How to recognize when your child needs help in school
Every child has a problem at school once in a while. But, for some of us, these problems are the norm rather than the exception. If your stomach sinks when you spy that familiar number pop up on your phone and the front-office staff knows you by name, it might be time to ask yourself whether your child needs help.
Try not to be defensive
It’s tough to think of our kids as having problems at school. When those first few phone calls or notes come home, it’s easy to dismiss them as the result of an overly strict teacher or lack of appropriate expectations from the school staff. Sometimes the problem really is as simple as a lack of communication between the teacher and child, or a teaching style that’s not a good fit for your child. But sometimes the problem is more complex and requires some investigation to find a solution. Keeping an open mind and really listening to your child’s teacher is an important step in the process.
Understand the context of the behavior
Child behavior doesn’t occur in a vacuum. By learning more about when and where the behavior occurs, child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Laura Musikant-Weiser says that parents can better understand the root cause of their child’s behavior and find more targeted solutions. “Parents and teachers need to ask themselves what may be interfering with the child’s learning, which may show up as a behavior problem,” Musikant-Weiser told ESME. “It takes lots of time, effort, and resources to get to the root of the matter.”
What that means in practice is pulling together your child’s teachers and asking a ton of questions about how and when your child acts out at school. Does it happen only with one teacher, or do other teachers see the behavior, too? If everyone is seeing the same behavior, it’s generally pretty clear that there is a problem. What’s less clear is when only one teacher or staff member has a problem with your child’s behavior.
Look for the hidden causes
When only one teacher has a problem with your child’s behavior, it’s tempting to dismiss that teacher’s concerns. And although it may be as simple as a teacher whose teaching style doesn’t gel with your child’s learning style, it’s still important to take the teacher’s concerns seriously. Don’t dismiss a teacher who raises concerns about your child; keep asking questions until you get a clear picture of the situation.
Do the issues arise only when a particular subject matter is being taught? Is your child being bullied? Is your child in a crowded classroom with a lot of distractions? Does the teacher see this behavior all the time or only when your child is asked to do a particular task? The answers to those questions can help parents figure out whether their child’s behavior is created by the circumstances in that particular class or whether there could be an underlying issue causing the behavior, such as a learning disability.
Consider what’s been going on at home
Children often act out at school when there are problems at home and vice versa. If you’ve recently moved, separated or gotten divorced, or experienced another big change in your life, your child may be showing the stress of all those changes at school. Sharing stress that your child might be experiencing at home with your child’s teachers and school support staff can help them better understand the whole picture.
Like many of us, kids often need extra support when going through a particularly tough time. School counselors can help you identify what your child might need—such as short-term weekly counseling sessions or a support group for kids whose parents are going through a divorce—and provide those services to your child during the school day.
Don’t be afraid of labels
Many parents are hesitant to have their kids evaluated for conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, anxiety, or depression because they are afraid of the stigma that can follow those diagnoses. But Musikant-Weiser points out that these labels often are necessary to understand your child’s behavior and to get your child the services he or she needs at school. No one should leap to a diagnosis, but it shouldn’t be something that parents fear, either.
When a child exhibits a behavioral problem in more than one environment, such as at school and at home or in different classes at school, Musikant-Weiser says it’s generally time to have the child evaluated by a professional.
Build your team
It can be overwhelming for parents to try to suss out the answers to behavioral issues with their kids, whether at home or at school. It’s important for all parents, but particularly for busy Solo Moms, to assemble a team to help them help their child. Public schools generally have a counselor or psychologist on staff who handles evaluations for behavioral concerns. If your child is struggling with behavioral issues at school, it’s your right to request that the school perform a full and complete behavioral evaluation at no expense to you.
If you aren’t happy with the responsiveness or results of your school team, don’t be afraid to look outside the school itself. Private psychologists can perform all the necessary evaluations and even help you advocate for the appropriate services from the school once your child has a diagnosis. It’s your right to get a second opinion, so don’t be afraid to use it. Your child’s school counselor or pediatrician can help you find a good psychologist or psychiatrist in your area.
The medication question
Some schools put a lot of pressure on parents to medicate their kids. Musikant-Weiser says that no child should be medicated until a professional performs a full evaluation and has made an appropriate diagnosis. She emphasizes that medications are one tool in the toolbox, but they should be combined with appropriate supports in school and behavior-modification plans that are consistent at home and in school.
Parents shouldn’t be afraid to give their child the medications he or she needs, however. “Medications have their potential benefits and side effects, but leaving a treatable condition untreated has its potential risks as well,” she told ESME.
The bottom line is that no one wants his or her child struggling at school. Putting aside our own fears and defensiveness and being receptive to the school’s concerns can help our kids get the services they need to be happy and successful at school and at home.
What do you think? How did you get your child the help he or she needed? Tell us by leaving a comment below.
Jody Allard is a writer and mother living in Seattle. Her work has been featured in the Washington Post, Time, and Good Housekeeping, and on Vice, among others. When she isn’t writing, she can be found binge-watching HGTV and embarrassing her teenagers.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.