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Environment Matters

At the end of last year, my husband and I made what was for our family, a drastic move: we changed schools for our two daughters, now aged six and nine. Our family culture is such that we finish what we start, we give everything a solid chance and we follow through. My perseverance is so strong that I suffered a dramatic burnout where my body had to become ill because I refused to give up. I have learnt great lessons from this experience and one of them is that sometimes, it’s important to step back and ask yourself whether what you’re doing is working, or worth it.

We changed schools because our oldest child, Christine, was desperately unhappy. She is an intelligent and gentle child, with the handicap of being a December baby. Many parents make the choice to hold their child back in preschool but that was not an option for us. Christine had a solid grasp of the academic material and she was aware of her place amongst her peers. The downside of this decision is that she was struggled with emotional maturity. As a young child, it takes time to mature into things like a sense of urgency, organising your belongings and independence. Some of her peers in class were almost a full year older than her, so were further along in all these aspects.

A consistent issue raised by teachers was that her pace was slow. She wasn’t finishing the schoolwork in time and had to catch up at home. As early as grade one, her teacher started insinuating that she required medication to help her concentrate. When I investigated further, Christine was under the impression that she had caused my stress-induced illness and was highly distracted by that. After a few sessions of counselling and discussions at home, the problem was resolved.

In grade two we had a dream-come-true teacher: one of those gems who are born to teach and that every child adores. However, in grade three we had a torrid time. Her teacher was hard and pushed Christine to breaking point to complete her work on time. She also asked us to take Christine for a neurological assessment. Instead, I assessed her physical health and found that her body was taking a lot of strain from stress and she required physiotherapy to help her core and shoulders become strong. I also took her for psychometric testing, with the results showing a high IQ, great strengths and average distractibility. The teacher was so eager to put my child on medication with potential long-term side effects, when all she needed was some patience and stronger muscles to sit still.

I looked over her weekly test results, which showed achievement around 85% with a solid understanding of all concepts. Was it really so important to create this intense anxiety to finish everything in class? Our child, who is not prone to drama, was in such visible distress by the end of the year that we had to withdraw her from the last two weeks of school. There was something very wrong with this situation and environment. Wasn’t it possible for an eight-year-old to enjoy learning?

During the third term, I applied to another school in our area which focusses on the strengths of each child and my girls were accepted instantly. I gave notice and was called in by the headmistress. She failed to listen to how distressed our child was, our customer experience of the school, and she failed to acknowledge any wrongdoing by the teacher. In my view, tearing out a page of a child’s book in front of their peers for untidy handwriting is not the way to encourage a sensitive child. Christine had no chance to meet the teacher’s expectations. Our little perfectionist simply could not get everything right, hurry and be neat at the same time. It’s a losing battle and that’s a tough feeling for anyone. Christine required three months of psychotherapy to recover from the damage inflicted by this teacher.

Fast forward to the end of the first term in our new school. This week Christine performed in a talent show in front of 400 parents, grandparents and siblings and she shone like the star she is. About five people used the word ‘confident’ about her audition and performance. Her teachers see her as a competent, capable member of the class and an asset to the school. They show gratitude for her contribution, so far from the eye-rolling complaints from the previous school.

One of the concerns we had in moving schools was whether the same problem would surface in the new environment. Changing schools is a difficult endeavour as there is expense with new uniforms, it’s difficult for the whole family to learn the new culture and rules, as well as the friendships left behind. It’s not something you want to do often or lightly. But how worth it to see our children treated with such respect and kindness. Christine is thriving and feels supported and encouraged to be herself in her learning environment.

This experience has made me think about how often our environment is unsuitable for us to perform at our best. What is your work environment like? Do your leaders see your talents and allow you to work in alignment with your strengths? Or are they squashing your creativity and metaphorically drugging you into conformance? My child has transformed from being dejected and withdrawn, to this confident person with self-belief and enthusiasm. Seeing the difference in how my children feel and behave with the support behind them, makes me realise how much environment matters.

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