Back to School 2016: 3 Conversations to Have with Your Child About School

These conversation prompts will help you understand your child’s thoughts and feelings about school as the new school year begins. Try introducing each topic casually while doing other activities like walking the dog or setting the table for dinner. Your child will feel less pressured and more likely to engage openly.

Conversation #1

“Describe your perfect school year, your fantasy school year! Whatever you want, no rules. And yes, this includes magic/superpowers.” Your child will ask you for guidelines before proceeding. “Can I go to a different school?” “Yep.” “Switch teachers?” “For sure.” “Can I teleport?” “Of Course. Go!”

Q. What’s the point of the fantasy school year question?

A. It highlights aspirations and fears. It also opens the door to topics you may exclude in discussions (unintentionally, because you don’t have ESP), or issues beneath your child’s conscious awareness. This discussion removes the roadblocks (real or perceived) that keep your child from exploring their “best self”. The fantasy school year prompt reminds me of asking children in a Kindergarten class what they want to be when they grow up. They’ll say president or astronaut. But after a few years in school, children will self-censor based on negative feedback they receive from the media, parents, teachers, and peers. Fantasy school year taps into your child’s core desires, and gives them a chance share them with you.

Conversation. #2

“What went really well last year at school?” When your child is done talking, offer your recollection, “Remember, you had x, y, z doubt/fear, and then you did so well!”

Q. Why ask about successes last year, doesn’t this put more pressure on my child to be perfect?

A. This reminds your child of something they’ve already done successfully, plus it reinforces that you’re not solely focusing on improvement. Children think that you expect successes to be reproduced, and continuing the positive behavior becomes a part of their repertoire to please you. They may not try new things to avoid being accountable for them, or to avoid hearing about the success/failure in future conversations. They worry it’s one more thing Mom/Dad will “nag” them about. A child’s safest option, guaranteed 100% successful, is to opt-out on a challenge. When you ask about last year’s successes, you’re really saying this: I’m still proud of you, and I believe that you can, and will, have continued success. Exploring last year’s successes encourages your child to reach for new goals and build resilience through planning and effort.

Conversation #3

“What are your goals for this year?” Listen, and don’t autocorrect their goals. When they’re done, say, “Thank you for sharing that. What can we do to support you?” Later ask, “what do we do to get in the way of you reaching X goal? Sometimes we’re trying to help, but I know we might be annoying or get in your way.”

Q. If I say that I am “annoying” or “get in the way” as a parent, doesn’t this invite disrespect from my child? Won’t it feed the contentions between us?

A. Children and especially adolescents report feeing annoyed and put off by parents’ way of supporting or “helping” them. Children are often resistant to advice/support that revolves around “how” to do a task, like pack for a school trip or create a science poster. It may appear they are refusing to do “what” needs to be done. Children ages 11-14 have increasingly strong desires for autonomy, not to mention hormones influencing their mood and frustration tolerance. By acknowledging your child’s language and feelings at any age you show awareness and empathy, which deflates power struggles and brings you closer together.

Tips on how to support children with unique learning profiles in these conversations:

Q. What if my child gets stuck or struggles with verbal expression?

A. Offer the opportunity to draw a picture, a comic, or make up a play/song, or describe fantasy school year for a movie/fictional/video game character. You may need to lend your frontal lobe (the organizing part of your brain) to your child by offering categories. Avoid judgment-tinged prompts like, “don’t you want to get higher grades on math quizzes?” Instead, suggest fantasy school year categories that are as general as possible so your judgments and concerns don’t creep in. A few ideas: friendships, energy/mood, free time, lunch and recess, having fun, homework, healthful eating, grades, soccer/piano/etc., technology use/rules, family time, reading. Try saying “what about lunch?” or “some topics for fantasy school year might be piano, recess, homework…”

Q. Will these topics cause additional distress/pressure to my child with learning differences?

A. If your child has the additional challenge of learning differences, they may have long ago abandoned the fantasy school year. Either your child doesn’t know what it feels like to have a good year, or they are in a supportive environment and the struggle is such a part of their everyday awareness that they wouldn’t think to consider fantasy school year. So, this question can reinvigorate free-spiritedness and fun for children and adolescents with learning differences. If your child brings up wishing ADHD or dyslexia would go away, then allow them to speak freely. This doesn’t introduce a new concern, it just provides a safe and supportive space to say whatever is on their mind.

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