How to Help Your Kids When Things Are Going Wrong at School
No matter how good the school, or how capable your child, there are times when things may go wrong in some way during their time in secondary education.
Whether it’s an academic issue or a social one, as a parent, you will naturally want to know what you can do to help. There may be times when you feel powerless; in such times, it’s your supportive presence that makes the biggest difference to your child. But there are almost always practical things you can do too, so don’t despair. This article takes you through some of the common things that can go wrong at school, and what you can do to help.
Coping with their workload and exam stress
When your child is working towards GCSEs and A-levels, there’s no escaping the fact that they’re going to have a mountain of work to get through – particularly in the immediate run-up to exams, when the pressure will almost inevitably get to even the brightest of students. There’s a lot to be learned, across many subjects, and there will be times when your child may feel incapable of coping with everything. This may make them short-tempered, and trying to intervene can sometimes make the situation worse for them, because they may feel pestered. The key is to try to be understanding, even if their stress makes them lash out at you. It’s also a good idea to make sure that you’re not inadvertently putting pressure on them to achieve top grades through the things you say; rather than saying, “I know you’re going to get an A*”, focus instead on acknowledging that you know they’ll do their best.
There are a couple of practical things you can do to help, too – or at least offer to do, so that they know that the help is there if they want it.
Helping your child to understand the concept of time management is a good way to assist them in getting a handle on their workload. Try sitting down together and writing down a ‘To Do’ list of everything they need to get done. Write the deadlines next to each one, figure out how long each thing will take to do, and then help them prioritise and map out when they’re going to allocate time for each item. Having gone through this process with you, they can then apply the same principles as they go along.
Make sure they have the right resources and environment
Ask them if there’s anything you can provide in the way of resources – books, technology, stationery, study space, study materials, and so on – that would help them work more efficiently. Also, make sure that they have somewhere quiet to work, where they won’t be disturbed by household noise, such as younger siblings or the television. Make sure that their siblings leave them alone to work in peace. Provide regular snacks and drinks, so that they feel they’re being taken care of and supported.
Problems within their friendship group
An awkward faux pas; an unfortunate rumour; not being invited to someone’s party: problems within a friendship group are a universal experience for teenagers, and it’s difficult as a parent to watch them going through this because there’s very little you can do to help. Parental intervention is hardly going to help the situation, and is inappropriate except in the most severe circumstances (bullying, for example – see below). What you can do is to provide a supportive presence and let them know that you’re there for them to talk to about a problem if they need to. They may not believe you when you say that you were a teenager once and know what it’s like, but you could try to provide some reassurance that what seems a big issue now will quickly be forgotten. Hormones make teenagers overreact to things, making them feel as though a problem is the end of the world, when of course you know it isn’t. Try to deal with them sympathetically and patiently, and don’t, whatever you do, laugh at their expense.
Bullying comes in many shapes and sizes, and it can be hard to detect. Your child may not want to tell you that they’re being bullied for fear that you will intervene and make the situation worse; the bully may have warned them not to go to you about it and may have threatened reprisals. The key to detecting this issue is to watch for behaviour changes in your child. A normally outgoing, happy child who becomes withdrawn and seems persistently down may be experiencing bullying. Try to talk to your child about what’s bothering them, leading gently into the question as to whether they’re having any problems at school if you get the impression that this may be the case. It’s important that they understand that they don’t have to suffer in silence. If it transpires that bullying is at the root of their behaviour change, it’s time to get their school involved. Talk to a teacher – perhaps their head of year – and include your child in the discussion. It’s important to agree a concrete course of action rather than keeping it vague; if the teacher tries to keep it vague, push them to agree what action they’re going to take, and book another meeting after an agreed amount of time has lapsed, at which you can review the situation to see if it has improved.
Another form of bullying has arisen as a result of the internet, and it’s called cyberbullying. Again, this can take many forms: it could be sending your child abusive messages, spreading online rumours or horrible photographs of your child, hijacking their online identity (pretending to be them), and so on. This one is even harder to put a stop to, and it’s all the more hurtful for the fact that it allows bullies to target children in their own homes via the internet. Given that most teenagers now have smartphones and can access the internet (as well as text messages and other messaging apps) wherever they are, it means that they’re theoretically prone to bullying 24 hours a day, seven days a week, no matter where they are. Watch out for warning signs such as your child quickly hiding their computer screen or phone when you come into the room; the behaviour change we mentioned earlier is also a giveaway that something like this could be troubling them. If it transpires that it’s someone from school who’s doing the bullying, you should take the same course of action as you would for any other kind of bullying at school: involve their teachers.
