I am aware that there will be those who know the schools and teachers I write about. This post is not about blame, my intention is not to call them out, as I still believe that as a whole; teachers are just trying to do their best job in a system that is broken. Please know that this is my family’s personal experience, that there are some parts left out (this is an overview of our personal journey). I am well aware others may have differing opinions, but I know in my heart that my husband and I took a brave stance in making the best choice for our family and appreciate we are fortunate to be able to do so.
I feel for families going through this with their children and hope for change within the system so ALL children can feel safe at school and enjoy learning.
My purpose in sharing this personal experience is to help other parents going through similar challenges to help them feel validated and not so alone.
Our Journey to Home-schooling…
I was recently asked “What was the thing that made you certain that home-schooling was the right decision for your son?”
It’s a long answer.
Get a cuppa.
Let me take you back a few steps first
I loved teaching in schools when I started my career.
In fact I loved teaching in schools right up until about the last 2 years of classroom teaching, but that’s another story…
I NEVER EVER thought I would be doing home-schooling!
However, schooling for my own boys has not been an easy road.
My eldest son enjoyed Kindy.
Then I started seeing the cracks in the system when he moved into Pre-Primary.
He has a June birthday, so was one of the youngest in his cohort, he was starting at a new school (which had a very good reputation) and of course, he is a boy; so the odds were against him from the start…
However, he had well-developed social skills, a fantastic grasp of oral language and an innate love of learning – so I was sure he would love school and thrive.
As proud parents we packed him off to Pre Primary at the ripe age of three and a half believing he was ready to take on the next step, full-time school…
We were called into school for a meeting. As I sat there, discussing his progress, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of disappointment and a load of guilt. My little one, not even 4 years old, was already considered “behind” in his writing skills. How could I have failed him? As a mum and as a teacher! But little did I know that, that moment of despair would be the start of our journey to home-schooling.
Take 2 : Our youngest son starts school
We were ready this time- right?
By the time Flynn (my youngest son) started Kindy, I had already had all those experiences under my belt, plus I had taught in Pre Primary and Kindy classes by that time also.
We fully expected schooling to be a breeze this time around. Flynn is a very bright boy, he has always picked up skills (reading and writing, maths, physical skills etc) very quickly and easily, my big boy has always had to work hard to get them.
Flynn was reading and writing before he started Kindy, yet term 1 of Kindy and there I was again sitting in yet another meeting with teachers discussing how HE was also ‘behind’.
His introversion and gentle nature was under scrutiny. A ‘problem’ was identified… He liked to sit in the sand pit and play with sticks in there all by himself at break times. His teachers asked him to join in with the other kids and he would say “No, thank you”.
When this was presented to me as a problem, I was much wiser second time around! I knew that this was entirely appropriate play for a 4 year old and it made me feel proud that he was able to assert himself and say no thank you, because he didn’t feel like playing with the other kids. (This was early in term 1 he is a naturally shy child and he hadn’t yet even had much opportunity to establish friendships).
Alarm bells sounded…
Unlike my big boy, Flynn never liked school. Drop-offs were always upsetting for him (and me too). He just did not want to be there. I could see the pressure and expectation impacting him.
Since it was a non-compulsory year anyway, I decided to withdraw him to homeschool to give him time and nurture his emotional development.
A year later, we enrolled him back into school (a different school) in Pre-Primary.
Fast forward to Grade 2…This is the part where our decision to permanently home-school happens.
Flynn was excited to start Year 2, he’d been happy enough in grade 1. In the first few weeks of Grade 2 he started not wanting to go to school. He would tell me he was worried about school.
It was well known among parents, this teacher was strict and would shout at kids and Flynn reported he was often told to hurry up because he wasn’t finishing his work on time. The teacher had confirmed to me he was very well behaved, but slow to finish his work and often distracted.
I mentioned to his teacher that he was reluctant to come to school in the mornings, and her response gave me real insight as to exactly why he was so worried. Her response to me was that she “is tough on the kids at the start of the year” apparently to set the standard. Hmmm…
Starting the year ‘tough’ is common approach in classrooms.
This stance is not unusual let me tell you…
I remember hearing over my career, teachers jokingly saying “You don’t smile until April” (that’s extreme, but the mentality is start hard and then soften up).
And that right there, that approach, that was the beginning of the end for my sensitive boy. (And it’s probably had similar impact on many other kids too).
As a former teacher, I’m fully aware that the first few weeks of any school year are dedicated to testing students. Assessment schedules are set and need to be completed within a short time frame which means tests make up a big part of the classroom timetable in term 1. Teachers are under pressure to get data (results) in and the pressure filters down to the kids. Instead of building relationships, it is straight into testing, testing, testing.
