Helping Children who Struggle with School

This article was first published in Parenting Ideas magazine in November/December 2013.

More and more in my work, I hear about young children struggling with anxiety, serious behavioural concerns, mental health issues and aggression.

At the same time, I am staggered to see the ‘push down’ of formalised learning for children under six in this country —– contrary to best practice in early years’’ education and with no evidence that validates it has a positive influence on young children’’s lives.

I have previously written about why play is critical for brain development, and social, emotional and cognitive development in young children.

The removal of play in kindergarten and preschool in favour of sight words and worksheets, homework and black line markers can be damaging to our children’’s ability to function as social beings — which is still our key biological drive.

Much of the push seems to be happening to improve schools’’ data,– misinformed principals seeking good NAPLAN results and top rankings on the MySchool website. However, lots of educators tell me also that they get pressure from parents who do not understand how critical non-formal learning is early on.

The rise in aggressive behaviour being exhibited by many younger children, mainly boys, is a sign they are unable to cope with environments with no opportunity to play, no fun, little movement and developmentally inappropriate tasks – we then penalise these children by suspending or expelling them.

The latest COAG Reform Council report on education, released October 2013, shows that despite some improvements in overall outcomes, the gap for Indigenous children and disadvantaged children is growing ever wider.

When you think that around 30% of children struggle with school anyway, how can parents better support their children when they are struggling in this environment?

Tips for struggling kids

The first thing to consider is are there developmental delays?

Children mature at varied rates and in all sorts of ways depending on environment and unique genetic templates. Any kid can have developmental delays around phonemic awareness that can be helped by being read to lots, learning nursery rhymes and songs, and engaging in lots of conversation.

From birth children need to be saturated in sound from humans as they are unable to take sounds from TVs, DVDs or screens like tablets or iPads.

If the delays are in self-regulation —– the ability to manage one’’s energy, to be able to concentrate for up to 15 minutes, to sit quietly when asked –— you need to identify and reduce the stressors in children’’s lives.

Things that improve self-regulation include music, sport, real play, time spent in nature, being in safe environments. Things that hinder it are too much TV, screen time, being too passive, poor food, lack of sleep, too much pressure and weak human connectedness.

If a child is forced to attempt a task they’’re unable to do developmentally, this causes enormous distress. Take handwriting for 4-5-year-olds; it’’s a complex task that many children are unable to do until closer to 6.

The brain integration required is deceptively complex. When a child cannot do a task, manage to remember sounds or colour within the lines they often see themselves as dumb or stupid.

Have realistic expectations for your children and talk to their teachers or school leaders if you feel they are expecting too much (lots of articles on my website to bring evidence to that conversation).

If it is identified that your child has some delay issues, early intervention is essential, particularly if they are identified as being on the autism spectrum, have auditory processing concerns or sight issues.

Not all kids are going to do well at school because, according to Howard Gardner’’s Multiple Intelligence theory, we have at least nine different ways of being smart. Google this to show your children and help them work out —– ‘which smarts are you?’.

If your child is struggling academically it is important to help them at home to be really competent at something! Self-mastery builds confidence –— even if it’’s tree climbing, stargazing, frog hunting, growing veges or helping to fix things in the shed. This helps them build a healthy sense of self, even if they struggle with maths or learning to read.

For older children investing in tutors and maybe purchasing some technology-based support is well worth the cost.

Practice makes perfect and brain plasticity allows for kids to always improve with increased effort. Remember it must be engaging learning and fun or it will simply make things worse.

Finally, if your child is displaying really significant anxiety and distress and you have done your best to work with the school to improve things, then the environment may need to change.

We can’t leave kids struggling and say ‘toughen up’ – otherwise we are just wiring them for hypersensitivity for life, when childhood should be filled with joy and delight.