October 24: Social Struggles at School
Over the past couple of weeks I have had conversations with several teachers in which they have described a phenomenon of students presenting as needier and younger than their chronological age. Preschool teachers have observed children having big reactions to small problems, being easily frustrated, and struggling to know how to engage peers in play or conversation. Similarly, teachers in elementary school have commented that, compared with pre-pandemic behavior, some children seem clingier and others are more standoffish. A teacher who works at a high school noted that many students in the incoming 9th grade class seemed to have social maturity more typical of a 7th grader.
I was initially hesitant to write about this phenomenon because the last thing parents need right now is another topic to worry about. However, since many parents will be attending parent-teacher conferences over the next several weeks, I thought it would be useful to communicate about this topic in advance of those conversations. Keep in mind that not every student is displaying younger-than-expected behavior at school, and some children may be functioning well at school and displaying more exhaustion or dysregulation at home.
How should parents respond when a child who is displaying social and emotional challenges at school?
First, try not to panic if you get a call or email from your child’s teacher. When someone at school reaches out, it provides you with an opportunity to ask questions so that you gain a more thorough understanding of the situation.
Brainstorm with your child’s teacher regarding potential solutions that are realistic to implement at school, and ask about involving the school social worker, guidance counselor, or adjustment counselor if appropriate.
Ask what is being done at your child’s grade level to support social and emotional learning. Asking this question might encourage the school to reflect on whether they need to ramp up support for student’s social and emotional functioning this year, particularly if many students in the grade are struggling in these areas.
That said, keep in mind that at the present time many schools are overrun with students with intense mental health needs. It is so helpful for parents to communicate that they want to work in partnership with the school towards everyone’s common goal of helping each child to be able to access learning, exhibit appropriate classroom behavior, and connect with peers.
Once you have spoken with the school and have more information, consider whether you can understand your child’s behavior in the context of a skill or set of skills that may be laggingrather than panicking about whether your child has a behavior problem. I find this lens so useful when children are behaving in ways that are unexpected, simply because when we identify an area where a child needs to build new skills this provides some direction regarding the best way for adults to support that child.
If you think your child may be out of practice at socializing, you might want to read my post about social atrophy from last February. Although we’re at a different place in the pandemic right now, the information provided continues to be relevant.
Whenever your child is struggling, it is always useful to review some physical and mental health basics:
o Is your child getting enough sleep? If there has been a recent disruption in sleep, can you make a plan to help set your child’s sleep schedule back on track?
o Does your child get some exercise and fresh air most days?
o Over the course of a week does your child eat a variety of nutritious foods?
o Are you comfortable with your child’s use of screens or is it time for a screen time re-set?
o Does your child have unstructured, screen-free down time each week to play and create in a relaxed way?
If you are worried about a lag in development, try to hold in mind that children are constantly growing and changing. A child who is presenting as socially immature this fall will have many opportunities to learn and practice new skills over the course of this school year. As with many pandemic-related situations, the more that adults can remain calm, kind, and patient, the better off everyone will be.