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We are well and truly back into the swing of things, and now is the time you’ll begin to detect just how well your kids are settling back into school. If you’ve noticed your child’s aptitude for schoolwork isn’t what it once was, or even received a comment from their teacher, read on.

Renee Mill is a clinical psychologist, parenting expert and author – her best-selling books ‘Parenting Without Anger’ and ‘No Sweat Parenting’ offer practical advice for parents hoping to create a more contented home. Her work with hundreds of parents, children and families means she can recognise the tell-tale signs of a child who is struggling at school – and, in most cases, what to do to help.

“Many children struggle at school, and the reasons why are as varied as the children themselves,” says Renee. “While some children look forward to going to school, others are racked by anxiety and stress, which can manifest sleep difficulty, unexplained feelings of sickness or a sore tummy, picking at food, crying easily and an aversion to being alone or away from parents.”

Whatever the reason for your child’s sudden school issues – whether it’s difficulty understanding the content or keeping up with the workload, or even an issue with their teacher or a classmate – Renee says that the first step should be to go to the school.

“Utilise the school’s tried and tested methods,” says Renee. “If there’s no change after six months – a year, maximum – get a comprehensive assessment.”

These kinds of issues are complex, and a number of factors could be causing the issue: personality, health and energy levels, IQ, emotional intelligence, family dynamics, speech and language difficulties, learning difficulties like dyslexia, eye sight or eye coordination problems, muscle tone, balance, perceptual problems, attention deficit, emotional struggles… the list goes on, and on.

“I recommend a multi-disciplinary assessment, which some developmental paediatricians can organise for you, or, alternatively, an educational psychologist who has a team they can consult,” says Renee. “If neither of these are available in your area, seek out a clinical or educational psychologist, an occupational therapist and a speech pathologist, then look at all the results before deciding the treatment plan.”

If your child is having trouble keeping up with the workload, look deeper. Exhaustion, learning difficulties, poor study skills and/or a lack of organisation are just some of the potential causes, with a better sleep schedule, practice with reading and/or writing speeds or better organisation skills and time management just some of the potential solutions.

Similarly, a lack of motivation to get their work done could be more serious –psychological issues such as depression, low self-esteem or the desire for peer approval could be at the heart of the problem. Or, it could be a natural resistance to doing something that is incredibly difficult, easily fixed by practice and extra assistance. Your child could be rebelling, which signals that your family relationships need to be worked on, or the issue could be caused by difficulty understanding the content, expectations and requirements – whether that’s due to a language processing difficulty, attention deficit issue or a low IQ.

“Some children don’t tolerate change well and find new environments and routines challenging,” says Renee. “This condition is very common both in children and adults – it’s why many adults stay in difficult and bad situations, as they cannot face making changes to their life.”

Renee offers five tips for helping your child through their school-related struggles right from home:

  1. Recognise patterns – Look for triggers of stress and how they have been overcome in the past. For example, if your child was usually upset and clingy going to school or pre-school care in the first few days but ok by the second week, you can remind them of that and suggest strategies that will make them feel better. Suggest that they focus on finding a friend on the first day or ask the teacher to seat them in the front row in the classroom.
  2. Build self-efficacy – Point out your child’s strengths. For example, “Do you remember how in kindergarten you introduced yourself to the new boy? That showed courage.” Or “Last year I remember that you walked with your teacher even though you didn’t want to at first. That shows determination.” By continuing to remind them of their strengths, their self-confidence will grow.
  3. Listen to your child’s concerns – Make it safe for them to talk about their fears. Listen without jumping in with explanations, reassurances or put downs. Validate without encouraging avoidance – Normalising and validating does not mean encouraging avoidance. Even though the child feels fear, with anxiety it is best to “feel the fear but do it anyway”. In other words, parents must communicate that no matter how scary it can be, going to school is not optional. Avoidance of feared situations entrenches the fear, acting despite the fear extinguishes it in time.
  4. Practice the “fire drill method” – This is a very effective and fun tool. In the lead up to a new experience/environment, go through what to expect before it happens. For example, role play walking into the school yard and work out the best place to wait for the school bell. Plan B – if your child doesn’t make a friend on the first day, they can go to the library at lunch time. Plan C – if they don’t like their teacher, your child can remember to discuss it with you after school.
  5. Normalise the fear of change – By saying something like “It is very common for people to be afraid of new situations. Many kids feel sick at the start of a new year at school because so many things will be different to last year.” While validating and understanding their problem will not alleviate the anxiety, it will help them feel more centred and able to expend energy on coping with the problem.
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