Problems at school

Problems at school

Monday, 02 August 2021

Everyone has a different experience of school.

Most students go through some ups and downs throughout the year. Experiencing problems at school is not unusual for many young people.

When difficulties get on top of us, it can be like a domino effect. One domino falls over and all the rest seem to pile up. It’s OK to have mixed feelings about school, as everyone has their good days and bad days. Whether you’re having problems with schoolwork, friends, or fitting in, you are not alone.

Some common problems in school and solutions:

Move from the idea of being the best to doing your best.

Difficulties with school work

Having trouble with school work or falling behind is a common worry for students. Falling behind can happen easily, especially if we miss days of school. Some teachers can also fly through lessons. Or sometimes we can just find it hard to concentrate.

When we are finding it hard to keep up with homework it may cause us to feel overwhelmed or anxious. It can also be frustrating or stressful when the teacher asks us a question and we don’t know the answer.

Having ongoing difficulties at school can drain motivation. This can then cause you to feel like giving up or as if there is no point. If any of this sounds familiar to you it’s really important you talk to someone.

Here are some things to consider if you find you are feeling overwhelmed at school:

  • Alternative ways of learning- Opening up to a teacher or parent can help. Firstly, try to identify the exact problem. Is it one subject you are finding difficult? Or do you find it hard to concentrate all the time? We all learn in different ways and at different paces. Think about what type of learning suits you. Using pictures or diagrams will be a lot easier and make a huge difference if you are a visual learner. Look up talks and lessons on YouTube could help if you need to hear things a few times. Would studying and discussing with a friend help?
  • Talk to your teacher or year head- Let your teacher know what areas you’re having difficulties with and its impact on you. They may be able to come up with some suggestions for how you can catch up or get back on track with your study. The earlier you flag that you’re struggling the easier it will be to manage things, but it is never too late to talk.
  • Take notice of the good things- Think about the positive things that happen during the day. “‘This morning I did this well in … “. If you answered a question right or made a new friend make a mental note of it. When things aren’t going so well, try to remind yourself of some of these nicer experiences.
  • Try to change how you think about school- Getting something wrong in class or failing a test can be frustrating and upsetting. But, know that we all have bad days or make mistakes. Can you shift how you look at events like this? Easier said than done, we know, but they can be opportunities to learn from and do better next time. There is nothing to be learned by getting things right all the time.
  • Listen to what you are telling yourself- Are you putting yourself under pressure to be the best at a particular subject? Is it possible that you’re being overly hard on yourself and self-critical? Do you tell yourself you can’t do something or that you’re stupid? Become aware of your ‘inner voice’ and learn to be kinder to yourself.
  • Make a plan- Time management can make a big difference to the school experience. Most of how you spent the day is not your choice. So it can be useful to spend time, even a few hours, planning a schedule for the time you have outside of school. Include time for homework, study, fun, and relaxation. Remember, time out from school and study is important too. Prioritise tasks and when you will do schoolwork or study. Start small with realistic goals. If you have difficulty doing any homework or study, start off with 20 minutes in the evening and build it up. This sounds like very little but think of it like building a muscle or stamina. You wouldn’t go out and run a marathon without gradually building up your stamina.

No matter what stage you’re at in school, it’s never too late to build good study habits. Read Sarah’s story to find out how scheduling can help.

Problems with concentration

If you have been finding it difficult to keep on top of schoolwork for a while despite your best efforts, there may be an underlying cause, like dyslexia. This is a condition that can make it harder to learn or to concentrate. Although relatively common, it can sometimes take a while to detect. An educational psychologist or mental health professional would need to conduct an assessment to confirm dyslexia.

Talk to a guidance counsellor, your year head or a trusted teacher to help you identify the right support.

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Friendships at school

Making and having friends, along with feeling we fit in, is a big part of school life. Friends can become very important to us in secondary school and can become like a second family.

