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School is more than the three Rs

Tomorrow morning thousands of families will be going through the ritual of the first day of school. There will be tears, tantrums, and cheers of excitement at the school gate - and that's just the parents.

As parents, there is a fondness of sending children to school to help them grow and develop. But how much of your childhood do you actually remember? For many adults, it is often a highlights reel of specific events that could be characterised as experiences of intense emotion, those ‘a-ha’ moments where something once hazy was now clear, or when we discovered something about ourselves and our world. Adults are subject to this form of selective memory. And yet, for children, the experience of living in that moment is an entirely different perspective.

Ever present in the ‘now’, children are like mini scientists exploring new frontiers of friendships with the same curiosity and intensity as they may do with navigating the perils of a spelling test. Constantly reassessing their hypotheses and outcomes, children develop their internal and external worlds through a combination of trial-and-error and the social contexts and norms of their environments.

Children will face challenging experiences along this pathway of development. We at Happy Minds see this every day in our clinical practice. We see children struggling to navigate anxiety and worry about their relationships, their environment and their place in this world. We support children who feel loneliness and rejection, who struggle to form social connections, or who feel separate and ‘different’ from others. These challenging and sometimes painful experiences are mediated by the already complex process of child development – navigating stages of physical, cognitive and social growth – where the child’s pool of resources to respond to difficult life experiences is often quite shallow.

School offers children and adolescents an important context to build their social and emotional resilience. It provides an environment to explore, to grow and to achieve. Sometimes children (and the adults who support them) need additional help. Working from a strengths-based model, we aim to discover where the strengths lie, and to harness those strengths to support children in overcoming the challenges that they face. We understand that the “team” surrounding a child – comprised of the child’s family and school – has many of the answers already. We recognise that changing the way things are done for a more optimal outcome often takes courage, a sympathetic guide and a leap of faith. Having the input of a psychologist can often be one of insight or a fresh perspective, involving an environment of trust and a gentle “holding of the hand” to steer the child’s team in a different direction.

The role of Educational and Developmental Psychologists is to support children, their families and school teams in working through the challenges children may be facing within their school environment. Children struggle at school for a myriad of reasons: perhaps they have some underlying learning difficulty or exceptionality that has been difficult to understand, or an underlying emotional sensitivity that manifests in an atypical way. Sometimes children struggle to make and sustain friendships, or find regulating themselves within the school context a constant, exhausting challenge. Whenever a child is no longer happy to go to school and is achieving less than their holistic potential, it is time to get involved.

Helping children to thrive at school is a major part of caring for them. When families, schools and community services work together we can make a big difference to children's lives. Happy Minds offers various services:

counselling, advocacy, formal assessment of learning or emotional needs, therapeutic intervention, consultation, and training workshops for parents and educators.

Some of the most common reasons that people seek a formal assessment are:

  • trying to understand why a child is struggling with school and how to help

  • identifying learning disabilities such as dyslexia

  • identifying giftedness

  • differential diagnosis such as ruling out or confirming an intellectual disability

  • verification for school funding

  • highlighting the unique profile of strengths and weaknesses in children with an existing diagnosis such as ADHD or autism in order to individualise their learning plan

We work closely with parents and schools to ensure that we have an accurate understanding of the unique person that being assessed, including all their strengths, interests, and challenges they face in the learning environment. This allows us to write reports that are clear, thorough, and full of practical recommendations for how to best support the child in nurturing their strengths and meeting their learning needs.

Knowing where to start is important. Having a positive and respectful relationship with the school community creates a great foundation to ensure a child's needs are met as well as providing an opportunity to build a support team for the parents. Talking to children about school, focusing on the process of learning rather than achievement-based outcomes will help to broaden a parent's understanding of what their child values about school and how to take practical steps to improving their experience.

We welcome opportunities to speak to parents at the Happy Minds clinic or at the school about how to support their children to thrive in their academic, as well as social and emotional, development. We offer free talks to parents on a variety of topics. There are also excellent resources available online to help children and their parents get ready for school. We recommend KidsMatter and the Raising Children Network for more practical information.

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