Monday 18 December 2017

My daughter is ostracised in school. Should we move her?

Illustration by Maisie McNeice
Illustration by Maisie McNeice
David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman advises what to do when a child is ostracised in school and what approach to take with a child who will only eat chicken nuggets.

Question: My daughter has dyspraxia and is currently finishing first class. Academically, she has to work much harder than other children. But, socially, she has an even bigger struggle. She has no friends and seems to attract a lot of hostility from the girls in her class. The school were surprised when we discussed this with them, but it is very clear to us that she is ostracised. Should we move our daughter to another school? I worry she will have the same problems in another school too, together with the upheaval of the change.

David replies: What a difficult decision to have to make. It is never nice to consider moving schools once children have settled in and are happy. If children are unhappy in their school environment, however, it can be a relief for them and for you to make a change.

As with all important decisions you need to consider all the factors. The first place to start is to talk with your daughter. Even though she is probably only seven, she might have a strong view about staying or going from her current school.

It is important to know what her view is, even if that is not a deciding factor in your own deliberations.

Then you need to talk with the principal of her current school again. If they were surprised to learn that she felt excluded and isolated, then her teachers and the principal may not be very attuned to her needs.

But, give them an opportunity to demonstrate that they can recognise her social struggles, as much as they may recognise and support her academically. For example, it may be possible for the teacher to set up a "buddy" system in the class.

This might involve one or two of the really confident and kind girls making a conscious effort to include your daughter in the chat and the games that are happening in school. If the girls that take on to do this are strong characters within the class then this might provide her with an "in" to the group.

The teachers can also do work, in the SPHE strand of the curriculum, about friendships, inclusion and so on, to again encourage the class not to leave anyone out.

Alongside this, you can be working with your daughter to help her to improve her friendship building skills. Coach her to make good eye contact, to take turns in conversation, to show interest in what other children say (by asking relevant questions for example) and so on.

By inviting one girl at a time over for play dates you may be able to facilitate this coaching, in situ, for your daughter. Successful play dates might lead to individual friendships growing with one or two classmates and that might be enough social "glue" to help her gel into the group.

You also need to speak with the principal of any potential new school too. You need to ensure that the new school will have the resources to accommodate and support her dyspraxia.

The academic aspect of her education still needs to be balanced with the social aspect of her education.

Assuming they can meet her academic needs you can then explore with the new school about how they feel they could help her socially.

If you get a sense of confidence and willingness, from the principal, to proactively help her to make new friends then changing schools might well be the best option.

At her age we can't insist that friendships develop, but we can still strongly influence the development of friendships by creating opportunity and insisting on everybody being included in games.

Unless her current school are willing to become active in supporting her social integration she may always struggle to make friends.

She sounds like she needs some individual skills to make friends and she also needs the social groups around her to be primed to include her.

You might only think of moving her if her current school is unwilling or unable to engage in this process and you can find a new school that is willing and able to do it.

My 11-year-old son will only eat chicken nuggets. How can we help him be more adventurous?

Question: My son is 11-years-old and will only eat 'fast food' chicken nuggets. I have even tried, secretly, substituting my own chicken nuggets, but he catches it. The only vegetables he eats are peas, right out of the freezer and potatoes in any form. He sometimes eats apples and raisins but it takes quite a bit of coaxing. I have tried insisting he sit at the table and eat what is in front of him, but he always gags. He has been upset that he can't eat "normal" like everyone else. At this stage, though, I don't know how to help. Any ideas?

David replies: I  normally adopt an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach to fussy eating. In other words, if your child is healthy, energetic and of average height and weight for their age, then it doesn't really matter if they are fussy eaters or have a restricted range of foods they eat.

For most children in this category, the "problem" they have with food is as much about the dynamic of their relationship with their parents as it is about the food on their plate.

Lots of fussy eating is maintained by the rows, the coercion and the drama of the mealtimes as parents try to persuade their children to eat.

The battles over food can often feel like a full-blown power struggle between parents and their child. When it comes to food, however, children will usually win the struggle. Because, in the end, they really can control what goes into their mouths and down to their stomachs.

This is one of the main reasons that I encourage parents not to fight with their child about food. As long as they are fit, healthy and neither over nor underweight for their age, you can allow them to determine how much they eat of what is on offer.

This will often remove huge amounts of stress and tension at mealtimes. Even if your child never expands their tastes, you will find that your relationship with them improves.

Your son, in particular, does sound like he himself is not satisfied with his eating habit. This does offer you greater opportunity to help him change his food habits, rather than having to leave him to it.

I wonder if his dissatisfaction with his own eating is coming from a greater feeling of social embarrassment of eating at friends' houses? Whatever the source of his desire to eat "normal", you can take advantage of it with him.

Generally, we need to be exposed to new flavours at least seven times before we become accustomed to the new tastes. So, if he really does want to expand his food options you might want to set up some food "experiments" with him.

Encourage him to pick a new food that he would like to try, but is currently unsure about. Then for seven days he has a trial where he eats two mouthfuls of the food every day.

Do up a recording sheet with the names of the food on the left side of the page and the days of the weeks arrayed across the top, giving you a grid. For each day that he eats the two mouthfuls he gets a point. If he gets six points in a week he gets a small reward, like a comic, or a trip to the swimming pool or anything small that is valuable to him.

Remind him, though, that the real reward is discovering other exciting foods and tastes that he can enjoy.

If, after the week of tasting new foods, he decides he likes them then he can just start to incorporate them into his diet. Especially with these new foods he is just starting to eat, keep his portion sizes small, as you don't want to overwhelm him.

If he decides he doesn't like the food then he just continues to not eat it.

This kind of experimentation is designed to be fun and to be driven by your son and his desire to eat new things. If he strongly resists the experiments then don't push it, just wait.

Your goal is to allow him the choice to try new foods or not. If he tries them then that is great. If he doesn't, then nothing is lost, you just have to be patient until his desire to taste new things outweighs his reluctance to taste them.

 

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