What happens if your child is struggling at school?

After a really challenging time, I took my son out of school after he completed year 1.  That was 3 years ago.   You can read our story in the Green Parent Magazine here:-

Our journey from School to Home Education

Having made the incredibly challenging decision to walk away from the school system, with a child that tells you he hates learning and is rubbish at everything (and in the schools eyes – is under achieving) I find myself having to immerse myself in reading, absorbing information about positive ways of learning and the best ways to support my child to re-gain confidence in themselves.  This can lead to you feeling as though you have opened Pandora’s box, and essentially it can become impossible to ever imagine putting your child back in a system that effectively contributed to your child’s low self-esteem, dislike of learning, dislike of reading, dislike of maths the list goes on.

We also left the system with a feeling that George had a different way of learning, suspected Dyslexic tendencies and signposts to a possible Auditory Processing Disorder, however felt it was really early to be having to put a label on George’s preferred way of learning.

Fast forward 3 years, and I have the contrast of having my partners 3 wonderful children in my life, all in the school system.  I can see the experience we had isn’t the experience every child has, particularly if you are in the category that the classroom and curriculum is working for.  There is a percentage of children that fall into this category in every year group.  They can do what is being asked of them.  The feedback we tend to get is that they find some parts of school boring- and they have their ups and downs – but generally they are happy to go or have accepted that’s what they do.  They have good days and bad days, ups and downs.

During our home education experience we have met many that have had similar experiences to us in the school system, either their child experiencing massive loss of confidence, school refusal, massive emotional outbursts at home, or the more extreme experiences where the child becomes selectively mute – ie doesn’t communicate with anyone including the teacher at school – all indicating huge levels of anxiety.  The other end of that is a smaller percentage of children that are incredibly bored because they are ahead of the curriculum.  Many of these families have tried to work with the school to find a solution and then ended up home-schooling as there just isn’t a solution.  Some people will try to find a school that better suits their child’s needs.  Many private schools can adapt the education to fit the child as they do not have to work to the national curriculum.

So what happens if you have a child that is finding school challenging and it doesn’t feel like a viable option to home school? and you definitely cannot afford private school fees?    So now I come to talk about my fantastic niece.

So my niece started school at the same time as my eldest son.  She was an August baby, if she had been born 2 weeks later, she would have been in a whole school year below.  Unfortunately for her, it wasn’t an option for her to start school a year later.  When you ask her, she actually quite likes school – she can tell you positive things about school BUT in the eyes of the school she is under achieving.  The amount in which she is under-achieving is apparently a lot.  Even if she was in the year below, as she would have been had she been born a couple of weeks later, they would still consider her to be under achieving.   The main point that has followed my niece throughout her entire school journey so far, is she has got into a pattern – There are times where she is noncompliant,  disruptive – and during those times, during different year groups this has been handled in various ways, from using ‘reward charts’, ‘time out’ to being ‘sent out’, being ‘sent to the headteacher’, or ‘sent to another classroom’.  On occasion, in the playground (with little supervision or support) when she has been antagonised she has lashed out in response to another child being unkind.  So for my 9year old niece, basically there are 3 things going on here that means she is not ticking the right boxes.

When she is not interested in the subject she is being taught she hasn’t yet learned to ‘just get on with it’.

When she doesn’t understand what she is supposed to be doing she hasn’t yet learned to ‘just get on with it’.

She has not learned how to stuff her feelings down when someone else is unkind.  She has not learned how to always handle conflict without sometimes resorting to using her hands.  She is 9 years old.  There are adults that are incapable of doing the above, so why do we expect her to be able to deal with those things?

I’d actually argue and say – she is highly intelligent!  Instead of doing what would make for a convenient life for her peers and her teacher, she makes it clear that she still needs support and help. Except the school and those supporting her don’t understand the language she is using. Rather than seeing her behaviour as a form of communication – understanding that actually when a small child is asked to do something they don’t understand, or they are in a class learning a topic that is not engaging to them then that can cause a lot of anxiety – they see it that she is disruptive and needs to change as she is the minority.  The other children in the class either understand, are enjoying the class or have learned to comply and not communicate their need – working within the punishment and reward systems that temporarily results in a little bit of control over a big class.   That makes for a much easier life for the teacher and those around them.

So – in a class where you are one of a small number that isn’t behaving in the same way as the others, and you haven’t yet learned to just get on with it, and cooperate – and as a result you are under-achieving in accordance with the national curriculum then you have people scratching their heads because to receive compassion, understanding and support you need a word for what you have or a condition.

