It’s always a stressful time when a child starts at a new school. For some, though, that stress does not go away. For them, settling in seems to take longer, lasting for many months rather than the normal two or three weeks. If you suspect that your child is one of them, there are several ways to help.
One of the most obvious indications that something may be wrong is a change in your child’s behaviour, in particular a marked reluctance to go to school. They may linger over their breakfast; they may take their time getting dressed, or be unable to find certain items of clothing. They may regress, finding it difficult to sleep with the light on, wetting the bed, sucking their thumb, needing to sleep in your room. They may appear withdrawn; they may even begin to exhibit aggressive behaviour.
Your child may not come right out and tell you they don’t want to go to school, particularly if they’re very young and can’t quite find the words to explain their distress. But if you are pretty sure something is amiss at school, there are five simple steps that can help:
1. Ask the right questions
You do need to discover exactly what the issue is. Otherwise, you can’t help and neither can you ask for help from teachers. So asking the right questions and getting truthful answers is essential.
It’s best to avoid asking questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. Instead of asking if they have made any new friends, for example, ask instead who they like best in their class. And who they don’t like. Gauge their answers, and look out for hesitation or worry. This could be a clue that is it a fellow student causing the upset, rather than the school itself.
What else do they say when you talk about school? Is there anything they avoid mentioning? It is often what your child doesn’t say as much as what they do say that will lead you to the crux of the problem.
It may go against your parental instincts, but give it a little time. More often than not, your child’s problems will be small ones, even if they seem insurmountable to him or her. It could be that they don’t like lining up for lunch, or perhaps there is a toilet they would rather not use. Maybe their teacher told them to be quiet in class one day, and it has worried them since – they might think that the teacher doesn’t like them.
Given time, these issues can be easily ironed out. It might be as simple as getting used to a routine, or that same teacher handing out a house point and the child liking them again.
3. Be on their side – but don’t over react
For some children – particularly secondary school age children – the prospect of their parents storming into the school to deal with bullies or problem teachers is mortifying. And so they keep their problems to themselves.
To quell their anxiety, make sure that your child knows you won’t do that. Let them know that if you do have to go into the school you won’t make a move until you have discussed the problem with them, or unless it is something major that definitely needs to be dealt with. And of course, reassure them you won’t suddenly burst into their classroom and start yelling. You will make an appointment and talk calmly and sensibly to ascertain whether anything needs to be taken further.
4. Contact the school
If after three or four weeks your child is still unhappy, phone the school. This puts down a marker and alerts teachers to a potential problem. It is the best way to start and might solve the problem in one go.
If your child is no happier after you have done this, a face-to face meeting may be required. The first person you should speak to at the school is the one who sees them most often, which will usually be your child’s class or form teacher. When you speak to them, keep calm. Becoming angry will help no one.
When you do see the teacher, go without your child. Let the teacher know what you have noticed at home, and see if they have seen the same thing at school. It may be that once your child is in their classroom with their friends, they are happy and engaged, in which case the problem may lie elsewhere.
5. Don’t let them stay at home
It’s obviously tempting to let your child stay home ‘just this once’ if they are clearly upset about something. But this is very rarely a good idea. ‘Just this once’ can so easily become ‘more often than not’, and your child’s education will suffer.
It is important for your child to understand that they have to go to school every day, and that if there are problems, they need to be dealt with. Hiding from them isn’t an option. Once they learn that, hard as it may be, the more resilient they’ll become.
In reality, the majority of transition problems disappear once the child becomes used to the school, the teachers, and the new way of doing things. If they don’t, and you suspect your child has deeper behavioural or pastoral issues, it may be advisable to work with the school to get specialist help. But in the vast majority of cases, that won’t be necessary. By listening to your child, by being alert to changes in behaviour and gently proactive, any serious issues that do arise can be quickly and easily dealt with.
Danuta Tomasz is Assistant Director of Education for Cognita Schools, which has some 70 schools in the UK and abroad