What do you do when your child is struggling at school? For many of us, our kids started back to school recently. The first day brings so many butterflies in the stomach. The eagerness, the anticipation, it can all be overwhelming. It feels like sending our children off into the unknown, and often a child’s first week back at school goes great. For example, here is a great article about helping your child thrive at school.
But what do you if school doesn’t go well? How do you help your child recover when they start to struggle going to school?
My child is struggling at school!
It hits you like a ton of breaks. Perhaps your child is tearing up. Perhaps they’re staring blankly at the floor, or not wanting to talk about it. All you know is, “My child is really hurting.” And feelings of being powerless and unable to help start to set in.
This article is designed to help you walk with your child through ways to help him or her navigate the struggles that they are facing at school. Whether it is anxiety, or bullying, loneliness, or grades – these tools can guide you how to come alongside your child. No article can cover every challenge a child can face at school, but these basic steps can help in a variety of scenarios.
So here is where to start when your child has a hard first week back at school.
There is only one person that you can control in this world, and it is you. Not your principal, not the mean girls at school, not the teachers, and not your child. Your own calmness and ability to empathize is all that you can know is changeable. And it is a powerful first step.
When your child is getting upset or shutting down, take a seat and listen. When possible, get on their eye level. A lot of research has shown that simply placing yourself at or below your child’s eye level helps lower your child’s heart rate and begins their own calming process. Also do a few deep breaths yourself, such as box breathing.
But what is my child doing while I do all this, you ask? Great question! It does not really matter, you have to get yourself calm first. This is similar to the idea on an airplane of first putting on your own air mask and then helping your child put on theirs. You can only give health if you are healthy, and you can only give calmness if you are calm.
Empathize and narrow focus
So now you are on your child’s eye level, and they are starting to talk, either a lot or a little depending on their personality. What do you say?
Less is better in these types of situations, as your child is then encouraged to keep opening up and share what is going on at school. Basic repeating is often very helpful, so try reflecting their comments like, “Joe was mean today?” or “Mrs. Jones didn’t see what the other kids were doing?”. When you can, identify an emotion such as “That must have been overwhelming” or “That sounds very lonely”. This will help your child open up and share what they are feeling. For more thorough steps on this, review our article on helping a child through a meltdown.
While this conversation is going, it is best to avoid advice. We are all parents, and it hurts deeply to see our children hurting. We want to rescue, to take away the pain. But while there may be steps we need to take down the road, in this first conversation empathy and better understanding what your child’s world feels like are the more important priorities. So, narrow the focus.
What part of school is overwhelming your child? Which specific class or classes are too hard? What friend(s) were unkind? What time of day did you feel alone? Gently ask basic guiding questions to better understand what was the hardest and the worst. Those will be the keys for where to start healing.
With those points made, usually it is best to wait until a follow-up conversation before coming up with steps to move forward. This is actually really validating to a child. It communicates, “What I am having a hard time with is difficult even for adults. Maybe I am not weak after all.”
Here are the most common areas for children to struggle with at school:
“No one likes me! I didn’t have any friends!”
“All of my friends are in other classes. I didn’t know anyone”
“Jill was back this year. She starting laughing with her friends every time I walked by.”
Friends are the most important part of a child’s life at school. They tend to make or break the school experience. And when you feel alone or isolated, it is hard to think of anything beyond the gnawing pain of rejection.
Often the friends dynamic is the slowest to heal, so a later article may be written to focus here. But here is a central point: close friends outweigh many acquaintances. When a child has one or two friends that they feel closely connected to, this hurt dissipates. These friends become beacons of light, of joy. So think through who could my child connect or reconnect with.
Even if there are no obvious answers at school, friends that do not go to the same school are still helpful. Then your child has someone to look forward to seeing after the bell rings. So whether it is on the soccer team, at church, or a friend in the neighborhood – connecting with a close friend is a great way to start turning things around.
“Mrs. Lane is already giving tons of homework. She talks so fast I didn’t understand anything we went over today.”
“Coach Thurman was upset that we didn’t run fast enough. He said we’re going to have to run twice as far tomorrow.”
“Mr. Jones is just mean. He keeps claiming we aren’t trying hard enough. I’m doing the best I can!”
Most teachers have so much on their plate. Lots of material to cover, 25+ kids in each class, and the constant feeling of not having enough time to get everything done. This feeling of being overwhelmed is often interpreted by a child as their teacher being angry. There are definitely some teachers who are unhealthy, but for the first interactions let us assume that your child’s teacher is not a malicious person.
When your child first starts sharing about their fears regarding a teacher, go with what can be done one-on-one. I have seen so many teachers soften whenever a child approaches them after class for help. Many teachers offer special times for help on homework, and this is fantastic opportunity to help your child better connect and learn. But even encouraging your child to stay a few minutes after class to talk can be enough to start taking away the fear. A good teacher is thrilled to hear from a child who really wants to learn the material and do well.
“I’ll never be good at math.”
“I’m going to be up all night! It’s the first week and I already have two papers due.”
The overwhelming side of school is often not even at school itself, but the homework list you bring from school. Essays, math, research projects – and I’m just talking about elementary school. When a child floods with emotion about homework, it is because it feels impossible. Thoughts of being trapped and never being able to get it all done are common. And haven’t we all felt overwhelmed in our own lives too? So instead of the whole pile of homework, start simple.
Break homework into small bites, and the smaller the better. Try a rhythm like One subject – break – second subject – break. Make this a team effort, where you and your child are partnered to complete the challenge of homework together.
For many children, just knowing that they are going to have a voice in how to best complete homework helps them start to calm. This is a journey, to learn how your child functions best.
Winning at home
No article could cover every dynamic or situation your child may be facing. But whatever obstacles your child is facing, focus on what you can do at home. Making home a haven of safety, of care. A place to rest and recover. A place to laugh and let the worries of the day fall off. This is what your child needs most.