When your child struggles socially
What to look for when choosing a school
Every child struggles socially on occasion. For some kids, though, these struggles can become pernicious. If your child is like this, you’ll need to find a school that addresses their issues.
Many types of social challenges occur in school. These include peer conflicts, feeling left out or having difficulty making friends, acting out and other harmful behaviour, bullying (and being bullied), and peer pressure.
With some kids, it will be obvious they’re struggling socially. They may tell you this or you may hear about it from staff, their peers, their siblings, or other members of the school community. For others, it will be less apparent. You’ll need to look for clues in these cases, sometimes subtle ones, that something’s wrong.
“Some of these kids will be unhappy,” says Ruth Rumack of Ruth Rumack’s Learning Space. “For younger students, it can be psychosomatic things like ‘I have a tummy ache,’ ‘I have a headache,’ or ‘I don’t feel well today.’ Getting a lot of calls from the school because your child wants to go home is not a good sign. It can also be things like just not participating as much anymore or completely withdrawing.”
While social challenges aren’t uncommon, don’t take them lightly, especially if they’re ongoing. When left unaddressed they can give rise to a variety of emotional problems like low self-esteem and confidence, depression, anxiety, and unhappiness. And these issues can, and often do, lead to academic struggles.
Sometimes social challenges can be addressed by your child’s current school. “Perhaps the school can offer a surgical solution,” says Rumack, “such as targeted social intervention and support.” For instance, this may involve regular visits with a guidance counsellor, psychologist, or social worker.
Often, however, this won’t be enough.
“If a student is extremely unhappy, suffers from chronic malaise, lack of motivation, or has other significant psychological problems, this is more serious. No matter how accommodating and diligent your child’s current school is, it may not have the resources to help them work through these kinds of problems.” (Read Ruth’s interview.)
In this instance, a change of scenery may be needed. The question is, what should you be on the lookout for as you search for a new school for your child?
Needless to say, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution: no school will meet the needs of all kids with social challenges. The right fit for your child will depend on many factors.
Kids with social challenges need ample support. A school must have the infrastructure and resources required to address your child’s unique issues.
Consider exactly what your child needs.
If they’re frequently involved in serious conflicts, have major behavioural or emotional issues, or are being targeted or bullied, a robust counselling department is a must. It’s also helpful if a school has onsite psychologists, guidance counsellors, and social workers to provide targeted and ongoing support.
Some schools, especially bigger ones, have a dedicated health and wellness centre. This can be another helpful resource for your child, regardless of their social challenges, to help them talk through issues, get advice, and navigate problems as they occur.
Make no mistake, the right kind of social environment with the right students is vital. Sometimes it can make the difference between a happy and productive child and a miserable one.
“It’s important to look at the social makeup of the school,” says Ruth Rumack. "Is there enough variety that your child will have a group that they feel connected with? Because you want to have friends that are like-minded and you want to be in a social situation where you feel honoured and respected. Variety can also be found in extracurriculars, leadership programs, and sports activities, which tend to have kids with a wide range of personalities.”
Kids with social struggles often do well in small schools with tight-knit and cohesive student communities. If your child is shy or introverted, this can be especially beneficial, as it can make it easier for them to come out of their shell, make friends, and navigate social situations.
“Small schools often have a family-like feeling, because the class sizes are so small,” say Ann and Karen Wolff of Wolff Educational Services. “They can form a sense of community across the grades. You get these cross-grade friendships, relationships, and mentoring if it gives certain kids leadership opportunities, something they would rarely have in a larger school.” (Read Ann and Karen’s interview.)
That said, “Because larger schools usually have a more diverse student population, kids are more likely to find a small group of people just like them, a peer group they can relate to and find acceptance from,” says Dona Matthews, education consultant and co-author (with Joanne Foster) of Beyond Intelligence.
So, as you might guess, there's no cut-and-dried answer here: the right school size will depend on your child.
A school’s social environment mostly stems from the values and ideals it extols. Look for a school that prioritizes the values you think should inform its environment and culture. Do you want a community of kind, respectful, and socially informed students and staff for your child? If so, look for a school that cultivates these values.
And a school shouldn’t just pay lip service to its core values. It should explicitly impart them, whether through its regular curriculum (e.g., by focusing on character education) or through extracurricular programs, such as a class teaching diversity and tolerance.