We all have a place in the world but sometimes it can feel like we just don’t fit in. School can be stressful for some young people, worrying about not having anyone to hang around with at break times or at the weekends. Even if we develop friendships easily, we can still end up being excluded by friends at times.

Feeling left out

No one likes to be left out of a Snap Chat group or realising we weren’t invited to the cinema after seeing pictures on Instagram. This can lead us to feel upset, lonely, and self-conscious, and spend a lot of time wondering “why am I the friend that gets left out?”.

At other times we can also feel pressure to do what our friends are doing to feel like we belong. Drinking or sharing stuff online, can be things we end up doing even if we’re not that comfortable with it, so people don’t think we’re weird.

If you have experienced any of these, unfortunately, they can be a normal part of school life. However, there are things we can do to help.

We can think that feeling a sense of belonging is more important than anything else. Being true to yourself is just as important.
  • Change how you view a situation- Often it can be good to view things from another perspective. Challenge unhelpful thoughts. Look at other ways to think about a situation. If you are upset about not being invited out, remind yourself that it’s OK if two friends go to the cinema together. In the past, you may have gone to the cinema without another friend.
  • Talk or connect with someone- If you feel excluded by friends, is there someone else to talk or connect with? There may be other people in your year who also feel excluded. Or you might know people outside of school who you can talk to about what is going on.
  • Work on your social skills- If you find it hard making friends or talking to people start by setting yourself small goals. Start with saying hello and then move on to something bigger like joining a club, group, or new activity. Although it may feel scary, making new friends is about taking a chance and making the move to talk to somebody. What is the worst that can happen if you say hello?
  • Value what makes you different- We can think that feeling a sense of belonging is more important than anything else. Being true to yourself is just as important. Have there been times when you have felt pressure to do something or behave a certain way when it has made you uncomfortable? While fitting in can feel important, learning to love what makes you ‘you’ and what makes you different is crucial.
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Not getting on with teachers

In secondary school, because there are so many teachers, the chances are high that we won’t get on with them all. Sometimes we can find certain relationships particularly difficult.

We can feel that a certain teacher doesn’t like us, has it in for us or treats us unfairly. This can happen when it seems a teacher is pulling us up on our behaviour while other students get away with stuff.

It’s not unusual to feel angry, upset or disengaged when we feel a situation is unfair. You may start avoiding a certain class or even stop going in to school at all.

If tensions between a student and teacher have escalated, chances are neither person is happy about it.

Improving your relationship with teachers

When it comes to relationships with teachers, recognise what you can, and can’t control. You can’t make a teacher act fairly or treat you in a certain way. Yet, there are some things you can do to try and improve your relationships:

  • Consider talking to them- If tensions between a student and teacher have escalated, chances are neither person is happy about it. Talk to the teacher and see if you can ‘reset’ your relationship.
  • Look at the evidence- Sometimes when we think a teacher doesn’t like us or that they’re being unfair, there may be another explanation. A teacher might have spotted your potential, so is pushing you harder than others. You might feel singled out by a teacher, but actually, every other student in the class may do as well. Consider whether there are other explanations for what you feel is going on.
  • Think before you respond- This is a big one. Even if it feels unfair, if a student gets angry with a teacher, they are usually the one that’s punished. Before you launch into an argument or storm out of a class, consider the impact of this on you and your learning. It is likely to have more of an impact on you than on the teacher.
  • Take a look at your own behaviour- Often when we don’t get on with a teacher, we may think it’s fun to wind them up, not listen or misbehave in class. If this sounds familiar, why not experiment with this? See whether changes in what you do in class (ie. do not try to wind them up) elicits changes in how your teacher responds.
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Jigsaw Clinician
As with all challenges to our mental health and wellbeing, talking to someone can be the first step to managing things better

Anxiety in school

There can be a lot to cope with in school: dealing with school work, teachers and friends. Structure, rules or having to concentrate can be difficult for some students. Keep in mind there is an end goal.

