In broaching this topic, you may think that we refer solely to Early Years Foundation Stage students; the youngest of young pupils that may have trouble adjusting to a new environment and being away from mum and dad for extended periods.
For these small learners, separation anxiety is indeed a grave concern, one that EYFS teachers are trained to recognise and deal with. But they're not the only students who may have trouble settling in with classmates and/or within an institutional setting.
Special educational needs students may also have trouble adjusting to being in school. For some, simply being in schools can be hyper-stimulating - causing them severe distress while, for others, the pace of instruction and the teaching methods may not suit their learning needs.
For instance, a learner who is dyslexic will likely have trouble in English, Maths - all classes even when SEN concessions are made.
ADD, ADHD, autism spectrum and all other disabilities aside... these aren't the kids we're talking about, either.
Any student may find that they're having a hard time settling into the routine of school. Not because they hate to wake up in the morning, don't like their teachers or don't care for PE. You may remember from your school days how trying a day in the hallowed halls of academia can be - let alone entire semesters worth.
Your Superprof takes a look at the challenges facing students in schools today, why school may not be the proper setting for your child and what you can do about it.
Making Our Case
Many parents find that their child hasn’t settled into school, even after months of attendance. In fact, many parents and educational specialists now dispute whether children need school at all. To be sure, everyone needs education; the question is where and how that education should take place.
Many parents also dispute that there’s something ‘wrong’ with their child if they don’t settle in well. They take the opposite view; that it is the school system that is wrong rather than the child.
Often, school is touted as a communal place where children learn as much about social skills and functioning in society as they do about reading, writing and arithmetic, if not more. Is that the accepted norm or an actual consensus?
Today, educational psychologists and other specialists are debating whether school is the best place to learn about and cope with the challenges people face in life, as is often maintained. Increasingly, they believe that school is nothing like life and school settings - the cliques, the microcosms and the regimentation are not replicated anywhere outside of school.
At no time has the (ir)relevance of school been more effectively highlighted than during the COVID pandemic. Nobody was ready for lockdowns - not school systems and teachers; not parents and certainly not pupils.
It was months of inactivity followed by a mad scramble to move lessons online. There were some notable fails but, overall, for being a 'duct tape and baling wire' operation, things went fairly well. The return to the classroom in our now-altered reality was celebrated... but less than spectacular.
There were/are fears of infection, fuelled by reports of infections on other campuses. Our kids have to stay socially distant and ever mindful of safe practices. Should a student become infected, s/he had to self-isolate for a fortnight, reverting to taking lessons online.
One might argue that, with such a cloud hanging over schools everywhere, how could kids be happy to attend?
The coronavirus is just one more reason, on top of several others that kids don't necessarily love the idea of school; let's look at some of them now.
Factors That Put Kids Off of School
We Brits tend to put far less stock into our secondary school exploits than our friends across the pond do. After all, which British recording artist wrote a song similar to Bruce Springsteen's Glory Days - a song about people who believe their best days were when they were students in high school?
I guess we could invoke Madness' Baggy Trousers but the feeling really isn't the same, is it?
Whether our school experience was Glory Days or Baggy Trousers, every student past and present is aware of the following difficulties that are unique to the school environment.
Bullying takes many forms and can originate from anywhere. It's not just students who bully each other, sometimes - more often than we care to think about, teachers bully students. From name-calling to physical intimidation - and now, in our tech-driven world, in cyberspace, the effects of bullying can be devastating.
In a peer group, bullying is often used to establish a social pecking order. Often, this need to establish dominance begins at home, between siblings. Parents may play a role in helping their children turn into bullies too, in some cases by asserting a preference for one child over another or by goading kids into fighting with each other.
Other reasons kids bully one another include (but are not limited to):
- Jealousy - less adept students may pick on a particularly bright classmate
- Boredom: there is simply not enough excitement at school to keep things interesting
- Low self-esteem: the bully doesn't have much faith in him/herself; s/he must constantly assert their power over others
- Exposure to intolerance: if a child is exposed to bigotry and hatred, s/he will exhibit those qualities in his/her interactions
- Social cliques are mainly exclusionary; if you're not included in this group, you are fair game for harassment.