Inquire into the causes of your child’s social challenges. Are they related to serious problems with depression or anxiety? Might your child have a social or emotional disorder? If so, their issues might be best addressed outside of school (at least partially), for instance, through regular visits to a psychologist or psychiatrist. (Or your child might be a good fit for a social and emotional disorder school.)
It’s also possible your child’s emotional issues are situational. For instance, they might be depressed or anxious because they’re not getting enough challenge in school. Academic understimulation can breed boredom which can lead to disengagement, and this is a frequent cause of social and emotional issues. In this case, a school that provides your child with enough academic challenge can help alleviate their social problems, and make them happier and more engaged.
Social struggles, like academic struggles, can’t be dealt with in a vacuum. It’s important to look at the wider context: their potential causes, effects, timing, and more. This really speaks to the issue of overall school fit. The right school for your child should meet their academic, social, emotional, and developmental needs. Once you find this, the likelihood of them thriving (or at least managing) socially and academically will increase considerably.
Sometimes, though not always, private schools are a good bet. Smaller classes, a feature of many private schools, can promote more interaction and collaboration, which can help your child connect with peers in class and out.
Many private schools also have tight-knit communities and extensive extracurriculars, which can make it easier for your child to find a like-minded peer group. And strong student support systems (such as counselling centres), common in private schools, can help prevent social problems and address them when they occur.
When choosing a school for your child, look at the big picture. In addition to the kinds of social challenges your child is experiencing, consider their other salient traits, such as their mental and academic focus, social and physical tendencies, learning interests (e.g., arts and STEM), and special needs. And bear in mind, finding the right school also means looking at factors that may affect your whole family such as school cost, location, size, and community.
Based on your child’s and family’s needs, create a shortlist of, say, two to eight schools. Make sure you research these schools extensively and visit them, either in person or virtually (if necessary). Ask school officials, parents, and students lots of questions. And depending on the age of your child, you may want to make them a key part of the school-choice process.
You should visit each school you’re seriously considering. Ideally, tour them with a school official or student. Here’s some advice for your visit, which you can print out, to help determine whether a school is the right fit for your child with social struggles:
- Check out the resources: Make sure the school has the resources required to support your child. Does it have a counselling centre and what does it look like? Does it have onsite psychologists or social workers? Does it have a health and wellness program?
- Observe the environment up close: Where do people gather? Are teachers interacting with students outside the classroom? Is there happy banter in the hallways or do students walk with their eyes down, focused only on their destination? How do students interact with each other? Are there lots of hugs and high-fives? Are students respectful of each other? Is there any graffiti in the washroom, and if so, what does it say?
- Talk to students: Ask them lots of questions, making them as specific and personal as possible. For instance, instead of asking a student, “What’s the social climate like at your school?” ask, “What was it like trying to make friends when you first started here?” You’re more likely to get honest and detailed answers this way, especially if you’re out of earshot of school officials.
It’s important to speak with school reps to get a sense of whether a school is the right fit for your child. Ask them plenty of questions to gauge whether it will likely be able to support your child’s social challenges. Here are some especially important questions, which you can print out to bring along on your visit:
- Student community: What is your student community like? Is it close-knit and cohesive? Is it inclusive? Do kids generally get along?
- Student conflict: How do you deal with student conflict in class and out? What is your policy regarding bullying and how is this communicated to students and staff? How do you try to prevent bullying and other unacceptable behaviour? Are there penalties?
- Support systems: What student support systems do you have in place? Do you have onsite guidance counsellors, social workers, or psychologists? Do you have a mental health and wellness program?
- Class sizes: What are your class sizes and student-to-teacher ratios?
- Values: What kinds of values do you try to instill in your students? For instance, do you emphasize kindness and inclusivity, and if so, how? Does your curriculum include character education? If so, how?
- Positive interactions: How do you promote positive interactions between students, in class and out? (Catherine Wang, who was looking for a girls-only school for her daughter Skyler, offered this: “I asked the girls' schools how they make sure that the girls aren't in a clique, and all those fundamental questions about mean girls and the possible dynamics that were making me a bit nervous about putting her into an all-girls school. They had great responses, like they're very careful to watch the social dynamics. They’re strategic when they put classes together.”)
- Social skills: How do you help kids with their social skills like cooperation, sharing, listening, respecting personal space, communication, reading body language, and empathy?
To learn more, read our comprehensive choosing a school guide. You can also read our education expert interviews on finding the right school and watch our parent and school head videos on choosing. Finally, watch our school head video on red flags to look out for and our education expert video on how to know when an educational environment isn't working.