cannot get along well with each other, and that the negative effects are temporary as next year they will have another teacher. It is also important to maintain perspective and balance whereby the child can acknowledge positive aspects in their own life, and that it is a specific dislike of the teacher and not of the particular subject or school itself. This approach can help build upon his/her own emotional resilience.  It is sometimes good to persist with some difficulty because enough appears to be going well at that school; however, if your child has an unwarranted negative reputation from one year to the next, then consideration of the options might lead the child to attend another school.

Failing to Thrive 
My second child is very sporting but because her elder sibling is not, the school overlooks her when it comes to sporting activities. She feels very frustrated and it is starting to impact on her schoolwork.

Often it is important to convey a message to the school. Use a positive approach to highlight to the teacher that the younger sibling is different from the older child; that is, each child have their own talents, interests, and strengths.  Explain that, if the child is given a chance to participate more in sports, there may be improvements in all other areas of the child’s performance.

The child learns that s/he has been heard, and can influence others around them and make a difference to their own world.  It can often be useful to adapt to circumstances that are a bit adverse and then use strategies that attempt to improve it, because this can provide an optimal opportunity to learn; however, if the issue continues even after active attempts to resolve it and the child experiences a range of associated problems (such as withdrawal from learning opportunities and social discouragement), it may be preferable for the child to attend another school.

How to Talk to my Child’s Teacher
What is the best way to approach my child’s teacher when there is a problem causing a lot of concern for us at home?

It is important that there is collaboration between the parents and teacher.  Parents might best approach teachers in a way that says, “I think I have some ways that may make things work better.  My child may be more effective in the classroom if these concerns are taken on board.”

It is important to remember that teachers appreciate knowing because it gives them more chance to attend to that problem issue before it escalates.  Teachers do all they can to work with the child and the approach needs to be a positive experience.

Conclusion
“The first thing for parents to recognise is when you have a choice (e.g., stay or change schools) each with significant consequences, it causes a degree of stress. It is natural for parents to go through a degree of agonising,’’ Mr Mackey says. Perhaps being prepared to agonise on occasion about our children’s welfare is one aspect of good parenting. “However once the choice is made, the aim is to accept it and then work hard to make that decision worthwhile.’’

Summary Suggestions
Any kind of change produces stress so try to work through the least disruptive choices first. If the child can stay at the school with the problem fixed, you have likely reached the best outcome.

Listen closely to your child’s concerns and, especially for older children, involve them actively in any decisions about how you might address a difficult situation whilst letting them know you will not accept an ongoing situation that is seriously affecting their wellbeing. Approach the challenge with a tone of optimism that longer-term acceptable solutions can be found.
Work together with teachers and other involved school staff wherever possible and respect that their view may be informed by a great deal of experience of your child in the school environment. Teachers will also commonly be well motivated to find good solutions for any difficulties your child has at school.

Each decision you make will teach your child a lesson. They can learn a constructive lesson – you don’t have to put up with an intolerable situation indefinitely if you’ve made your best effort to improve with it. Or they might learn ways of avoiding situations and not develop as much resilience.

Use a problem solving approach to making your decision. Seek lots of good information, find out alternatives, and weigh up the costs and benefits. Once the decision is made, accept that it is the best decision you could make at the time, and then work hard to make it work.

There is no right or wrong answer. It’s about weighing up all the options and considering the consequences of each choice.