Dear David Coleman: My son seems to be ready to give up on school… at just 13

Q Our 13-year-old is not getting on at all well in secondary school. He is in second year now.

In first year, one teacher was picking on him and we tried to address it with the school, who told us that there is a teacher shortage and he had to take what he was given. He now won’t take correction from her and told another teacher that he doesn’t give a f**k what they have to say to him.

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His behaviour at home is perfect and he never had a problem in primary school. We are really worried that secondary school may just become toxic and we don’t know what to say to him.

David replies:  Your dilemma centres around your son’s attitude towards the teachers (based on his sense of injustice by the sounds of it) and their reciprocal attitude towards him.

He does sound like he has become disaffected by the treatment he believes he suffered. It sounds like your attempts to help him address his concerns with the school also failed to reach any happy resolution for you or for him. From what you describe, he has now lost all hope that things will improve and that he can be better treated by teachers.

If he stays stuck on having power battles with the teachers then it is quite likely that he will become further disheartened and may even end up leaving school early. So your goal in talking to him is to try to help him process the frustration and injustice that he seems to feel. That means being able to talk with him, in an empathetic way about what has happened with the teachers. You need to be able to understand his attitudes fully.

Hopefully, if he feels you fully understand and “get it”, he might be freed up to move past any anger and into a more positive mindset that is focused on minding his own future. He is only 13, which is young, but it would be great if you could help him realise that school is just a stepping stone that might create opportunities for his future.

It may also help if he feels that you can further support him in expressing his feelings, on his behalf with the school management again. The key to any discussions with the school is to be able to acknowledge their position too.

If it just feels like you are backing your son, without being able to recognise the challenge he poses to the school, then it is likely you will receive a defensive response that will simply replicate the struggle he is having himself.

It is possible to turn reputations around, but it takes time and goodwill on both sides. Your son has to work hard at being positive and engaged, while the teachers too need to clearly and unambiguously show that they are willing to give him a fresh start.

Unpalatable though it may seem, if you feel that the school are not willing to give proper consideration to your son and his frustrations you may even need to consider alternative schools for him, where he can actually have a fresh start.

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