If a client in a coaching session asks about school choices, I always say: work with the child you’ve got, not the child you want them to be. Really get to grips with understanding who your child is in terms of their temperament – what may work for one child may not work for another.
I wouldn’t advise a client to let their 10-year-old make that choice – it’s too big a decision. But as they get older and start understanding more and more what their needs are, you should involve them in the choice. I think it’s very dangerous to make decisions for children without involving them fully, because if the placement doesn’t work, it will always backfire because your child will blame you. It’s a very fine line – I would say you need to know your child, know what motivates them, involve them in the school decision-making process – and they have to be really motivated, because if the placement doesn’t work out and you forced it, there may be a blame culture as a result.
How can we parents help their children manage school transitions, especially at the moment, when many children will be starting schools which are unfamiliar to them?
I think the skill needed here is very simple, very practical, very logical: it’s called setting up for success. It’s about not ambushing your children, so it’s about doing as much as you can to find out as much information on the school as you can, from the web or from talking to your network of other families. Talk often and frequently about the school in a positive light. This might include planning to buy the school uniform or meeting up with other families to see if there are other children in the neighbourhood going to the same school; or literally taking the train with them to help plan their journey to school. There’s no rocket science to this – it’s about talking in a positive light, doing your research and just keeping an open mind to any information you can pick up from the school.
Keep talking about it but keep listening to what your child may be feeling worried about, because there is a temptation when our child is worried about something – the dining room, for example – for us to say, ‘Oh don’t be silly, everything will be fine.’ We go down that route of reassurance. Or else we deny the feeling: ‘Oh don’t worry, it’ll be fine.’ If our child says, ‘I’m really worried that I won’t make any friends,’ we say, ‘Oh don’t worry, everybody’s in the same boat.’
We dismiss or deny or reassure our children – and none of these things are wrong but they’re not effective. We have a skill at the Parent Practice called emotion-coaching. Mindfulness expert Professor Dan Siegel has a lovely mantra: ‘Name it to tame it’ – name the feeling in order to tame it. Once your child’s feelings are validated, they are more able to problem-solve. So never tell a child not to worry, never give a child advice unless they’re ready to listen to it. And once their feelings are validated, their amygdala calms down. We need to calm the limbic system down for them to use their prefrontal cortex, and the way to do that is to validate feelings: to name it, to tame it. Bring the amygdala down, and then you can problem-solve. Life is all about problem-solving.
A question our advisory team is often asked: schools advise that parents should start looking at senior-school options when their child is in Year 4 or 5. How can I look at my eight- or nine-year-old and work out which senior school will suit them? Can a shy, home-loving 10-year-old be ready to bounce into a full-boarding school at 13?
We’re not going to change our child – we work with the child we’ve got. So if you’ve got a shy child, I would be saying to the parent you need to embrace that because that is part of their temperament. Temperament is a big thing and I’m not into changing temperament – I think we should work with it. Some children are shy, some children are introverts, some children are more extrovert, some children don’t deal with change very well. We’re not looking to change that shy child, but we are looking to give them skills to perhaps give them more confidence to use their voice.
Having said that, biology is not destiny, and there are always things you can do as a parent to instil more confidence in your child. So that eight-year-old who may be very shy may by the age of 13 be developing more confidence and more competencies. Keep open-minded, but go down the route of what your values are in education. I’m coaching a number of clients at the moment with ADHD children. What we know about the ADHD brain is that it’s a Ferrari brain but with bicycle brakes. If you have a high-energy ADHD child, you need to find a school that promotes lots of physical education, every day. I also coach clients who have dyslexic children, and what we know about dyslexic children is that they have an incredible problem-solving brain, so you’re going to look for a school that really embraces subjects that may not be part of the mainstream curriculum, such as engineering, resistant materials or product design.
So really look at the child you’ve got, look at their strengths, look where their passion lies and try and think outside the box.
Find out more about Elaine’s 30 Days to Positive Parenting course here