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Supporting a child struggling in a traditional school setting

You can expect your child will have challenges at some point in their schooling, and most will pass over time. If challenges persist, identifying the reason your child is struggling and working with your school to provide support are the first options to consider. For some children, however, a move to an alternative school setting may be the best solution.

Initially, it is most important to listen to what your child is saying, observe what they are doing, and hear what teachers have to say so that you know when your child needs help. During my assessments, I make a point to ask children directly whether they like being at their school.  If they say no, I try to understand what is getting in the way and consider whether the problem is solvable in their current traditional school setting. In these conversations I hear, “I’m being bullied,” “I can’t keep up; school is too hard,”“I’m bored; school is too easy; I’m not learning anything interesting.” Teachers may also shed light on these experiences observing that, “They don’t seem to fit in with their peers,“ “They don’t seem engaged,” or “They are not keeping up with the class.” You may observe that your children’s behavior is particularly difficult to manage once they get home, that getting your child to school is always a fight, or that your child is actively avoiding school or classes. These are all signs that your child needs support, and it is important to start that process as soon as possible when these signs appear.

As limiting school moves is an important factor for children’s academic, social, and emotional well-being, you will want to first consider whether there is a way to support your child at their current school. This will involve being your child’s advocate. Start by talking to your child’s teacher about your concerns and to see what support they have, or that they can provide. The teacher can work with you on a plan to support your child in the short term. If they cannot offer these services through the school, the teacher may suggest the need for parents to pursue a formal assessment with a professional (e.g., a psychologist, family physician, pediatrician) to help further clarify challenges, to identify your child’s specific needs, and to provide recommendations for support. School administrators, resource teachers, and educational assistants may also need to become involved to access a higher level of support within your school. Making a plan, and frequently monitoring the plan with the teacher, will be important to determine if the plan is successful or whether other school options are required.

When it is apparent that a traditional school will not meet your child’s needs, considering an alternative program may be a good option. Considering an alternative school setting can be a big decision. Given factors like convenience and affordability, this may lead you to keep your child in a traditional school setting longer than is healthy, even though it is clear they are struggling. Some reasons that it may be time to consider an alternative school setting:

  • School/class avoidance
  • Failing/falling grades
  • Your child is continually feeling isolated, lonely, or bullied
  • Increasing emotional or behavioral symptoms (depression, anxiety, irritability, opposition, anger)

Whether you decide to move schools or not, do not ignore these signs that something needs to change. If you decide a move to an alternative school setting is the best option, some factors to consider in a school move include:

  • Immediacy of need for change (as soon as possible, next school year, next division)
  • Fit of the school for your child (school entry requirements, focus, or specialization)
  • School philosophy and teaching methods
  • Flexibility in lesson delivery (online/hybrid options)
  • Teacher/student ratio (How much individualized attention does your child need?)
  • Distance from home community (busing, proximity to classmates)
  • Cost (publicly funded, partially subsidized, or private pay)
  • Acceptance rate (likelihood of getting into the school)

Do your homework; you want the best chance that this will be a positive move for your child to limit the need for another move too quickly. Make sure that the school will address the specific challenge you identified. You can visit the school, talk to parents of other students, and research to better understand the school’s success with children like yours.

Helping your child when they are struggling in a traditional school setting starts with really listening to your child. Keeping your mind open, observing what they are doing, and hearing what they are saying. Working with your child’s teacher to build supports within their current school is the first step. If there has been little change over the year or across years, you may want to consider moving your child to an alternative school setting that better meets their needs. Careful consideration is required to find the right school and to ensure that the move will ultimately be a better fit.


Dr. Harriet Johnston is a faculty member with the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary. She is a supervisor for graduate students through the Centre for Wellbeing in Education, Clinical Services at the university. She also runs a solo private practice in Calgary, Cowtown Psychology.


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