Is it normal for a child to come home from school miserable? Or to act deeply unhappy in the morning and drag their feet to the point of almost missing the bus? Or how about a kid who suddenly develops stomachaches in the middle of the school day, and this happens repeatedly?
Some parents would say yes, it’s normal, and simply attribute this behavior to kids’ desire to play, sleep in, socialize, and run free. However, it’s important for parents to respect the fact that the child is trying to communicate something important, albeit in an indirect way.
Perhaps you have a gifted child who is bored at school, or a child who had a scary incident on the bus. Rather than making an assumption or writing it off as normal kid behavior, here are some tips that will help you uncover what’s really going on.
Listen well; don’t dismiss; pay attention.
In general, if a child says I don’t like school, listen to them. They probably have a very legitimate reason for their perspective. This may not seem like a big deal from the parents’ point of view. But the child’s feelings could be the result of a threats from a bully, rejection from a boy or girl, or schoolwork that is either boring or overwhelming. There’s also the possibility that they believe their teacher doesn’t like them.
Remember your own youth.
Try to remember that some of the time, kids won’t tell their parents the real reason, so they make up other excuses. You probably did this yourself. Part of the reason behind this is that children believe parents won’t empathize with them, that they’ll just say to toughen up, or offer another simple solution. Parents need to realize that there was a time when they were kids and may have felt the same way. So, resist making judgments.
Speak with them one-on-one.
Have a conversation with your children one-on-one–without other siblings around. This will give a parent the opportunity to uncover what the real concerns are. If a parent initiates different possibilities through the conversation (e.g., learning level/social circle/a bully/a teacher is causing the child to feel bad, etc.), it becomes safer for the child to talk about it. This also takes away the stigma the child may have been feeling. This is a way of letting a child know that their parents’ view these as valid concerns.
Now that the honest discussion has begun, kids and parents can discuss strategies to address the problem. This may mean setting up a meeting with the teacher to work out an academic or behavior plan. It may also mean dealing with the administration if it has to do with a bully on campus. Most schools have a zero tolerance policy for that kind of behavior, and will address the problem aggressively. As far as being rejected by a boy or girl, a parent can share a time in their life when they experienced a similar event, and how they got past it.
Get teachers involved.
It’s very important to have child, parent, and teacher on the same page. For example, if we set up a behavior plan, it should be a continuous plan that takes place throughout the day both at school and at home. This way the teacher and the parent can notify the other if either sees an issue starting up, and react proactively. It’s important that the parent take the lead and not leave it up to the teacher, who might have 40 other students to deal with. At the same time, parents need to hold the teacher accountable for following through on the agreement that they jointly reached.
Ultimately, school should be an enjoyable experience for your child, with many fun opportunities for them to participate in. It should not be seen as a prison sentence. By working together with all parties concerned, you can help accomplish this. Remember, the parents need to take the lead in helping their children, and not be of the opinion whatever problems happen at school is the school’s responsibility.
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Jay Scott Fitter MFT has two decades’ experience as a licensed marriage and family therapist, and is a popular parenting workshop leader, speaker, and the author of a new book, Respect Your Children: A Practical Guide to Effective Parenting (familyanswerman.com).