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Sometime when you're feeling close and connected to your child (maybe after reading a story together, or while you're playing quietly), ask her to tell you a little bit about what's wrong with school. She may be able to tell you directly, or you may need to set up particular conditions first. Feeling safe, loved, and close is what enables a child to talk to you about difficulties she's having. You can give her that sense of closeness either by playing with her, vigorously and generously, or by listening closely to her. For instance, if your child has a huge tantrum and you are able to listen all the way through her emotional meltdown and not argue or defend yourself, she may feel close enough to you afterward to volunteer information about some challenge she's facing.
Your child also may open up if you ask her a positive question first. Someday when you're dishing out ice cream, or hanging out in the living room playing a board game, or riding in the car with no big agenda, ask her, "If you could make school any way you wanted, how would you make it?" "If you could have anybody you know be your teacher, who would you choose, and why?" "What would you do to make recess the very best it could be?" "If you were in charge of how boys and girls played together, how would you set it up?" You'll hear about the difficulties, but you'll have gotten around the hopeless feelings that make a child clam up by asking the question in a positive way.
Sometimes, the incidents that make school difficult don't happen at school. A child may be upset about being away from you, or may have stored up fears from very early childhood that are making her want to be at home. Children can carry strong feelings from babyhood or toddlerhood, and school may exacerbate an old sense that they're not safe, or not welcome, or not in charge. Your child may be able to tell you some of this, or you may never know exactly what's at the root of her difficulty with school.
Try to identify the small triggers that bring on emotional meltdowns for your child. Clearly a big bunch of feelings is in the way of her enjoying the major part of her day. Children will often try to rid themselves of bad feelings by finding a tiny pretext for falling apart. They may say, "I don't want to wear that shirt to school" or "You put too much milk on my cereal" or "I'm too tired to get out of bed" — and then burst into tears. When your child chooses a pretext for a tantrum or a crying session, let her go to it. Don't ask her to control her feelings and regain her composure so she can be grown up. We all need a good cry now and then, and a child who is hating school has lots of bad feelings inside that she needs to get out so she's free to feel differently. It's as if the bad feelings don't leave any room for new ones. If a child can cry long and hard, or have huge tantrums while you stay close and loving, the frustration or grief that she feels will loosen its grip on her. She'll be able to think of new ways to handle things at school, or feel better about herself there, if someone has heard part of the little stockpile of bad feelings she's carrying.
Wading into a meltdown with your child doesn't mean that you give in. She's using your patient firmness as something to hit up against so she can get her feelings out. You don't give her a second helping of whatever it is you've already said no to. You stick to what you said about her needing to brush her teeth. You don't give in to her demand to sit next to Daddy when it's her sister's turn. But you don't impose your will right away; you just stay with her while she expresses every feeling she can possibly show you. This might go on for half an hour or more, but her functioning will improve dramatically once she's had a chance to show somebody what a big, awful wad of feelings she's been carrying. It won't sound like it's about school, or even about an older, larger issue in your child's life. It'll sound like it's about brushing teeth or where she sits at the table. But those other issues will begin to clear once she has plenty of chances not just to cry but to go all the way through a tantrum — and then to decide that she's finished.
It's not easy to handle these situations. You've had a long day, or you're trying to get to work, or you're trying to keep everything on schedule so you can do what needs to get done. But children benefit tremendously from having someone get down on one knee and put an arm around them and listen for as long as they can cry. It's difficult because often what you hear is heartfelt criticism of you: "You're a bad mommy, and I don't want to live with you anymore." "You're the worst daddy I ever had." It can cut very deep when you're working hard as a parent. But when a child can cry all the way through her feelings and either use you as a target or just rant and rave about things at school, her functioning in school the next day, and with her friends and with you, will be profoundly better. It's one of the hardest things you can do as a parent, but it's the fast track toward giving your child a fresh start emotionally and functionally.
You have two tasks. One is to help your child with her feelings. Listening to her talk or cry about the teacher or about some injustice in the classroom will enable her to figure out ways to avoid a bad situation or protect herself. You don't need to solve every little difficulty she runs up against; let her think about it and come up with new and interesting ways of dealing with it. Your other task is to help your child deal with the damaging things that she does encounter in school, such as classmates who constantly tease or fight, or teachers who belittle or punish children or act irrationally toward them. Work out with your child how and how much she wants you to help; she needs to be an equal partner in deciding what role you play.
I know several parents who've met with their child's teacher and asked if they could help with group dynamics — the boys are teasing the girls, or the girls are rejecting each other (this often hits around 2nd or 3rd grade). If you're interested in doing that, ask the teacher for half an hour of the class's time. Tell the children that adults tend to tease children, thinking that it doesn't hurt their feelings (even though it really does), and then children tease each other and it hurts everyone's feelings. Then meet with the children in groups of two or three for 15 or 20 minutes and ask them to tell you about a time when they were teased or when a friend of theirs was teased. How did they feel, what did they think, and what did they want to say? What do the children think people should do when they see teasing happening? This can relieve a lot of tension and redirect the group dynamic in a classroom.