“I don’t want to go to school today.”
“My tummy hurts.”
“School is boring!”
“I have a headache.”
“They tease me about how I look.”
“I don’t need to know this stuff, I’m going to be a YouTuber/Twitch Streamer.”
“I already know everything.”
A small percentage of children really, really like school. The rest experience it with everything ranging from mild indifference to deep disdain. And some kids are, frankly, terrified of it.
Some reasons for feeling like school “sux” are more valid than others. We empathise with the tween being teased for their new glasses/braces combo. It’s harder to hold back the chuckles while listening to a pre-schooler say they “know everything” already.
Compulsory schooling is only 150 years old in Australia. The Victorian Education Act of 1872 was the first of its kind in the world, and mandated that all children in the state were required to attend school from the age of 6-15. (The schools were a little loose on this. My grandmother was born in the 1920s and left school at age 12.)
Today, certificates and awards are given for 100% attendance, and the pressure is on our kids to never miss a day of school, even for major holidays or cultural opportunities. Governments promote slogans declaring that “every day counts” and point to data to prove it. Similarly, for many working parents, the pressure is on to get out kids to school no matter their feelings about it. Sick leave is limited. Work commitments prevail.
However, across Australia the average attendance rate at school is 93%. Kids miss school and still graduate!
(I shouldn’t be so glib… it’s true that school and education are a privilege. And higher attendance is typically associated with better educational outcomes overall. My suspicion is that if a child is missing school a lot, their grades will be low but it’s probably got as much to do with other factors in their life as it has with school absence. Family dysfunction, deviant friends, mental health challenges, and similar difficulties are likely at the root of their school failures.)
But there are legitimate reasons that school can be a torrid experience for our children. Pushing them out the door and telling them to “toughen up, princess” is often not going to be helpful.
What if every day is a battle to get them out the door? What if school really, really, really sux?
School sux less when relationships are solid
Relationships are at the heart of education. In fact they’re at the heart of life. When our children complain that “I don’t have any friends”, or “I hate my teacher”, the stage is set for school to suck.
Autistic kids, kids with ADHD, kids with social anxieties, or kids who are bullied (or just feel lonely) are particularly likely to struggle with relationships. But most children have some level of insecurity about their friendships and other relationships at school. And many of them look to their peers for assurance and security, which isn’t usually going to cut it for them. Children have limited social skills, a generally low level of capacity for validating those around them, and a need to prove themselves in order to create cultural cache.
Dr Gordon Neufeld and Dr Gabor Maté write extensively about the pitfalls of peer orientation in their book, Hold On to Your Kids. When children look to peers for validation of self-worth, they will never be satisfied. Horizontal social networks with only peers of the same age are an unnatural structure. Nowhere else in history or in society are children grouped with others the same age and asked to socialise and work the way children in our society are today. Our kids benefit much more from being embedded in a vertical social network with strong attachments to older caregivers.
Since schools aren’t structured for optimal identity development and psychological growth, the next best thing we can do is build school belonging. Dr Kelly Allen, a researcher at several prominent Victorian universities, has shown that children who feel they belong to the school (through friendships, strong relationships with teachers, involvement with organisations and extra-curricular activities, and a sense of being a part of something) thrive!
There are no easy answers here and I don’t want to sound patronising. As a parent, however, the best thing we can do to help school suck a little less is to help our children feel that they belong. If they feel connected at school – that is, if they feel seen, heard, and valued – they’ll want to be there.
School sux less when kids feel they’re making progress
As humans, we are designed to improve. We’re collectively driven to make things smaller, build things higher, run faster, go further. We have an innate curiosity that leads us to try new things, to progress, to grow. We want to master things. Not every thing. But some thing.
School is supposed to push children to explore learning, to make progress on understanding, and to simulate development and curiosity. Anyone who has spent time at school (including teachers) knows, however, that for some children it feels to them like it was designed to stymie their progress.
These kids are interested in things. Just not the things they’re supposed to be learning at school. Or not in the way they’re being told to learn it. Or not with the people who are trying to help them learn it. Etc. You get the picture?
If your child feels like they’re not progressing; if they feel like it’s all too hard; if your child feels incompetent, a dummy, a loser, an idiot… school will suck.
Again, there are no easy answers here and I don’t want to sound patronising. As a parent, however, the best thing we can do to help school suck a little less other than helping our children feel that they belong is to help our children feel that they can learn, progress, and make tiny wins. Feeling connected at school is critical. Feeling competent at school is just as vital.
Learning with a purpose
My Year 9 daughter walked in the door one afternoon and asked “Dad, what’s a surd?” I laughed and said I didn’t know, and then waited for the punchline. There wasn’t one.
“Dad, you’re pretty smart. But you don’t know what a surd is. Neither do any of my teachers except my maths teacher. So why do I have to learn about surds? Surds are stupid!”
While many children are content with learning for learning’s sake, there will be some who complain that school is pointless because they just want to be a tennis player, actress, hairdresser, or tractor driver. Or they’ll be upset because they’re learning things that they’ll never have to know at any point in the remainder of their lives… like surds!
