Parenting a child who struggles with school – Homework, anxiety, behaviour and exclusions.
Parenting a child who is struggling with school can be desperately difficult, and worrying. Not every child simply trundles into school each day, completes their work and comes home full of stories about their day. Some children really, really struggle.
Children can, and do develop a range of difficulties around school, which can leave you, the parent, feeling anxious.
You might be fearful about them not reaching their potential. About how they are going to manage the big wide world if they can’t manage school. Or, you might be facing exclusion, and be anxious about what their future looks like.
Whatever your concern is, parenting a child who is struggling at school means you’ll need to adapt some strategies to support them to manage their fears, their behaviours and most importantly- to keep their self-esteem in tact.
Let’s break down some of the more common issues you may face if you are parenting a child who is struggling with school.
Children start school at different ages, depending where you live. However, not every child is actually ready for school when they reach the age of enrolment.
In some countries, the age you ‘have’ to start differs from the age you are encouraged to. But parents are not always aware of this, and when told it’s time to enrol their tiny tot into a reception year, they assume this is not optional.
When you receive your letter, check what the legal requirement is. Many countries offer a programme before the legal age at which your child must be in school. If this is the case, ask yourself – is your child actually ready? Or, are they a child who is not yet comfortable in being away from you. It is also difficult, but important to choose the decision right for your child. You may be exhausted from toddler raising, and looking forward to the next stage – but rushing children at this age causes stress factors, which can lead to anxiety. Slow and steady builds security.
In the UK children don’t actually ‘have’ to start school until the term after their 5th birthday. Yet, it is common to see children who are only just 4 going into reception year. Sadly, some of these children are just not ready yet, and need that additional year to mature enough to cope with the demands of a school environment.
I have dealt with children who were not even legally required to be at school yet, being excluded. This could have been avoided with a little more transparency around what was expected, and possible.
If your child does have to be at school, but is not coping, don’t be afraid to ask the school about reduced timetables. This is not something schools like to do, because it affects their attendance records, and outcomes – but your child’s needs are more important than school data. They are legally allowed to reduce timetables to meet the emotional needs of each individual child.
When parents tell me they are parenting a child who struggles with school – often homework is a battle!
I frequently hear:
- I can’t support them, the work is so different from when I was at school
- They won’t do it without a fight
- We struggle to fit it in
- There’s so much!
These are some pretty valid issues, and ones which cause a lot of stress for some families.
It’s really important to get to the root cause for the difficulty. Is it that they find the work too hard, and don’t have a teacher to ask? That they don’t fully understand what they are meant to be producing? Could it be that it’s being done when they are too tired, too escalated from another activity – or too distracted by other options? Is what is being set, right for their level, or needs if they have them?
If the work is fine, but your child doesn’t want to do it – you can set up a clear system.
It’s done at this time, on these days, for this long. Afterwards free time is given.
It is better to have several small homework sessions than one big one. Concentration spans for children and young people are shorter than you might think. I personally believe that 20 minutes is the optimum time for a single task, but you will know your child better. Some work well on 5 minute ‘blasts’, others can sit for an hour. As your child gets older, and homework becomes ‘study’, their times will need to increase. This is a good reason to put an effective schedule in earlier in their school life, so when the demands increase, they are already working effectively.
If they have been set a piece of work they are struggling with, help them to break it down. The smaller the pieces, the easier the task.
For example: If your child has been asked to write a 500 word essay, break it down like this:
- Write a 100 word introduction about the topic, and what you are going to cover
- Write a 200 words about the topics, facts and figures.
- Write 100 words about your opinions on the topic
- Write 100 words summarising what you have written so far
This way the child only deals with 1 task at a time, and feels more capable and competent to achieve this goal.
If you are parenting a child who struggles with school, and you think the homework being set is not achievable, or, the quantity is so great that they simply cannot get it done within impacting on their wellbeing – talk to the school.
Depending where you are there are varying approaches to homework. In the USA you can apply for a 504 – which means if your child has additional needs, homework must be set in accordance with their ability to complete it. In the UK we do not have this legislation, so you may need to work on building a collaborative approach. If the school are unwilling to adjust the quantity, can they offer a lunch or after school club where some of it can be done with support?
Some schools have a common sense approach, and can see when adaptation is needed. Other stick so rigidly to their policies they cannot see the damaging effect this issue has on engagement and enjoyment of learning.
If you struggle to support your child due to the level of the work, or how different it is to what you know – there is a positive way to manage this.
Don’t say “well I can’t even do that” – you are setting your child up to feel like it’s an impossible task.
In stead, tell them how much education has changed since you were at school, and offer to research together. Researching together teaches them important skills for self study, and you are likely to learn something new yourself too!
