What to do if your child is unhappy at school

Like adults in the workplace, it’s important to remember that your child will not always be happy at school — whether due to academic pressures, issues within friendship groups or inadequate support from teaching staff. Often, this can be quite obvious — coming home crying, for example — but in some cases, it can be a little more difficult to spot.

At primary level, your child may have trouble making friends or adjusting to being away from home. Older children, on the other hand, may be affected by the stress of assignments and exams (particularly in Years 11 and 12) or clashes with friends.

Remember, your child may not want to tell you that they are unhappy. Some children fear that parents will brush off their concerns or that they should toughen up and confront their own problems. Although this is an important developmental learning curve, there will be times when your child will need your help (and may not know it).

How to tell if your child is unhappy at school

The following are some examples of non-verbal signs that your child is not enjoying school: 

  • Reluctance to go to school (including physical symptoms such as crying, frequent stomach aches or vomiting before school)
  • Unwillingness to complete homework or set assignments
  • Low academic results
  • Misbehaving at home, as well as at school
  • Asking to move schools.

What to do

If any of the above sound familiar, it is important to ask questions. While some children will come home with a ‘mile-a-minute’ account of their day, others prefer to keep quiet — especially in the teenage years. If you suspect that your child is having trouble at school, you should ask open-ended questions about their day. For younger children, you may ask who they played with at lunch time or what was presented during ‘show and tell’. If your child is a little older, you can delve deeper and ask about assessments, what their friends are up to, and so on.

It is also important to make sure that you listen closely — free of judgment — as this will help your child open up. It may even be a good idea to ask your child to write down their issues, as this may be easier than physically relaying the story.  

You should also ensure that your child knows that you can help — and how. Your child should see that opening up to you will do them no harm. If they are struggling with a subject at school, for example, they should know that you will not accuse them of not studying, but will instead try to find a solution.

If you aren’t getting anywhere, talk to their teacher. They spend all week with your child and should know if something is going on in their school life — whether this means they can offer a little bit of background to the situation or suggest possible solutions to fix the problem. While you should not expect daily contact, it is important to establish a good relationship so that you are kept ‘in the know’ and so that staff can address your concerns.   

Should your child move schools?

If your child has asked to move schools, this is not a decision to be taken lightly and should usually be a last resort. (Remember — your child cannot keep moving schools each time an issue arises.) If your child is being bullied, for example, it is important to get all the facts then contact the school — whether this is your child’s teacher or for more serious matters, the principal. Most schools enforce a strict anti-bullying policy and will be able to help. You should not assume that your child’s teachers are aware of the problem, as a lot of bullying goes on away from teachers’ eyes, and in many cases, online (see Cyber bullying in schools).

Further information

Some schools will have resources on their websites, such as the school anti-bullying policy, or may feature articles and tips in their newsletter. The state and territory Department of Education websites also have sections dedicated to your child's school life. See below for a full list.

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