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Helping Your School-Aged Child Navigate School Struggles



Once the excitement of the beginning of a new school year starts to fade, the reality of homework, extracurricular activities, and the general busyness of life can set in for both parents and children. During this time parents may feel stressed about having to pick up their child from soccer practice, get dinner on the table, and help with homework after they have already had a long day at work. Children often feel that they don't have as much time to relax at home once the school year starts and may respond to this change by wanting more screen time, expressing anxious feelings, or having trouble getting their homework done.


Recognizing the loss of free time and acknowledging how children and parents are feeling is an important first step in coping with these emotions. To help their children process their feelings, parents should first take stock of how they are feeling. For example, if you’re feeling less patient due to the busier days, try to take some time to decompress after work by listening to your favorite music or podcast, calling a friend to chat, or reading a book for a few minutes. Taking some time for self-care not only benefits your well-being but also sets a good example for your children to do the same when they’re feeling stressed.


Regardless of what may be troubling your child, it can take patience to uncover the issues at play. Understanding the emotions behind children’s behavior is key to unlocking what may be causing specific school concerns. The following are two common issues that children may face and how you can help them work through them.


Not Liking a Teacher

At some point in a child’s schooling, she may come home claiming that she doesn’t like her teacher. Although it’s upsetting and worrisome for a parent to hear this, it’s best to listen without judgment to learn why she is feeling this way. When she is ready to talk, follow her lead and let her guide the conversation. Doing so is crucial to help develop a relationship where she feels comfortable coming to you for support.


You can try asking questions likes "Can you tell me why you feel this way?" or "Did something happen today at school that makes you feel that way?" If she can’t articulate her feelings or talking about them becomes stressful, try not to pressure her into sharing. It’s best to simply let her know that she can come to you to talk if and when she wants. You can say something like, “If you think more about it and want to talk about it, I'm here."


Although it’s understandable for parents to want to make their child feel better in the moment, try not to contradict your child. For example, if your child says “My teacher hates me!” avoid statements like “No she doesn't, she cares about you!,” “Don't be silly, that's not true!,” or “Teachers have a really hard job, I'm sure she is doing her best.” In these moments, it’s much more important to sympathize with your child’s experience and validate her feelings. So, more helpful responses could be, “That must be frustrating, I'm sorry to hear that.” or “That must be really difficult. Would you like to tell me more?”


Avoiding Homework

Sometimes children struggle with completing their homework. There can be many reasons why this occurs, such as anxiety and pressure about doing well; not understanding the concepts being taught and not wanting to admit they need help; or simply having difficulty starting the work.


In these instances, parents may find themselves nagging or reprimanding their children. Unfortunately doing so usually results in power struggles, creating a conflict between children and parents that causes unhappiness in children and negatively affects the parent-child relationship. Going forward, children may be less likely to seek their parent’s comfort or support. If parents stay positive and available to help without pressuring their children, they will be more likely to find their own motivation to learn and want to be successful.


If your child is struggling, but trying, and not asking for help, let him work on his own, at his own speed. When your child does ask for help, respond right away. If your child is clearly making mistakes on his homework, but declines your help, do not force the issue. Allow the teacher to help him correct his work. If your child is struggling with understanding a specific subject, perhaps he would benefit from working with a patient and upbeat tutor who can make the experience positive.


If time management is an issue, try establishing a homework routine with him by identifying how he works best at home. Would he like to do homework as soon as he gets home? After a snack? After some play time? With dad sitting next to him as he pays bills? Or before dinner? Remember to offer realistic options for your child; for example, if you eat dinner later in the evening, perhaps after dinner isn't workable for your family.


Some children may feel anxious about the grades they receive for their work, or what their teacher or parent will think about them if they make mistakes. They may also be nervous about being compared to their friends’ performance. In these instances, it's helpful for parents to focus on a child’s efforts instead of his grade. Offering tangible feedback, such as “It’s okay you got the problem wrong—that’s what learning is all about!” or “I saw you try several times to solve that problem. Thanks for asking for help.” can show your child that you support his efforts and the learning process.


Providing unconditional kindness and patience while your child is learning is what will grow his motivation, confidence, and resiliency. If your child continues to struggle, you may want to reach out to his school or a professional for learning support.


Whatever school challenges your child may face, remember that your understanding, empathy, and patience is key to helping him navigate them. As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper explain, “Even if your child encounters school struggles, your loving relationship and ability to give him the broadest possible scope for making choices every day... will be invaluable as he embarks on the demanding and transformational school years ahead.”


Sources

Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Harvard Common Press, 1999.


Smart Love Solutions for School-Age Children and Teens: A Handbook for Parents, Teachers, and Caregivers, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Smart Love Family Services, 2012.

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