Some children find school so challenging, they develop anxiety about attending.
This can be due to the environment, the academic expectations, overbearing behaviour policies, peer situations, or just because they are not particularly fond of spending hours a day sitting with a lot of other people.
Whatever the cause of school anxiety, the result is a difficult one. School is pretty unavoidable – unless home-schooling is an option for your family – so your child may HAVE to spend every day in this environment they do not enjoy.
This is why it is SO important that school anxiety is managed carefully.
If your child is becoming anxious about school, try to pinpoint what it is about school which is causing the problem. However, bear in mind that your child may well not know this. For them, this might just be an intense emotions they experience when at school.
It is likely that the feeling is a fear based one – but it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint what it is they are fearful of. It’s important to remember, that sometimes what we are fearful of is actually a feeling.
Building clear images of how to mange certain situations can help. When a child has a fear about something happening, you can talk through what that would feel like, how they could manage that situation if it did happen, and what support they think they would need. Sometimes having a plan reduces the fear.
It is advisable to work on seeing the positives, as well as the challenges. Asking your child what the best bit was helps them to acknowledge that maybe it’s not ALL terrible.
If you are parenting a child who struggles with school, and anxiety is present, always consult with your doctors. They may not have an immediate solution, but if you need them later down the line you may be further up the waiting list.
You can find some really useful advice on supporting your child with school anxiety on the Young Minds website
Parenting a child who struggles with school behaviour:
Some children who are struggling with school show us how they feel through challenging behaviours. And, some schools are great at supporting them with this. Others, not so much!
If your child is breaking rules at school, time for a chat about what they were feeling when they made that decision.
Some naughtiness is to be expected – children are children and I would worry if they NEVER broke the rules!
They may not be able to tell you why they are doing that, but a well training coach or family practitioner can help your child learn about emotions, and how they impact their behaviours, as well as offering strategies to help them develop better choices.
Be mindful of being too involved, or not involved enough with the school. Sounds complicated! Let me expand on that.
If you trust the school your child is at, they have a good behaviour policy and treat the children fairly, and with support at the core of their ethos – you can be Switzerland. Allowing your child to experience the ‘natural consequences of their actions’. Often these take the form of detentions, menial tasks and ‘restorative actions’ (actions which fix the problem they created). These are healthy, and effective, when used with enough support around emotional development and meeting needs. This is ideal, because it allows you to back the school in dealing with inappropriate behaviour.
Sadly not all schools are equal, and not all are good at meeting the emotional needs of children in a way which supports learning to do better. If you genuinely feel that your child’s school is making decisions which are detrimental to creating better behaviour, I would suggest that you review their behaviour policy. Learn about their approach and then arrange a meeting to discuss your child’s needs, and how they could better support them.
Be very mindful of stepping in to back up your child too much. There are times you may not agree with the school’s decision, but try to discuss this with them away from the awareness of your child. This is for several reasons:
- There will be times your child absolutely did break the rules with total awareness, and natural consequences will help them learn. Protecting our children from these is not effective, can make things worse.
- Backing your child visibly, or verbally confirming that you don’t agree with the rules, is highly empowering for a child, and not necessarily in a positive way.
- Your child’s behaviour may actually worsen, as they build a belief that because you do not agree with the behaviour policy, the rules do not apply for them.
It is important to remember that a school will be dealing with hundreds, if not thousands of children every day. It is essential to have ‘blanket rules’ to keep everyone safe. What you need is some care in ‘how’ they communicate and enforce these rules in a way which is positive for your child. If your goal is to make the school change the rules for your child, you are likely to worsen the problem rather than help it.
If you are parenting a child who struggles with school behaviour, and things have reached the point of exclusions, you are likely to be getting very anxious about the future.
Schools use exclusions to manage highly challenging behaviour, and keep pupils safe.
Exclusions can be temporary, or permanent. Depending on the ongoing behaviour, or, the severity of an action.
Temporary, or fixed term exclusions:
Temporary exclusions are used by schools to show a child that they have seriously overstepped the behavioural boundary. They are also used to create a situation of safety.
For example, if two children get into a fight, an exclusion can offer both a chance to calm down before they deal with the issue.
However when used to enforce a certain type of behaviour, they are reasonably ineffective in my opinion. There are some children who will receive one exclusion, and never behave that way again. But, these are not the majority, and if an exclusion didn’t work the first time – it is unlikely to work if applied multiple times.
