Monday 27 January 2020

David Coleman: 'My daughter is not happy with our choice of school'

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David Coleman

David Coleman

Advice from clinical psychologist David Coleman on why it is important to listen to your child when choosing a school and how to tell children that their dad has left.

Q. My 12-year-old daughter is due to start secondary school next year. She wants to go to the local mixed-sex community school. However, I would like her to go to a single-sex school that is some distance away. She probably won't know anyone going there. I am stuck between her happiness and her education. I'm also trying to consider the needs of her younger sister, who will follow her, and I'm afraid that she will get "lost" in the community school as she is easily distracted and it is a very large school. What do you think we should do?

David replies: Listen to your daughter. Closely. If you have a strong desire for her to go to the single-sex school you may, unwittingly, have been minimising or ignoring the rationale that your daughter has been putting forward in favour of the local community school.

While I am a firm believer in the need for children to have opportunities to develop their talents and live up to their potential, I have also seen, many times, the devastation and distress that develops when children are not happy in school.

Although I may be missing some of the information that you have to hand, it does seem that you believe that sending your daughter to the community school will compromise her education. As you present it in your query, she either enjoys herself (in the community school) or she gets a good academic education (in the single-sex school some distance away).

Are you sure that it is not possible to achieve both in the one school? Have you attended each school's open day? If not, then this might be the first step. You may get a broader understanding of what each offers. Are the academic results of the community school so awful? Does it have a very poor reputation, locally, for the quality of its teaching?

Naturally that is a consideration (and a concern if it is the case), but there are also real benefits of your daughter going to school locally. Being local keeps her connected, socially, to your community. The friendships that she will continue with, or develop, will all be local, rather than more scattered if she travels a distance to school.

On a practical level, any after-school, or extra-curricular activities will also be close by. So, if she misses her bus home, because she is doing sport it will be easier to collect her, or arrange for her to get a lift from friends' parents.

If she feels that she has been listened to, in her school choice, she is more likely to be motivated to invest in the school and in the work required in school. If she begins, resenting the choice of school, it might be a block for her engagement in all that the single-sex school could offer.

I do hear your concern, too, for her younger sister. It sounds like she may need a smaller school, that can be a little more attentive to her needs. But, it seems like an unfair imposition on her older sister to have to have a school chosen for her on the basis of her sister's needs.

You may, inadvertently, cause bitterness and resentment, between your daughters, if your older daughter feels that her needs were placed behind her sister's needs in terms of a choice of school.

I don't know when her little sister is due to go to secondary school, but perhaps it is wiser to delay the decision about what she will need, at that time, until closer to when it is relevant. A lot could change in either school in a few years.

Having the two girls in different schools, although practically awkward perhaps in terms of pick-ups, drop-offs, buses, timetables, etc., is not necessarily a bad thing if the school they each attend meets their particular needs.

So, be open to hearing what your daughter is actually saying about why she wants to go to the community school. There may be more merit in her having an enjoyable school experience and graduating with great self-esteem and decent results, than in being distressed and graduating with great results.

In any event, moving school, in either direction, might also be a possibility after she completes first year. While you do have to make a choice, with her, it doesn't have to be permanent if it seems that the wrong choice gets made.

My children think their dad is just working away, but they need to know the truth that he has left us

Q. My husband has recently left me. He just walked out on our marriage. I didn't want, or expect, this to happen. He has also, physically, left our family home, but for the time being our young children believe he is working away (which is not unusual for him). I realise we need to tell them the truth but I have no idea how to go about it, particularly as the decision to separate was entirely my husband's and I am devastated. Any advice you can offer me on how best to handle this would be so very gratefully received.

David replies: What a difficult situation you find yourself in. Whatever the difficulties in your relationship with your husband, it sounds like you didn't think they were so bad that you needed to separate.

Your own shock at what has happened is probably the first thing to try to address.

I am a big believer that we need to mind ourselves, as parents, as the first priority, if we are to successfully be in a position to mind our children.

I think most parents will accept that when they are in good form, feeling able and confident, they do a much more effective job in rearing their children. Most of the mistakes we make come when we are under pressure, upset, stressed or exhausted ourselves.

So, in preparation for talking with your children (which, you are correct, you will have to do) make sure you mind yourself, to help cope with the shock of your husband's departure.

Reach out to family or friends, if only to be able to talk about how shocking and upsetting the situation is. Nobody will be able to "fix" it, but you may find great relief and comfort from just talking about things.

There is truth to the old saying, "a problem shared is a problem halved". Being heard, and understood, by someone else, when we are distressed is incredibly supportive, even if there is nothing that can be done to change your circumstances.

Aside from minding yourself, you also need to talk to your husband about what information you will share with the children and when. In an ideal world, you will be able to tell them together and sooner rather than later.

Your first step is simply to tell them the truth of the "what?", which is that their dad has moved out of the family home, as opposed to being just away with work. Do you know yet how permanent a move that is?

You need to be very clear, for the children's sake, of whatever you tell them. It needs to be true and accurate as best you know for the time being. So, if he has left, with no plan to ever come back, then that is what you tell them.

If he is gone, but only temporarily, while you work stuff out and try to reconcile and resolve the issues in your relationship, then it is fine to tell the children that too. They may want a timeframe, but it is okay to say you don't know how long it will take, if you don't know how long it will take.

The second thing that you and your husband need to agree is an explanation of "why?". This may be even harder to achieve, since it sounds like you, yourself, are still looking for an explanation of why your husband left.

I do think that, if he made a unilateral decision to leave, he needs to take responsibility for that. He may feel that there were extenuating circumstances, but it still sounds like he chose to go.

The third thing you need to consider, when you tell the children the first time, is what arrangements you both have made for them to see and spend time with their dad. This is likely to be an immediate concern for them and it will help if you have thought the issue through in advance.

The language you use, will, of course, have to fit with the ages of your children. Don't be surprised if they don't take everything in the first time you talk to them. You may have to repeat elements of it again and again.

In my experience, telling children about parental separation tends to be more of a process than an event. So, whatever you say the first time is the bedrock and you can always flesh it out or explain it further as time goes by.

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