We all want our child’s school experience to be enriching and enjoyable—after all, by the age of four or five, our kids will be spending most of their time in the classroom. Unfortunately, as most parents know all too well, the school environment is often far from ideal. It’s not that educators don’t have kids’ best interests at heart—they usually do—it’s just that schools are busy, complicated environments where issues frequently slip through the cracks. After all, when you’re dealing with several hundred sets of parents and an incredibly diverse student population, it’s all but impossible to effectively meet everyone’s needs.
This does not, of course, mean that parents shouldn’t hold their child’s school accountable where matters of educational quality and safety are concerned. Instead, parents need to keep their expectations realistic while also developing viable strategies for dealing with their child’s school.
5 Ways to Help Your Child Thrive at School
1. Don’t obstruct your child’s relationship with his (or her) school.
No matter how irritating you find some of your child’s school’s policies (e.g., keeping kids indoors all day when it rains, starting the day too early or too late, etc.), you should never force your child to act against them. Unless his safety or well-being is truly at stake, you should keep your disagreements with the school’s policies between you and the school. Doing otherwise will not only encourage your child to act out of line at school, it will mark him as being “different” from his peers. This paves the way for bullying and exclusion.
On the other hand, if you feel your child really is at risk of harm, there’s only one viable solution: Change schools altogether in the event that your child’s current school will not work with you to correct outstanding health, education, or safety issues.
2. Advocate for your child.
While you should never drag your child into your disagreements with his school, you absolutely should fight in his corner when he needs you. This doesn’t mean you ought to take his side on every issue he presents, of course. Most children don’t wish to do homework, for instance, or accept any consequences whatsoever for their bad behaviour, so parents need to exercise due discretion and pick their battles wisely. However, if you believe that your child is being discriminated against unfairly (e.g., you feel he may have a learning disability, but a teacher is calling him “lazy” rather than being supportive), then it’s your job to advocate for your child’s rights. Furthermore, you should let your child know that you don’t agree with the unfair accusations or policies being thrown his way. (Remind him that it’s important to treat his teacher respectfully regardless, however.)
3. Always take bullying seriously.
The sad fact is that many of us were teased at some point when we were children; as such, we see this kind of experience as being “normal.” Many parents therefore brush off reports that their child is being mocked or harassed, unless the bullying becomes physical and severe. They usually tell their child that teasing is nothing to “worry about” and suggest that he should work on growing a thicker skin. However, while this advice is meant kindly, it almost always makes the child in question feel isolated and invalidated.
No two children are the same, and therefore no two reactions to bullying are the same. You may have been able to accept verbal harassment when you were younger, but that’s no guarantee that your child won’t be deeply wounded by the same thing. Numerous factors go into how well kids cope with teasing: How sensitive the child is, how healthy his self-esteem is, how strong his peer support network is, etc. The only way you can know for sure how much teasing is impacting your child is by assessing how strongly he feels about it. This begins with offering to do something about the problem and listening actively before giving advice. You can then either equip your child with anti-bullying strategies or reach out to the school for assistance.
If you decide to help your child develop anti-bullying tactics, make sure they’re based on effective conflict resolution methods. Teaching your child to simply “hit back” may escalate the problem, sometimes to dangerous levels. Ignoring bullying altogether also tends to have this effect (because bullies wish to provoke a reaction and will often go to greater and greater lengths to do so). Ultimately, your child will need to find a viable middle ground between these two extremes.
Most experts recommend that children remain calm and do their best to appear confident when confronted with a bully (i.e., they should maintain eye contact and smile). Additionally, rather than disagreeing with the bully’s taunts, it’s often more effective for the child to try changing the subject. Getting to know a bit about the bully can be helpful, here: If your child can tap into his (or her) interests and establish common ground, he may be able to strike up a rapport with the bully.
When it comes to cyber-bullying, there are slightly different prevention strategies, read more on this here.
4. Let your child choose his friends.
Sooner or later, your child is probably going to strike up a friendship with someone you don’t like—perhaps even his former antagonist, if his anti-bullying tactics work well. While you may (understandably) worry that children like these will be a “bad influence,” intervening in your child’s friendships is the last thing you want to do. Not only will interfering in your child’s relationships put him at risk of further bullying and exclusion, you’ll deny him the opportunity to learn how to judge people for himself. Painful though it is at times, we need to let our kids make their own mistakes; otherwise, they will never figure out how to avoid making that same mistake again in the future.
What you can do, however, is give your child a set of strong core values. These values will serve as a compass, guiding your child’s decisions and helping him separate the wheat from the chaff where friends are concerned.
5. Don’t put too much pressure on your child to succeed academically.
Most kids need a bit of encouragement to stay disciplined when it comes to studying for tests and doing homework, particularly when they’re younger. At the same time, however, it’s vital to understand that your child already wants to get good grades, even if his executive functioning skills aren’t always well-developed enough to keep him on track.
Kids face immense social pressure from their peers when it comes to academic performance. No one wants to fail a test and risk being called “stupid,” after all. When parents compound this stress by adding too much pressure of their own, they can actually put their child at risk of under-performing at school. Their children often develop such an intense fear of failure that they either self-sabotage (e.g., being so scared to take an upcoming test that they don’t want to think about it at all and delay studying until the last minute) or they lose interest in school altogether. Some children begin to believe that if they don’t care about school, failing can’t hurt them—even though deep down, they still experience the sting of rejection.
As a parent, you need to help your child find a balance between self-discipline and realism. You should help him stay on task so that he has a better overall chance of success, but you should make sure he knows that academic achievement is not the “be all and end all” of one’s life. Your child needs to know that he will be okay—and moreover, that you will still love him—no matter what happens. Likewise, you should make sure he has at least one extracurricular activity that he excels at, whether it’s a creative hobby or playing a sport. This will help him maintain a sense of achievement even when he’s struggling academically.
Dealing with your child’s school will be challenging at times, even if you arm yourself with the best mediation strategies. With that being said, however, maintaining a strong relationship with your child can help you both survive the school experience not only emotionally intact, but closer than you were before it. As you face adversity alongside your child, you and your child will grow together—and this is one of the most enriching forms of learning there is.
Author: Rachel Cohen
This is a guest post by Toronto psychotherapist Rachel Cohen. You can follow Rachel on Twitter at @RachiieCohen