Class action: How to turn problems at school into a learning experience

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 October, 2013, 4:25pm

My daughter has just started Year Five and no longer wants to go to school. She has always been happy to go in the past and then tell me about her day. Now she is evasive and seems very unhappy. I am worried that this will affect her progress.

You are right to be concerned, especially so early into the school year. Research confirms the common-sense view that a happy learner is an effective learner. It is true that students do not progress consistently during their schooldays; ups and downs are only to be expected. When they happen, they can be a valuable opportunity to take stock, as tackling them can even help to build up valuable resilience. But there is a difference between a temporary setback and a barrier to a positive future.

Although every year cannot be the best in any schoolchildren, it is important that your daughter's troubles be addressed to avoid not just academic regression but also a significant blow to her attitude towards learning and social and emotional development. Sadness can turn into stoicism and stoicism can become depression. The good news is that a few sensible steps could easily rectify the situation.

First, instead of asking your daughter outright questions, try asking for permission instead. Often children do want to share but reject a direct approach. You might say: "Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about your day?" can often unlock the blockage. Or try something like "You seem a little upset right now. Would you like to talk about it?" She might say yes.

Whether or not this works, visiting school to explore further might be needed. Troubles of this sort generally fall into two categories. One is difficulties with peers. Find out whether there have been reported incidents on the playground. Have her friendship groups changed?

Has your daughter been found alone or crying in school at unexpected times? Ask the teacher to ask her classmates if they are aware of what is going on. Social problems are a powerful driver of class dynamics and her friends will often provide a more accurate picture of the situation than teachers. Children can be quite cruel, so it's important to find out if she is being bullied in any way, as this can have long-term destructive consequences.

However, teachers are experienced in these matters and an in-depth discussion with your daughter's current one will be necessary to ascertain if there are in-class factors to be taken into account. Teachers see it as their job to build a relationship with their students, but things do not always go smoothly.

Or perhaps the teacher's style simply does not suit your daughter and she is finding the situation difficult to cope with. Although good teachers use a range of strategies to meet their students' needs, there are occasional lapses, especially in larger classes. Teachers of that type are often unaware of any problems, and a simple heads-up may be all that is required. Nevertheless, the situation still may not improve.

But instead of seeing this as a problem, it can be reframed into a learning experience. She will need to learn to interact with a range of people, not just those she is comfortable with, and she is now at an age when she can begin to think about taking a little more responsibility for her emotional responses. Tell her that teachers always do their best, but sometimes students need to persevere when things get difficult. Make sure she knows that you will be there to support her and will work with her teacher if necessary to help things along.

School can certainly be a tough place, full of complex dynamics. Your daughter's temporary difficulties may strengthen her in the end, but it is important to help her jump this hurdle as quickly as possible so that neither her studies nor her self-esteem hold her back from making the progress that both she and you would want.

Julie McGuire teaches at a Hong Kong primary school