Unfortunately – once an exclusion has been given, it is very difficult for the school to then change tactic. The school and the child then become locked in an ineffective situation where neither are actually getting what they need. Once a child starts getting rejected, they often just push for rejection as a self-validating way of proving they are ‘bad’ or ‘have little worth’
Occasionally a child will use behaviour to get an exclusion because their anxiety is so bad they will do anything to get out. Their fear based reactions can look like aggressive behaviour – and need a high level of nurture and support to feel safe at school, not exclusion.
I have worked with schools who do not exclude – and instead provide a nurture zone to support children who’s behaviours are challenging. These are my favourite kind, and I wish every school followed this approach.
If your child is getting temporary, or fixed term exclusions, talk to the school about what ‘else’ they are doing to actually manage the root cause of the behaviour.
Make sure when your child is off, you don’t make it too cosy. The school is responsible for sending them home with work, so during school hours, continue applying a school routine and make them do it. A child who is allowed to sleep in, watch telly all day and snack on the contents of your fridge – is going to find it hard to reflect on their behaviour. Let’s be honest, if that was the case I’d quite like to get excluded from work please – a duvet day is a treat!
If your child persistently gets temporary exclusions, they may end up with a permanent one if things don’t get better. A school who do not have a nurture zone may exclude for persistent breaking of behaviour policy, or being so disruptive it stops other children from learning.
It is also possible for a child to get excluded for a single incident. Some schools have ‘zero-tolerance’ policies on some behaviours, and will exclude immediately and permanently if these behaviours happen. Common zero-tolerance topics are:
- Attacks on staff
If your child has committed an offence in these categories there may be little you can do except work with the school and the local authority to find a new educational provider.
Whatever the reason for permanent exclusion, your child will need some support. Being excluded from your community is highly damaging emotionally, and creates a issue around self esteem, and sometimes around feeling safe. Moving to a new school can be frightening, especially if your child doesn’t know anyone. They are also starting with a ‘label’ which can draw them straight into the peer group which will not support making better choices in the future.
Sadly when children are excluded it doesn’t tend to come with the support needed. Children who are experimenting with drugs need educating, and support. Those carrying weapons are likely to be feeling extreme fear, or be involved in dangerous situations. If a child has attacked a member of staff they are clearly struggling to manage their emotions.
For you, the parent, permanent exclusion can be really frightening. You may find yourself worrying about whether your child will be able to get a decent education, how you are going to work with your child not at school. You might worry about what other people think, or whether this is somehow your fault. Make sure you get support for you! Whether that is a trusted friend to talk to, or professional guidance, it is vital you are able to stay calm and focused on moving forward.
Avoid voicing your fears to your child. This will only worsen the internal anxiety they feel around their exclusion. Don’t tell them that they’ve ruined their future. You may feel worried about that, but there are plenty of ‘excluded children’ who go on to have perfectly good lives and careers. I have worked with many, and I am one myself.
The biggest message I can give you is to seek support for your child. Children do not get permanently excluded without some underlying issues.
Not meeting need:
A school who cannot meet the needs of a pupil, because of SEN, mental
health or additional needs, may end up excluding for behaviour as the situation gets worse. This is extremely frustrating for you, the parent. However, as your child is legally entitled to a ‘suitable’ education, this is sometimes the catalyst to a local authority finding a more specialist placement for your child.
In an ideal world it would never reach the point of exclusion. These children are not ‘being bad’. They are responding to an incorrect approach being used with them.
If this is the case, get in touch with your local authority immediately and start the process of finding another school. Do not wait for your authority to do all the work. As sad as it makes me to say this, you will get father faster if you are politely persistent.
In most countries, and certainly in the UK, you can appeal against a decision to exclude. If your child has been excluded for persistent low level behaviour I always advise you do this. The process is free, for you. Just be mindful that in the UK, if you win the appeal your child must return to that school. Some parents don’t feel they can trust the school with their child again.
Parenting a child who struggles with school – what about you?
When you are the parent who get’s constant calls from the school, has difficulty keeping your child engaged in learning – or is facing ongoing issues around exclusion – it is likely you will feel pretty worn down at times.
All you want, is to be able to send your child off to get an education, and have faith that they will be ok, and that they will be kind to others,
Try to remember that our education systems are for the most part a one size fits all model – which doesn’t fit all. Some kids will struggle hugely, others will not. If your child is one who struggles, this does not mean they are ‘bad’, it means they are finding it hard to cope.
If you are parenting a child who struggles with school, talk to them openly, and without judgement about their difficulties, and about their behaviour at school. A child who feels comfortable enough to tell you ‘why’ they are struggling is easier to support. They won’t do this if you go nuclear at the mention of any school based behaviours, or issues.
There are many highly successful people who found school terribly hard, so remember this is a chapter of their life, not the entire book.