Going to school can be challenging for children and young people at times. Most young people will have patches during their school career where it feels hard. That’s normal. Getting through those hard times can bring with it sense of mastery, confidence and resilience.
Of course, this is not the experience of all young people, and many families find themselves asking whether a change of schools might be the best option for their child.
This is a big decision and one that parents don’t make lightly – few parents think it’s a good idea to change their child’s school on a regular basis.
While there are no black-and-white answers around this, there are some questions that might help your thinking.
Involve the current school if you can
Sometimes, when things are very difficult for your child at school, it can be easy to forget teachers and schools – just like parents – want the best possible outcomes for the children in their care.
If you haven’t already, contact your child’s school or teacher.
The best solutions are usually reached when parents and teachers can work as a team to understand and help children who are unhappy or struggling.
Understanding why school feels like such a struggle
There are many different aspects to school. Students need to manage academic work, peer interactions as well as their own behaviour and emotions in the classroom and playground.
To figure out how best to support your child, you will need to work with them and their teacher(s) to develop a good understanding of exactly what it is about school that is hard.
Maybe they are confused in maths lessons, maybe they are having problems with their friends or maybe your child is experiencing bullying. Often it will be a combination of factors.
Anxiety is often the big emotion behind children’s struggles with school. If this is the case for your child, your child may benefit from learning about how to manage anxiety (there are evidence-based free online programs).
Another important factor to consider is the “goodness-of-fit” between your child’s strengths and abilities and the school they are attending.
Maybe you set your heart on your child attending a particular school (perhaps one that has a reputation for academic or sporting excellence). Maybe you enrolled them as soon as they were born. But is this emphasis right for your child?
Are there skills or supports your child needs?
Once you’ve identified the aspect(s) of school that are presenting challenges for your child, think about whether there are skills they can be helped to develop to manage these more effectively.
This might include learning how to manage frustration when things don’t go their way, or how to respond assertively, rather than being aggressive when they are challenged,.
There might be supports that can be put in place by the school to help, such as extra learning support. Speak to your child’s teacher if you are concerned they might be being picked on and see if you can work collaboratively to address the problem.
Is changing schools going to help?
Once you feel like you understand your child’s challenges at school, it’s important to ask yourself: “how likely is it that their specific situation is going to be improved by changing schools?”
Keep in mind too the message you may be unintentionally communicating to your child by changing schools – we want to avoid reinforcing avoidance of anxiety-provoking situations that are manageable with the right support.
Also keep in mind that, apart from home, school is the place that children spend the most time. This means that it is likely that sometimes, children’s distress at school is influenced by factors that aren’t necessarily caused by school. This could include mental health issues that are not specifically related to school or worries about the family’s financial situation.
A fresh start
Sometimes, despite everyone’s best intentions and efforts, there might come a point where it’s time to acknowledge a challenging situation at school is not changing. And a child’s mental health and wellbeing is being negatively impacted. If this is the case, a fresh start at a new school may be the best option.
One way to explain it to your child could be to say something like
I believe in you. With your teachers, we’ve tried our best, but this school isn’t the best fit for you and now it’s time for a fresh start.
Leaving one school for another one doesn’t represent a failure. Rather, it represents a change in direction based on the available information.
Author Bios: Vanessa Cobham is Professor of Clinical Psychology and Julie Hodges is a Post Doctoral Research Fellow both at The University of Queensland