When it comes to your child’s success in school, their sense of belonging and social wellbeing is just as important as their academics. In fact, succeeding socially can be a huge part of why a child succeeds academically.
Beyond the fact that learning is positively impacted through social constructivism and collaboration, our schools and classrooms can be like microcosms of the larger society. Students get to learn their own working style, what it is of value that they can contribute to a group, how they work with others, and even how to work with different personalities or working styles that they don’t jive with – all important skills for going out into the world later.
Social Wellbeing & Mental Health
As a teacher, I can tell you that the reasons I lose sleep over kids (yes, I lose sleep over other people’s children – often!) are most often to do with their social wellbeing. This is because their social wellbeing is often related to their mental health. When children are not succeeding socially, when they don’t feel like they belong or that they’re safe to be themselves, I see a significant rise in anxiety, depression, avoidance of tasks, and misbehaviour. This then creates an obstacle to whether or not that child is succeeding as well as they could be academically.
Think about a time that you, as an adult, have been worried or frustrated by a relationship in your life, or felt like you didn’t belong. Maybe it’s feeling totally lost when you join a new work team, maybe it’s feeling like you’re in a conflict you don’t know how to fix with an old friend, or maybe it’s the anxiety of staying with your in-laws who you still don’t feel totally a part of during the holidays. All of those scenarios and stressors are preoccupying and usually involve us not performing at our best – mostly because we then don’t feel comfortable enough to take the risks we’d usually take. The same is true for your child when they’re struggling with friendships at school. They’re preoccupied, worried, and stressed over it.
In kids, this often starts to look like the following:
- Complaints of stomach issues or headaches
- Avoiding tasks
- A drop in performance
- Increased irritability; a shortened temper
- Feeling “sick” more often and not wanting to go to school, despite not having a fever or any other indication that they are sick
- Difficulty sleeping
- Increased reports of incidents or conflicts during transition times (recesses, lunches, in the hall between classes, etc.)
- An increase in physical aggression towards other
- Either an increase in impulsivity or in having everything “just right” (succumbing to a perceived loss of control or attempting to take control)
- Picking fights over (seemingly) small things
- Uncharacteristic defiance or refusal
Addressing Social Concerns & Enforcing Positive Habits
Although a child’s stories from their school day and their complaints about their peers may sound small to us, especially as we navigate the madness of our own social lives, parenting demands, deadlines, and other adult responsibilities, it’s important to remember that this is their reality and those stressors are just as real for them as ours are for us. Their school experience contains just as many social traps and politics as our workplaces do, relative to their lived experience thus far, and it’s the place where they spend most of their time. It’s important that when they come to you with social concerns, that you validate their feelings and experiences and spend time with them to help them problem-solve the situation.
So, what can you do to help your child thrive, socially? As it turns out, lots!
- Talk to your children about their day and spend just as much time inquiring into the social aspects of their days as you do into what they’ve learned.
- Pay attention to who their friends are and what your child’s behaviour is like after they’ve spent time with them.
- If you start to see concerning behaviour or a change in your child’s mood, start with investigating how they are doing socially.
- If you have concerns, contact their teacher(s). They will have insight into the social dynamics going on at school, what your child contributes to them, and how they appear to be impacted by others.
- Spend time discussing what positive, healthy relationships should look, feel, and sound like.
- Help them focus on what they can control. We can’t control or predict the behaviour of others, but we are always in charge of our own responses.
- Teach them language they can use to set boundaries. For example, “I don’t like it when __________. It makes me feel __________.”
- Reinforce the importance of taking risks.
- Help them understand their own positive characteristics, and point out how they positively contribute to social situations. For example, “I like the way you always try to make people laugh!”
Overall, take your child’s social experience at school just as seriously, if not more, as you do their academics, and remember that they’re learning. Just like they need to be taught that letters are symbols for sounds, they also need to be taught how to interact socially in a positive way. The best way to do that? Take care of yourself, your social needs, and your relationships, while making sure that you’re feeling safe and like you belong in your social circles. The apple won’t fall far from the tree.