It’s not surprising, my boy would have been distracted, he would likely have been stressed out of his little mind with worry that he was about to get into trouble, with the testing schedule and not being fast enough to finish his work. At the time, we were also on a waiting list to see a paediatrician for a diagnosis of ADHD (which we had communicated with the school). And as many parents would know, the waitlists here in Perth were massive with no appointments for the foreseeable future.
The saddest part especially for our neurodivergent kids is that they are reprimanded or worse punished for something they literally have no control over! There is a constant internal battle between wanting to get the work done or do the right thing, but an inability to do it.
And what follows is shame, for not being able to, and it being pointed out to them (sometimes publicly in front of their peers).
School did not feel safe for my boy.
Some people say, that kids have to be more resilient; learn how to deal with all different types of people, some they will like, some they won’t. It’s part of growing up. I know that. I know we all have to experience difficult people in our lives, but not day in, day out without any choice at the age of 7!
Imagine going to work for a boss who you fear, every day, with no opportunity or power to stand up for yourself. Now imagine that from the eyes of a 7 year old.
To my son, his teacher was not a safe person for him (I don’t mean physically, but emotionally he didn’t feel supported). Her ‘tough’ approach had actually damaged the potential for connection right from the start. He didn’t trust that she had his back.
And so what started as distrust for the teacher, quickly turned into fear and then because of mishandling (a deputy principal had tried to pull him away from my husband one morning at drop off- to which she did apologise) it escalated to school anxiety.
The anxiety was intense. It was relentless and carried into other parts of his life. This child was petrified of entering his classroom. Walking through the classroom door was near on impossible for him.
We had countless meetings with his school (teacher, deputy and principal). Of course with my area of expertise, I had effective strategies for him (and them) to use. I needed their partnership to ensure he had the support for these effective strategies. We saw real progress, it was working, but unfortunately, we kept hitting roadblocks from the school. We were told that they didn’t have the staffing resources to continue the approach we had in place. We were also faced with the realisation that some schools just don’t handle school anxiety appropriately.
With staffing being an issue, lack of time, understanding and resources within the school I asked the principal what he suggested we do. He said we should leave Flynn at school in the morning, a staff member would restrain him and we should leave and drive away. He said Flynn would settle once we leave. He said Flynn would be “fine”.
Leaving a child in distress and physically restraining them (if needed) is one of the most common approaches used for school “refusal”. I was disappointed that we were still being advised to use this in 2022. I could (in fact I will) write a follow-up on how detrimental this practise is to a child’s emotional development and how it can damage the trust relationship within families.
I am thankful that with my expertise, I was knowledgeable of the damage that can be done with this commonplace practice and so I explicitly made it clear that we would not be following THAT advice. I am appalled that in this day and age, knowing what we do about the impact of trauma and in an age of body autonomy and consent, that physical restraint is even an option let alone a recommendation! It saddens me that well-intentioned parents are led to believe that this is the right way to manage the situation.
I am sure that the staff at the school had opinions of me being over-protective, but honestly, I don’t care! That is my role to protect my child. I was told “He will be fine”. Every ounce of me knew he would NOT BE FINE.
It wasn’t that long ago that it was deemed ‘fine’ for schools to hit students with corporal punishment, but we know better now.
This is similar… When we know the damage it can cause, we must cease, we must do better.
That was the moment. That is how I knew homeschooling was the best choice for my family.
It was a year ago now that we were in the thick of it. So when I talk to other parents going through school anxiety, I completely understand. It was harrowing and took its toll on us all. I witnessed my happy little fellow turn into a shell of himself. There was no escape, it was always with him (on the successful days that he managed to stay and the days where we just couldn’t make it).
If you want to know how how you can get through these difficult challenges, you can access a free resource here:
Flynn has been home educated for a year now. We don’t refer to it as home-schooling, as his learning now doesn’t resemble school those school experiences at all. I have my happy, calm, confident boy once again. He is enjoying learning, socialising with kids and adults (in alternative settings) and thriving.
* We did also consult with a private psychologist who reaffirmed the decision was right for us. We have also, since had a diagnosis for Flynn.
Are you tired of the struggle with school anxiety too? Do you also feel frustrated with the lack of support and compassion from the education system? At Raising Connected Kids we understand your pain- we’ve been there too.
After witnessing the damaging effects of traditional schooling on our sensitive son, we made the only choice we could.
I have worked closely with Flynn to undo the knots of school anxiety – it took time and close guidance. If you would like to learn in detail how I supported Flynn, or would like support for your child. Register your interest here and you will have first access to our special, upcoming School Anxiety Workshop for Kids.