Nothing makes a child more miserable at school than bullying. If students are miserable, their academic performance suffers and they can’t achieve as they should - or would, had they not been targeted or exposed to bullying.
If it is the school administrators or staff doing the bullying, both children and parents may feel powerless to overcome it.
The Unhealthy Social Climate
The social climate in schools has long been considered acceptable and a place where children learn to function in society.
However, as schools grow larger and student bodies more diverse, and the competitive pressure - both for social standing and for grades is greater, many parents now dispute the idea that schools' social climate is beneficial as they watch their children adopt undesirable behaviours simply to survive.
Such behaviours may include smoking and/or taking drugs, being sexually active, cheating on exams, cutting classes or missing entire days of school. While we can't say that every student adopts these behaviours by buckling under peer pressure, a substantial number of school kids adopt those bad behaviours to try to fit in.
Children learn social skills in the environment they routinely find themselves in and there's no guarantee that other students practise the same behaviours you wish for your child to exemplify. Unfortunately, once judged and accepted by their peers, your children are unlikely to abandon the behaviours that got them that approval, no matter how much you don't like them.
In fact, your very disapproval may cause them to embrace wrongdoing that much more gleefully.
Unhappiness in the School Environment
Some of us thrive in situations that others find incapacitating or outright debilitating.
Let's face it: schools are institutions. While some may have brightly-coloured hallways and inviting classrooms, they are all fairly standard. The halls are long and echoey. The classrooms are filled with desks, each one facing the blackboard (or whiteboard, as we update our teaching tools). Few school buildings have been upgraded to meet the influx of students - more of them than ever before.
Class overcrowding, teaching resources far too limited to meet the demand for quality instruction using innovative methods, a curriculum that has not significantly changed for the last century or more... Indeed, the school climate does not suit every child. Many children suffer in a learning environment where there is too much noise, stress, distraction or crowding... and not much that holds their attention.
Furthermore, just about every school student knows the capability and flexibility of online study tools. For them, textbooks must seem like a less-than-charming anachronism being foisted on them. For the most part, they just can't wait to be done with the antiquity of school so that they can get back to their real lives - chatting with mates, playing games and streaming videos on their phones and tablets.
Stress From Too Much Testing
In schools, children are continually subjected to exams, something that some parents believe must be an essential part of their child’s academic experience.
However, testing does not enhance or advance knowledge acquisition. It only measures what has been learned and, as such, is not relevant to the child. It is only relevant for school administrators, charts and/or league tables - which have nothing to do with an individual’s education.
Indeed, more educators are coming to the conclusion that tasking students to sit routine examinations neither proves how much they've learned, nor does it detail what a good job Teacher has done. In fact, it proves the opposite. We'll go deeper into that in just a moment.
Where the Concept of Public Education Misses the Mark
Which is correct: lessons should be to be teacher-led or student-led?
You might scoff at the idea of students leading lessons but that educational model is currently gaining traction in schools around the world. The concept does not involve kids taking their turn at the rostrum to lecture. Rather, it's the idea that, once Teacher provides a prompt, they follow intuitive paths to find conclusions on their own.
In this educational model, a teacher's function is to be more supportive than instructive, allowing students to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills while coming up with answers on their own.
One major drawback of compulsory education is that it assumes that kids have no knowledge; they must be fed every nugget and then tested to see if it digested well. Research has found that quite the opposite is true. While learners may not have the academic knowledge - higher maths and literature, they certainly come equipped with academic competencies.
Academic competencies are skills, attitudes and behaviours that lead to academic success.
Doesn't it seem strange that we welcome learners who are fully equipped to succeed in school and summarily dismiss their capabilities in favour of making them sit still and listen?
That isn't the only mark missed in schools...
