When a child is unhappy at school

If your child is unhappy at school, it can be a pretty miserable existence for parents who are often baffled by the sudden change in a child’s attitude. Turn to your school, ask your child’s Head of Year if they have noticed anything.

Young people reject school for lots of reasons; friendships break down, change at home such as new baby  or moving house. There are lots of reasons why young people decide that school isn’t for them but the sooner you get to the problem, the easier it is to sort out.

D’s mum had just had a new baby, she was 14 and her whole life had been about just her and mum until the new partner then the new baby arrived. D became withdrawn, said she didn’t want to talk about it and was tearful. Mum had already spoken to me about D and I suggested it was the new arrival but mum said she had asked D and that her reply was she didn’t know why she was like this. Poor mum, faced with the stress of teenager’s angst and a new baby. A little word with D confirmed that it was the new baby, D couldn’t process the words to say she felt left out because she felt like she was being selfish and ungrateful, she could see how tired and stressed her mum was but she couldn’t see past it all to say how she felt.

D was caught, like so many teenagers between the adult and child world and her language and thought processes didn’t match society’s or her mum’s expectations of her. She was angry but she ‘knew’ it was nasty of her, she felt jealous but she ‘knew’ it was horrible and D just couldn’t like herself anymore because she felt out of control. I asked her if she had told her friends and she said no because they wouldn’t understand. So her friends just thought she was being weird with them and left her to it causing D to feel more anger, more rejection and more pain. So she closed down and wanted to leave school citing everyone hated her and that she hated everyone. I explained how her feeling were normal and to be expected and that her situation although not unique, was different to her friends but she should talk to them, and we discussed coping mechanisms and strategies. I even told her the story of trying to poison my baby sister and asking my mother when it would be going back. She laughed and said but Miss, you were 4. I am 14. And I said no, this was last week…. a few smiles and laughter came, the relief was palpable.

I called mum, said that we had a good chat and that D wanted to talk to her and I wondered if she could take her out of school for a coffee and a chat. Mum said she could and would find a babysitter for a few hours so they could really talk about things and I said that D should maybe stay  with mum for the rest of the day which D was thrilled about. She came back to school the next day and said she felt happier, that mum and her had had a good cry and laugh.

But it doesn’t always go that way. As Head of Years, we should be mindful of those children who aren’t as resilient or have parents who are less articulate.  School should be part of a triangle of support and care, from the parent > school > child. If one of these is missing, it can be difficult to get issues back on track.

S was flagged by Attendance Advisory Service in primary, her family had a history of poor attendance and welfare and court action. S was doing fairly well until Year 9 when she suddenly stopped coming to school, her mum wouldn’t answer our calls and our EWO (Educational Welfare Officer) was working particularly hard to engage the family. S’s mum finally came to school for a meeting and said S was being bullied. Now you will know from previous posts that I am not a big fan of the word bullying but like any allegation, it must be fully investigated. S’s circle of friends changed, there had been some troubles with a friend’s boyfriend and the group felt S had sided with the boy. There had been some name calling and things on Facebook. This type of situation is really hard to deal with, girls can be particularly vicious towards each other and they tend to hold grudges. I asked parents of all concerned to strictly monitor Facebook and said any further comments would be deemed as harassment and reported to police; the name calling in the canteen and other areas was to be monitored by staff and my ‘spies’ (My ‘spies’ were a network of trusted students who can be relied upon to ‘fess’ up anything untoward. A very helpful strategy in exposing some of the more covert behaviours of your cohort. They comprised the ‘do-gooders’, the ‘naughties who owed me’ and the ‘general tale-teller who liked a good story’). Any subsequent incidents, everyone knew they would be in the Inclusion Room.

But you can’t force friendships. By Year 9 most friendship groups are formed, it is very hard for a young person to ‘just’ join a new group of friends and I felt sorry for S. Her mother wasn’t helping the situation, she allowed S to take time off and every day absent, not only misses the classroom interactions but also the social aspect of school too. I explained this to S’s mum ‘if there are parties or trips to the cinema and S isn’t in, she isn’t necessarily going to get that invite which is hurtful and upsetting and adds to the feelings of unhappiness with school’. I would have the same frank discussion with students like S explaining ‘that this is your issue and something you can fix’. I can obviously intervene and help with but I can’t solve it.

However S missed so much of school that the workload felt insurmountable, she continued to feel left out and mum continued to allow her days off and so the cycle went on the downward spiral and once this happens, there is very little a Head of Year can do. We can refer to outside agencies, we can prosecute mum but if S really doesn’t want to come to school, then we should look at helping her to find alternatives.

If you are a parent experiencing this, you must talk to your school and follow their advice. There will be outside agencies to provide support but early intervention is key to success and keep your child in school, unless your Head of Year sends you out for coffee!


About milkwithtwo

A blog about my experience as a Head of Year, looking at some of the issues faced by young people and teachers in the UK. Offering straight-talking child-centred advice.
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2 Responses to When a child is unhappy at school

  1. Anna says:

    Good post, I enjoyed reading this Julia – you have such an amazing insight.

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