At a recent parents evening, the teacher was looking for a category to put my niece in.  She makes eye contact (can’t be Autism) She does comply sometimes (cant be Pathological Demand Avoidance Syndrome).  She can be very sociable (Can’t be Aspergers) She isn’t getting letters and numbers round the wrong way (can’t be Dyslexia) She’s not Hyperactive and Impulsive (Can’t be ADHD) and she is not shutting down completely and not communicating at all (Selective Mutism), She doesn’t get overwhelmed by loud noise and struggle to hear when there is a background noise going on (Auditory Processing Disorder) She isn’t finding it hard to sit still all of the time (Sensory Processing disorder).  There are probably many other conditions and Syndromes that I have missed and I realise for some parents it may sometimes be a huge relief to have a diagnosis – I admit, the teacher did not literally run through all of those – but she did hint that there was something not right about my niece, which she couldn’t put her finger on – and that for her to get the level of support she needs then they should consider getting her assessed in the hope they can get a statement and support for her.

What the actual FUCK!!??  It makes me feel so angry because so many of these conditions now have a name – Why do all of these Conditions, Syndromes, Spectrums and Disorders exist?  It shows to me there is just a wide range of normal when it comes to the way children learn and the existence of the conditions has come from children being in a less than perfect environment.  The biggest problems being:-

  • There is a huge lack of emotional support and the learning of emotional intelligence is not on the curriculum.  The systems that are in place, dismiss emotion and instead focus on control by using time-out and reward charts. -children learn (or some don’t!) to comply for reward, or through fear of punishment.  This is not an emotional support system that is going to raise adults that can deal with conflict and challenges.
  • The Curriculum has become so intense at such a young age and teachers have no ability to use their autonomy when it comes to designing lessons for their pupils.  I know many teachers, primary and secondary age – they all feedback at a similar level.  The primary education system has become so focussed on measuring, it is oversaturated with formal Maths and English teaching that the children are no longer able to learn through fun and play.  Academic learning is so intense and at such a young age.
  • Playtime – there are supervisors – not trained or paid at the level or quality that means they are actually supporting the children well or able to support the children emotionally and with supporting the children to work out conflict with other children.  Playtime has long been an overwhelming experience and cause for anxiety in many young children.

We know there is such a wide range of normal behaviour in primary aged children, but we are so incapable of understanding that – and have changed the entire primary school system to be the complete opposite to what children need to thrive.  As school has become more results driven, less play lead and the environment has moved so far away from the needs of children and closer to measuring output suddenly we need to diagnose all of these different ways of learning – labelling children, and understanding their brains are working slightly differently.    Has anyone ever researched whether leaving academics and results out of the classroom may mean an approach that wouldn’t make that necessary?  An approach that is adaptable and that suits many different ways of learning?

I think any child that is still attempting to communicate that they are unhappy or anxious in this environment should be labelled with something other than a condition or syndrome. Simply: Hugely intelligent and desperately trying to trust their instincts!

Children are not supposed to have to sit still for long periods of time, because of this – the amount of concentration that goes into focussing on sitting still means they are often not absorbing whatever they are supposed to be learning.  Their sensory systems are hard at work. Their proprioceptive system and vestibular system is working hard to integrate, process and regulate everything that is going on.  Hec – I even had an amazing secondary school Geography teacher that recognised children learned more when active – having the entire class act out what he was teaching – rather than sitting stationary and listening to him ramble on!  He was able to use his creativity as a teacher.  What on earth has gone wrong?

Children need to feel involved in their learning, to choose what they are learning, to be engaged in their learning and to have an individualised learning plan and a teacher that can support each child to study topics of their interest.  We shouldn’t be waiting until GSCE years before we get to have some choices about what we learn.  There are so many studies that show it is actually more damaging to children to focus on academic stuff if they are not yet developmentally ready to do so.  Children that are able to wait until they are ready are much more likely to learn quickly and intensively the stuff they need to know to pass exams!  If teachers had more autonomy and ability to be creative within primary education then i’m sure within each child’s self led learning projects the teacher would recognise examples of all kinds of topics that they have covered within their self led project!