Learning Needs Are Not Being Met
All children are different and they all have different needs. Some pick things up quickly and easily, others need more time. Some learn well taking academic approaches, others need more experiential approaches and greater hands-on opportunities. Some thrive in stillness and quiet, others need to be more physical, moving about, learn best to music or noise.
Most students learn best by doing, rather than by listening, but it would be impossible for schools, as they are set up now, to cater to all the differing needs and take the varying approaches required to reach and teach every student.
An Inhibiting Curriculum
The current educational method of schooling and examining requires that children's progress be constantly measured and assessed.
To follow that model, schools adhere to a fairly rigid curriculum and timetable. This causes much of what children learn in schools to be irrelevant and of no interest to them. Therefore, youngsters grow less motivated to learn and become disengaged.
There is also the danger of making those who don’t reach the assigned milestones within the given time frame into ‘failures’. For instance, if a student fails to demonstrate satisfactory penmanship, s/he will get bad marks for handwriting regardless of whether s/he wilfully failed to apply herself or has under-developed motor skills - a much more serious problem that should be addressed.
Our schools' exam-oriented curriculum also overlooks the need for mastering life skills.
These life skills - initiative, thinking skills, confidence, and assertiveness are the ones employers say our youngsters lack, even though they may have the academic qualifications to do the work, thus making them unsuitable for just about any work.
Children gain life skills by living their lives but they seldom have the chance to live or lead anything while their noses are being held to the grindstone for grades.
Teaching to the Test
When it comes to SATs, GCSEs and A-Levels - and all of the other standardised exams our students have to sit, the sentiment runs from outrage to disgust. Seldom does anyone feel that subjecting students to a battery of exams that demonstrates... hardly anything is a good and worthy endeavour.
In part, that negative sentiment is driven by the fact that teachers spend less time exploring any material beyond what will feature on those exams. And woe to the child who displays an ounce of curiosity! S/he is likely to meet anything from 'look it up on your own' to 'we don't cover that in this class' - both are discouraging answers.
Please don't misunderstand, though. Teachers everywhere envision a classroom where students' curiosity may be indulged. Diverging from the narrow path set forth by the Department for Education is every teacher's dream - indeed, quite possibly the reason they got into teaching.
But, teachers have mandates, too. They must follow the syllabus as it is set out and subject their students to exams that even teachers know have far less worth than they're being assigned.
Short of a total revamp of our educational system, what can be done to give students the education they need?
The Case for Homeschooling
With the advent of web-based learning, educational software and the capability to network with many others who educate their kids at home, it is possible for families whose children don’t settle well in school to educate their kids outside of it. If nothing else, this pandemic has shown us how few limits there are on teaching outside of schools.
With increasing opportunities to learn independently, especially online, many people are turning to home education - both as a solution for all that is wrong with traditional education and to advance their children's intellectual pursuits whether school is in session or not.
These days, many parents have reservations about sending our children to school but weigh the idea that they might be wrong. Quite a few note that, as the daily grind wears on, their kids soon become unhappy with school, unwell and unwilling to go back. Some students even lose their love of learning altogether.
Some parents decide to home-educate, often until their kids were ready for college and university, which proves the point; children don’t necessarily need to be in school to become educated or equipped with the life skills they need.
One parent avers: "During our years of homeschooling, we never experienced or witnessed bullying in any group, or of any kind, at any time." In short, educating out of school allows parents to provide the study environment their child needs to thrive and achieve.
Many homeschooled children go through the whole of their education without suffering a single incident of exam stress yet still function and achieve high marks when it comes to later exams.
Many home educators also find that, once out of the classroom, the difficulties their child had in school fade away as their particular study needs are accommodated.
It is this life-skill side of education that flourishes so well when children are educated out of school and have more power over their education, and their life, and their education is taken out of an exacting time frame.
Now that you have the facts, are you thinking about homeschooling your child(ren)? If so, a Superprof tutor or academic coach can help you get started.
Ross Mountney, author of ‘Learning Without School', 'Home Education’ and ‘A Funny Kind Of Education’ contributed to this article.