When my son was 8, my family moved interstate for work from Queensland. We left behind a school that he loved, friends he had known since he was a baby, and a community that was inclusive, friendly and laid-back. Nevertheless, we had high hopes for his new school, which was surrounded by parklands and was situated in a beautiful Melbourne suburb. As luck would have it, our new house was right next door to the school!
In hindsight, I did have some reservations when I first visited the school, and I should have listened to my instincts. Parents chose to stick with their cliques and did not share a smile. I overheard a lady in the uniform queue returning her 8-year-old daughter’s skirt because it made her “bum look big”. The vibe was icy-cold.
Over the space of 5 months, my normally positive and exuberant son became progressively withdrawn and sullen. He seemed to “try on” different personalities in an effort to fit in with peers who he described as richer, meaner and older. He simultaneously lost his interest in learning.
My attempts to resolve difficulties by engaging with the teacher, principal and vice-principal were dismissed, stalled, or more-often ignored.
One evening he was having a bath and I noticed a huge bruise on his thigh, which he explained had been inflicted by kids during recess. They had also thrown his shoes into the girl’s toilets. He confided that the bullying had been going on for some time and that he no longer felt safe at school.
That night I sat down with my partner and asked,
“How bad do we let it get?”
My son’s basic needs for safety and security were not being met and I felt utterly powerless to change the situation.
We both knew we couldn’t wait.
So I put it to my son, “If I had a magic wand, what would be your one wish?”
“To leave this school and never come back”, he replied.
The next day when I picked him up from school, I told him that his wish had come true and that tomorrow would be his last day. He looked at me as though I had given him a brand-new toy.
We had found another Melbourne school for him, which was inclusive, friendly and down-to-earth.
Suffice to say, his lovely true personality remerged. He made some great friends, and his learning accelerated at lightning speed. Seriously! As a happy kid, he read 50 books the following year, and his writing improved significantly.
It was a good lesson for me that if you look after a kid’s mental health, then learning looks after itself.
As a child psychologist, parents often ask me the question: Should we change schools?
My experience of moving my child’s school was extremely positive and I am hugely relieved that we made that decision. Nevertheless, the process of deciding what will be best for your child is complex.
To help decide, I ask my clients to consider the following questions:
- Do you feel that the school environment or culture is negatively affecting your child emotionally or behaviourally? How long has it been going on?
- Have you tried to talk to the teacher, vice principal and principal (in that order)?
- Are there some things that you could do to improve the school experience for your child?
- Could this be an opportunity for your child to develop resilience and positive coping skills?
- Do you feel as though you have tried to effect positive change but that the environment is still unhealthy for your child?
- How does your child feel about the idea of moving schools?
- Are there other schools available that suit your family’s needs?
- Can you get insider information about the new school from kids, parents, teachers and the leadership team/ go on a tour/ attend the school fair?
- If your child does move to a new school, how will the new school help him/ her with the transition (making new kids, feeling included)?
- Is there extra support (outside of school) that may help your child to feel more secure at school (e.g. social skills training, support with self-esteem, counselling)?
- What will be the losses and the gains (for your child and your family)?
- If you do decide to move schools, can you time it so that your child has the best chance of successfully fitting in (e.g. at the start of the school year, or before camp).
The decision to move schools is an emotional one. Just like workplaces, each school has its unique culture, which may suit some kids, and not others. Ideally, as parents we make the right decision about the right school for our kids first time around. However, it is often not until our child is attending a school that we can fully gauge the culture.
The right school environment/ fit has immeasurable psychological and academic effects on our children. For my family, I look back on the decision we made with great relief. Whilst often thought to be a “last resort”, and unlikely to solve all your problems straight away, moving schools is sometimes the best option available.
-Dr Amy Kelly, Child Psychologist, Whole Heart Psychology.