Children need more emotional support.  Teachers and anyone that works with children need to understand how a child’s brain develops – not just academically but emotionally.  The Neo-Cortex is hugely underdeveloped and so therefore children throughout the entire primary school ages still need LOADS of support with Attention, Empathy, Compassion, Self Regulation, Self Awareness, Planning, Problem Solving and Logical thinking.  They have developmental spurts in this area around 5-7 – but then not again until they are 11-12 and then again at 15.  When things go wrong, instead of emotional support, they are getting compliance tools thrown at them in the form of Time Out (they are not really capable of reflecting without adult help) Punishment (removing privileges) or Rewards (basically bribery) They are not learning about their emotions and are likely to be another generation of people with mild to moderate mental health issue as a result of this emotional neglect.  The school system sets a precedent, and unfortunately many families follow suit – and use the same compliance tools in their homes.

That is unless the children are lucky – and their families have chosen not to use those methods and instead are trying to support their children differently.

Thankfully, my niece is lucky in that respect.  My sister knows and understands her daughter well and so she works hard at giving her the support she needs at home.  Amazingly, despite my sister being the expert on her own child, and offering suggestions to the teachers if her daughter is ever communicating that she needs extra support, in her non-verbal way – she has been ignored.  My sister has tried to describe that her daughter is suffering with anxiety when she acts in the way that she sometimes does – she recognises the pattern as she has seen it at home – and has told the school what she has learned – that her daughter needs love, empathy and understanding during the times she experiences anxiety.  Once she has received those things she moves into a place where she can move forward, positively.  My sister understands that the teacher doesn’t always have time for this, so has said, please call me – I will come into school.  So far this hasn’t happened and it is such a shame.  It is a real shame that the school believe they know more than a child’s mother.

As for my niece – she is Wonderful, Brilliant, Feisty and i’m just truly sad that she is part of a system that doesn’t understand how to nurture and grow wonderful human beings, a system where teachers are leaving in droves, and more and more children are being labelled with a condition because they are not capable of fitting in to a category of compliant children.  My niece apparently shows signs of Pathological Demand Avoidance Syndrome.  My sister has previously worked intensively with a child with this condition as a teaching assistant, and can see some correlations.  She is trying to look at it from a positive perspective that if her child has a diagnosis, then she should be able to get some clearly much needed support, but more that she won’t be considered ‘naughty’ and ‘disruptive’ and be met with understanding and compassion rather than punishment and confusion.

Its a conflicting feeling to know that despite the huge array of normal childhood behaviour – for your child to be understood, to have emotional support, to have the correct level of support there needs to be a diagnosis.

And what about all of the ‘normal’ children – because they are able to work within the system we forget that they need just as much emotional support as the next child – because they cope with their world – and there isn’t an immediate or obvious reaction we will continue using shitty punishment and reward systems that all basically derived from lab experiments with rats and dogs.  We probably won’t see the outfall of that until they reach adulthood.

One day our government will listen to the evidence and schools will stop incorporating systems that kill creativity and neglect the emotions of our younger generation………..

I hope one day our children can be part of an education system that respects them as individuals, respects their human rights, respects their emotional needs and respects their right to consent in Education.

To read more about consent in Education you can read this wonderful blogpost:-

Consent in Education

To read more about Sensory processing and the difficult act of sitting still:-

Are children supposed to sit still?

And the following links to organisations that are dedicated to challenging current systems we have in place that are often incredibly conflicting with what is best practise for children.

Too Much Too Soon campaign:

Too much Too soon

Save Childhood Movement:

Save Childhood Movement

2 thoughts on “What happens if your child is struggling at school?”

  1. You make some very good points. However, the reasons given as to why your niece couldn’t have any of those conditions are largely invalid as they present differently in girls most of the time and many girls mask their ASD (including PDA) in school through anxiety and inhibition. So many autistic girls are diagnosed late and misdiagnosed and a diagnosis is VITAL.

    • Thankyou for your comment. I think you are right, diagnosis with a condition is vital if a child is not working well within the school system and they are to remain in the school system. I am not dismissing my niece may not show traits for certain conditions. My point is that a diagnosis often becomes very necessary within the school system of your child is to access support. It becomes less necessary if you are not working within the restraints of the education system – so many conditions now exist – I think due to the very amount of children that struggle withon the system – and instead of adapting the system to an evidence based method – such as the finnish systems we instead come up with more and more diagnosis of conditions.

      Many parents have an understanding of their child and how to work with them to bring out the best in them – when parents are able to leave the restraints of the system they often see huge changes in their child’s behaviours and the symptoms of the conditions and work in ways which minimise their children’s difficulties. I wish we could adapt the system and see if it makes a difference to the amount of children needing to be diagnosed with something to access support.


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