For these kids, it can be beneficial to work with them to identify their purpose in going to school. Maybe they do want to be a tennis player and travel the international circuit, so focusing on their chosen language of French would be useful. Maybe they do want to be an actress, so they need to go to school daily to be involved in rehearsals for the school production. Their purpose doesn’t have to align with what you think the ideal purpose is for going to school, but if they have a reason for getting to school, they’re more likely to find other things they also enjoy once they’re there.
Autonomy in learning
As much as relationships, growth and development, and purpose matter, for me the central element that pulls it all together is choice. Kids who feel controlled – compelled – are likely to push back against that control, particularly when they feel lousy about any of those elements I’ve outlined above.
Clearly children must be educated. And the frustrating reality is that most of us are not able to provide our children with any and every flexible option to help them, like homeschooling, distance education, or a school across town or interstate that offers everything they’ve ever dreamed of doing.
But… the more that our children have a sense of autonomy in their school choices, the more they’ll buy into being there, and the less they’ll complain that it sucks.
A while ago one of my daughters felt like school was killing her. She was in Year 9 at the time. At the heart of it was a lack of friendships. She was lonely. But… she also hated a couple of subjects (“they’re boring and I know everything… and besides, they don’t even teach us. We do the entire maths class online as self-directed learning”). She had purpose, but felt limited in her choice. So three out of four of my big ideas in this article were working against her.
I listened for a while until something struck me. “You hate school most on Tuesday and Friday, right?”
“Yes. Tuesdays are horrible, but Fridays are the worst. Three subjects where we do nothing, then a super long assembly, and a sport class where no one does anything.”
“So… what if you just stop going to school on Friday? Could you push through Tuesday and cope with the other three days if you have every Friday off?”
“You mean this week?”
“Nope. Until the end of the year. How would you feel about that?”
My daughter smiled and said “ok”. And with a sense of autonomy (and a feeling that her dad understood how tough it was and how hard she was trying), we never dealt with another “I hate school” comment again that year!
If resistance is impacting their desire to go to school or do their school work, the fix is simple. Step back. Trust them to bloom in their own way and in their own time. Give them choice over what to study, what extra-curriculars to be involved in, and even over whether or not to do their homework. Unless you plan on going to university with them to pick their subjects and remind them of their assignments, you’re going to have to step back at some point. Start giving them back control today.
Learning is about attitude
There’s one more issue we must address. Attitude.
Attitude is everything.
There are many people who believe that if you send out positive energy into the universe, good things come back to you. While it may sound a bit mystic and magical, it’s supported by a well-understood scientific phenomenon called the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, or the frequency illusion. If you notice something once, and ascribe meaning to it, suddenly that thing appears to pop up everywhere (like a song that suddenly seems to be playing on every radio). The actual frequency of the event hasn’t changed but our brain is primed to notice it now. Consequently, if your child has noticed something negative about school, their attention is now subconsciously biased to keep noticing similar negative things.
On the flip side, having a positive outlook or optimistic attitude has been linked with better health outcomes and improved quality of life. Fortunately science has a few ideas on how to increase positivity in our lives:
- Smile. Even fake smiling has been shown to reduce the stress response through a process called biofeedback. Help your child find things to smile or laugh about.
- Visualisation. Positive future thinking has been shown to increase optimism by boosting the expectancy of a good day. Try using the power of visualisation and positive future thinking with your child by describing and imagining their best possible day, one where everything has gone as well as it possibly could. What would that look like? How might that feel?
- Gratitude. Children and teens who participated in an intervention involving writing a letter of gratitude to someone in their lives experienced increased levels of positive affect. Encourage your child to express gratitude.
Attitude can be hard to shift. These ideas may seem superficial and they may not work. But a few years back, another of my daughters was struggling with a move. Our family was in a new city. She was at a new school. And none of the kids felt they fit.
Ella listened to her sisters whine about how hard school was and how horrible the kids were. From the back seat of the car she piped up and said, “Well, I’m just going to keep trying and have a good attitude because having a bad attitude will only make it worse.”
Amazingly, Ella began to thrive. Her attitude changed her experience.
Know when to hold ‘em. Know when to fold ‘em.
Some kids don’t finish school, despite our best efforts to keep them there. As parents, we can feel like failures when they drop out or are disengaged with school. We know that an education is critical to their success.
But school isn’t.
Many people have failed school, only to find their passion later in life, return to university, undertake post-graduate research, and forge great careers (*cough Dr Justin Coulson – that’s me).
Our kids, particularly those in the later years of high school, are constantly being reminded of the importance of the decisions they make now and that their exam results will determine their futures. But it doesn’t have to be true. It certainly wasn’t for me.
What they do need is a reminder that we will support them even if they fail, that there are multiple pathways into any career, and that if they work at what they love, they’ll do just fine.
School isn’t everything
The ideas above are great for making school better - when you can. Sometimes when school sucks though, the best thing you can do is make everything ELSE better.
Make sure they have a good "second set" of friends outside of school, find hobbies that light them up, make sure they have things to look forward to outside of school. School is a massive part of our kids life, but it shouldn't be their WHOLE life.