At the same time, as a matter of routine, it’s important to educate your children on the dangers of the internet and help them understand how to deal with cyberbullying. You’ll need to understand this yourself if you’re to help them, so try signing up for the social networks you know they’re a member of and familiarise yourself with how to block and report bullies. You can also check out online resources such as the NSPCC for advice on tackling cyberbullying.
Problems with teachers
A bad relationship with a teacher can result in your child disliking a particular subject and therefore not doing as well at it as they should. It might be that your child has taken a disliking to a particular teacher, or, less often, that the teacher has taken a disliking to your child. It’s important to get both sides of the story in situations like this. If it’s affecting their studies, talk to your child about what they perceive to be the problem, and then talk privately with the teacher in question. You might find out that your child has been disruptive in class without your knowledge, and that the teacher is at their wits’ end; in which case it’s time for a talk with your child. If your child is convinced that a teacher is discriminating against them, and having talked to the teacher you can find no good reason why, it’s time to take it higher: talk to the headmaster about your concerns and agree a course of action (and ask for a follow-up meeting to learn the outcome of that action).
If your child is at boarding school, homesickness is likely to be an issue at some point. If you’ve approached sending them to boarding school in the right way, talking through the decision with them and allowing your input, they shouldn’t be feeling as though you’ve abandoned them, but that doesn’t mean that they might not still miss their home comforts – and you – from time to time. The best thing you can do to let them know that you miss them too and that you’re thinking of them is to communicate regularly with them. Write to them, talk to them on the phone, send them parcels of treats to show that you care. And give them something to look forward to for the holidays by including them in plans for how you’ll spend the holidays together.
Health problems can impact on your child’s academic performance and enjoyment of school, and their health is something you’ll need to monitor closely so that you can step in to help when needed. It could be as simple-sounding as a persistent cough, or it could be something more serious, but chronic health problems can have a major impact on their studies. Your intervention may be as simple as ensuring that they wrap up warm in the winter, but here are some other things to be aware of and to know how to tackle.
A healthy diet
Ensuring that your children are eating healthily is part of monitoring their health. The problem is that when they’re at school you have no way of knowing what they’re eating. You could be giving them healthy packed lunches, but they could be binning them when they get to school and spending their pocket money on unhealthy snacks instead, particularly when they get to Sixth Form and have a bit more freedom to go out to the shops. All you can really do is to educate them on the importance of a good diet and set a good example for them at home. They may not want to listen to you, but they’ll come round to your way of thinking one day – even if it isn’t until long after they’ve left school behind.
Eating disorders and self-harming
These two issues are increasingly common, particularly among teenage girls, although they’re not unheard of in boys. Both present major and potentially life-threatening problems, for which you should seek professional advice immediately if you spot tell-tale signs, such as a change of behaviour around food, or always covering up their arms to disguise self-inflicted wounds. Your teenager may not appreciate your intervention, but you can’t just ignore it and hope that it will go away. A doctor is the first port of call, and they can then refer your child to seek the psychological help they need. They will also be able to advise you on what you can do to support your child through these problems.
What happens when the only solution is to move schools?
If you’ve tried everything you can to help improve a school-related situation, and there’s really nothing else you can do, you may find yourself in the unfortunate position of having to find a new school. It’s important to involve your child in this process rather than suddenly announcing one day that you’re moving them to another school. Regardless of what problems have led to this decision to move, they will almost certainly have some close friends at the school, and they’ll be familiar with the environment and teachers. Moving schools is always an upheaval, and settling into a new one can be daunting – not to mention disruptive, particularly if it happens mid-term or mid-year. You’ll have to time it carefully to ensure minimum disruption to your child’s education, bearing in mind that different schools may select different set texts for crucial exams.
Visit schools with your child so that they get to see them for themselves, and give them the chance to ask any questions they may have. Also, don’t rush into this decision and decide on the first school you come across; it’s a decision that will have a big impact on your child, and the last thing you want is to escape one set of problems only to find yourself facing another set that could have been avoided through a more careful selection of school. It’s important, therefore, to do your research properly. Look at how the school performs academically, ask the right questions, and make sure your child feels comfortable with the environment and atmosphere. A new school is the start of a new chapter in their life and yours, and as always, you’ll need to be there to support them through the nerves they’re likely to feel in the beginning.
As a parent, knowing when and how to intervene when your child is experiencing problems is crucial to providing them with the support they need, when they need it. They may not always appreciate your intervention at the time, but if you go about it sensitively and tactfully, you stand the best chance of your efforts proving useful. The rest of the time, they just need to know that you’re there for them to come to with their problems, no matter how big or small.
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