School is important and provides us with valuable skills. Often when we feel like we don’t belong or we’re not coping well with something it can lead us to feel quite anxious.

Causes of anxiety at school

Anxiety is usually caused by a build-up of different things. Keeping on top of school work, pressure to succeed, friends, fitting in, bullying or feeling left out.

If we were bullied in the past, or in primary school it can affect how we mix with others now, or in the future. We may have learned to expect danger or feel threatened. Sometimes we can worry about things or be self-conscious around classmates. Talking to your own family at home may not be a problem but you may find it difficult to speak up in class.

Anxiety in school can be very common and there are a number of things that you can do

Cycle of anxiety

Often with anxiety we can feel down, hopeless and lonely. This can lead us to feel worthless or have thoughts like ‘I can’t cope’, ‘I’m weird’ or ‘no one likes me’. When this feeling continues or gets worse, it can be tempting to avoid classes or days of school.

If we miss a few days of school, it can be more difficult for us to go back. This then leads us to fall even further behind, causing more anxiety.

Anxiety in school can be very common and there are a number of things that you can do:

  • Talk to a trusted adult- Talking to someone can be the first step to managing things better when faced with any challenges to our mental health. This could be a parent, older sibling, teacher, year head, coach, or guidance counsellor (if your school has one), and what we refer to as ‘one good adult‘. Having someone to sound off to and explain how you feel can help gain some perspective. They can also help you work through potential solutions.
  • Learn more about managing anxietyThere are lots of ways to manage anxiety. The tools and techniques for managing anxiety in general, also apply to school. Find out more about managing anxiety to find what works for you.
  • Strike a balance- Make enough time for homework and study along with fun and relaxation. All are important, but if we spend too much time on fun activities, we can become anxious about not having done our school work.
  • Don’t avoid school- The more we avoid school, the harder it can be to get back. Try not to skip classes, leave early or stay at home. It may seem like a solution but really, in the long run, it can create more difficulties.
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Bullying in school

Unfortunately, bullying can be a common enough experience in schools. Research has shown that about 40% of young people experience bullying at some point in school. Often when young people come to Jigsaw because of issues at school, bullying is one of the things that has been going on for them. It could either have been recent, or in the past and still having an impact.

If you experience bullying at school, know that it is not your fault. Bullying is often more about the person who is the bully.

Everyone has the right to go to school without being bullied or harassed.

Many young people are reluctant to talk to parents or teachers about being bullied in school. They don’t want to risk a parent over-reacting. Or they can worry that any action would make the bullying get worse. Bullying can affect so many areas of your life, so if you are experiencing it, you do need support.

Schools’ responsibility

Everyone has the right to go to school without being bullied or harassed. Schools have a responsibility to protect their students from bullying. If they are unaware it is happening there’s not much they can do.

If you are being bullied in school, try to identify someone you can talk to about it for support. Together you can work out some solutions and a way to bring it to the school’s attention.

School and positive mental health

Often when students are having difficulties in school, people tend to focus on the individual. Is there something they can do differently to ‘fit in’ or ‘cope’ in school? But it is not always down to the individual.

The school environment can have a role to play on the mental health and wellbeing of each student. Some students thrive in strict, high discipline environments. Others learn better in a more relaxed setting.

Supporting positive mental health at school

Some schools have developed an ethos to support student co-operation or policies to challenge bullying. While others may have prioritised other areas, such as physical health or academic achievement. Aspects of the school environment can have positive or negative impacts on our mental health. These could be the physical environment, approach to discipline, policies and procedures and school ethos.

Consider these aspects and see if you can identify any areas in your school where improvements could be made to support the mental health and wellbeing of students. Look at ways you might encourage the school to make changes.

Mental health awareness

It can start with something as simple as a mental health awareness day. This could then grow to a whole school approach to student mental health. Get the ball rolling by talking directly to a teacher or get involved in the student council. Put a suggestion in a suggestion box, or ask a parent or another adult to support in having your voice heard.

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