Our journey to switch schools for our daughter was a long, and emotional path. Let me explain.
It was 9pm, the end of a long trying day, full of hurtles both professional and personal. My 7 year old and I had just battled our way through 2 hours of homework, the second hour spent on a comparative study of two essays. I found this night was particularly grueling. My seven year old was wrecked. Her school days were spent steeped in rigorous studies, only to come home to more stressful homework.
We finally wrapped up her essay, came up for air, and just when I thought the night was over, she asked just one more thing. A simple, childish request, “Will you read me a story mommy?”
My answer… was no.
After the stresses of the day and the trials of late night homework with my second grader, I did the unthinkable and denied her this one simple request. It was very likely, the most important thing I should have been doing that night.
I left the room in tears. This was the death blow in an epic battle we had been waging for several years. I was defeated. With that one request and denial, I knew the truth… Sienna’s childhood was being stolen from her. The revelation hit me like a tidal wave. We only get to spend one childhood with her. It’s a brief season that’s over far too soon, and I was failing my duty as her parent to protect that childhood in all it’s sweet innocence.
At the end of the day, I knew I didn’t need my kid to be the smartest in the county, or on the fast track to the Ivy Leagues. I just wanted her to be happy, and to enjoy learning as much as I do. As her grades continued declining that year, I knew, it was time to take action and save the precious years we still had left. It was time to switch schools.
In the years leading up to this pivotal moment, we had spent a lot of time and intention trying to do the best thing for Sienna. The school she was attending was publicly known as “The Number One School” and we were thrilled she was accepted. We always knew our daughter was bright, and though the school did warn parents that their strict academic requirements were not a fit for every student, we thought Sienna was up for the task.
Kindergarten was a breeze, but by first grade she was steeped in eight hours of homework every week. My red flag immediately went up. Often weepy, run down, and angry, Sienna didn’t sleep well and dreaded going to school. We were forced to take her out of all extra curricular activities outside of school to conserve her energy and ensure she had time to finish school work.
The major antagonist in the picture was an online curriculum she had to use for at least a half hour every evening in addition to studying spelling words, reading for twenty or thirty minutes, and completing worksheets or projects assigned. I became increasingly resentful, and furious for our six year old and her 40 hour academic work week. When her teacher and I had conflicts regarding how nearly impossible these requirements were, the Principal was involved. Her answer? Opening up the computer lab several mornings a week so Sienna could complete some work prior to school. Was it time to switch schools?
In First Grade Sienna received her first negative marks on her report card. We had received zero negative feedback from her teacher at school so we were shocked by this report. She had also been tested for giftedness and was just short of the requirements coming in at an above average IQ of 124. We knew she had the intellect she needed to fit in at this school of gifted and talented academic student, but still didn’t understand the real issue. Frequent meetings with her teacher left us confused as to why she was not keeping up.
We began seeing the guidance counselor to discuss some of the behaviors we were seeing at home. Sienna also began attending a local resource center that helped kids acquire coping mechanisms for anxiety. When those finished we moved on to visits with a professional therapist who was the first to mention that maybe the school wasn’t the best fit for her. With our doubts about the school firmly in place, we decided to give it one more year instead of opting to switch schools. We thought maybe it was just that Sienna and this teacher weren’t a good fit, and her situation would improve with new teachers.
Although she entered the year with enthusiasm, her anxieties about school persisted. She couldn’t seem to keep up. Her teachers consistently agreed that she was one of the brightest kids in the class, but failing to reach her potential. She frequently talked about how she didn’t like school, how she felt stupid, how she couldn’t keep up. Her self esteem was crushed. By the middle of the year we received a scholarship warning. This was our notice that if Sienna couldn’t bring her grades up that she may lose her place at the school. This naturally fueled more feelings of inadequacy and failure.
The school’s answer to her lower scores was tutoring. At first it was just at lunch time twice a week, then finally another hour after school the same two days a week. Now she was going to school from 8:30a.m. until 4p.m. twice a week with no lunch break on those days, and still had homework to complete. No after school activities or sports were even considered for our seven year old as she continued to drown in her studies.
Sienna’s therapist eventually referred us to a pychoeducational expert for testing. Here we were to discover Sienna’s “Matrix”, what made her tick, how she best learned, and perhaps gain some insight as to where she should be. Six visits and $2,000 later our concerns were confirmed. The main lesson? Sienna is extremely bright, but full of anxiety. Ultimately, the school system was inflaming that anxiety to a level that almost paralyzed her with fear.
The pressure she was feeling to perform zapped her motivation, and fueled a very negative self narrative that she was not good enough, and that she was stupid. This was despite constant efforts by both her teachers, and us to encourage her, praise her, and give her as much help as we could. Ultimately, the expert agreed this was probably not the best school/student fit. It was time to switch schools, but how?
After fighting this battle for nearly two years, I began discussing it more with the teachers, parents, and experts that surrounded me. Should we move her to another school? If we did, where? Wasn’t this the best school? Should we homeschool? We didn’t have the funds for expensive alternative schools or private education.
I received mixed reviews. Her teachers cautioned me that she might fall through the cracks at other public schools, because she isn’t a trouble maker. Her therapist said many students thrive in less strenuous academic schools because their self esteem soars as they do better in their studies. We were also warned she was not a good fit for homeschool. All these differing opinions left us a bit lost.
On Sienna’s 8th birthday we bumped into a mom from the school who had switched schools for her daughter. Her suggestion was to switch schools to another school in town I hadn’t thought about. At this school kids are encouraged to get outdoors, learn more through play, and experience more self expression.
I quickly reached out and discovered they had a space open. When I picked Sienna up from tutoring I asked her, “Would you want to switch schools?” Without hesitation she enthusiastically said, “YES!”
This shook me, because Sienna is extremely loyal, and close to her friends. The fact she would have no doubts about leaving showed me just how desperate she was to escape.
It’s been a year since we switched schools and our child has transformed. It’s not always been easy, but we’ve never doubted that it’s been right for her. She embraced her new school, made new friends, and has thrived in the learning environment. With time she worked through her anxieties which still lingered, but she has had so much help from her teachers who have surrounded her with praise and support. Her self esteem has bloomed, her self confidence is high, and she is the happiest we have ever seen her. Gone is the negative self talk. In it’s place is a child who is more mindful, self loving, and empathetic to those around her.
We could not be more grateful for this transformation.
It took me a year to write this blog. I wanted it to come from a place of healing, not from a knee jerk reaction of removing her from a school that didn’t fit her. To be clear, I’m not writing this to sling mud at her former school. I think for many students, that school is the number one school. What I want to encourage parents, is to know your child. I want you to trust your instincts. My only regret is not moving her sooner. Sienna had been telling us for a long time that she didn’t like school. We thought that was normal. What kid doesn’t like school at times? But when we continued to ignore the red flags and deny our gut instincts, Sienna suffered.
I shared this post because so many of you reached out to me to know more of the story. My hope is that it will encourage you to know your kid, trust your gut, and never stop advocating for them despite what the world around you may lead you to think.
Enjoy the Journey
xo- Amy West