As part of the ‘Schooling and the Highly Sensitive Child (HSC)’ series I talked to Margaret*, an expat mother, originally from Germany, who has lived in the UK, Germany, India, Brazil and is currently living in the United States about her highly sensitive son.
HSK: When did school first become a problem for your highly sensitive son?
Margaret: His first school was in Germany when he was 3 years old. He hated every day there; he was crying and struggling with just about everything there, not because he was shy, (he is actually a very open, outgoing, friendly person) but because those teachers were incredibly strict and the atmosphere was far from positive. They were putting such a lot of pressure on little ones and had high expectations for children his age.
At that time I didn’t know he was a HSC and his teachers kept telling me to let him be more independent and not help him so much. They were against too much love and affection and even my husband (who is far from being highly sensitive) found their approach weird. We decided we should go abroad again and hopefully find a good school for our son.
HSK: So you moved?
Margaret: Yes, my husband got a job offer in India and we were lucky to get a place at a brilliant British International School which my son loved from day one! It was so different, I felt I was the luckiest mom on earth! He started in reception class and loved every minute he spent there. He attended that school for two and a half years – he flourished and was very happy.
He became so confident and even wanted to go to school at weekends! They taught him a lot and he got the individual attention he wanted at all times; there were around 12 kids per class with 2 teachers. His teachers were amazing, so loving and understanding and whenever he refused to do something (like play football, which he found too aggressive), or struggled with things like the loud music played during different celebrations, they never pushed him.
India was a tough time for us but a good life experience and this school was a real blessing. Then we moved again.
HSK: How did your son’s school change when you moved to Brazil?
Margaret: For one and a half years he attended an international school in Brazil, again it was a great school where he was happy, made lots of friends and learned a lot. However, I wish his main teacher had shown a bit more understanding about him not liking to go on field trips in the rainforest (he was scared of snakes etc) or playing football. Anyhow all in all it was a very good, positive atmosphere there and my son, who back in India refused to go to swimming lessons, started to like swimming at school thanks to a great PE teacher who was extremely helpful and positive with him.
HSK: And then you moved to the US?
Margaret: Yes, it was a tough move for him as he loved his school back in Brazil and his friends. We also made the biggest mistake ever when we put him in a public school which was a five minute drive from where we lived. Before we moved to the US we also visited some private schools and the best one was again an hour’s drive away – I was so tired of the daily school commute which had meant me driving for four hours a day to get to the private schools in India and Brazil. We thought we’d give the American public system a try.
HSK: Did you talk to your son’s teacher about the fact that he is highly sensitive?
Margaret: When the teacher asked me to write about his personality so she could get to know him better I wrote a long letter about his sensitivities. I even sent her links to Elaine Aron’ s book (The Highly Sensitive Child). I got no response from her after that and I thought maybe she knows how to deal with HS kids. Far from it……
HSK: Did you start seeing issues with your son in school?
Margaret: Yes. My son’s teacher’s main thing was ” discipline”. My son, who loves to talk, started to get punished almost daily for being too talkative and asking questions. He has always been like that and in his former schools we never had this problem with him being punished for “interrupting” as the teachers took their time to talk to him.
I also realised that in this school the children were all learning the same things. Very “boring” as my son used to say, and there was no individual attention, no individual tasks. He was used to asking lots of questions but in this school he was not allowed to. He also used to finish his assignments before other kids and started talking and bothering others because he didnt know what to do (in the other school he was given more work). After a month, he started to hate going to school, he didn’t want to get up in the mornings , he cried a lot, didn’t want to read anything anymore (he loves books), lost all his interest in learning (he is a very enthusiastic learner and loves to find out new things). I went to talk to the teacher to find out what was going on.
I learnt that they simply didn’t have the resources and time a private school has and although they can challenge the kids to a certain extent it is limited…. For him school became boring, too easy and no longer any fun.
He experienced 3 months of the public system and his confidence decreased so much during this time (getting red cards sent home). It made him feel so bad and ashamed of himself. He started getting very angry with his peers at school, didn’t cry anymore but started shouting at them because he was upset and angry all the time.
For the first time in his life (apart from the bad experience in his first year in nursery back in Germany), my son transformed from a very joyous guy into an anxious child who refused to go to school…
HSK: So what did you do to help your son?
Margaret: I remember the admission lady in the private school that we visited saying that a child who was used to the best private education would never adapt to the public system. We didn’t listen, we thought lots of kids are ok in the public system so we should give it a try. We were wrong….
It was tough but we decided that I should start driving again and we switched to a private school in the area.
HSK: What effect has changing schools had on your son?
Margaret: He has been attending the private school now for six months now and has been happy there from day one. He adapted extremely well and quickly; within a couple of days he had friends and was very happy waking up early every morning.
HSK: What support have you had in the new school?
Margaret: In his new school they treat each child individually and want to make sure everyone is happy coming to school to learn. When his new teacher asked me to write about him, I wrote again a long letter, she immediately replied asking if she could borrow Elaine Aron’s book from me and asked me and my husband to come and meet the school psychologist, who wanted to find out more as she wanted to help.
He had a couple of incidents in the beginning when he got angry when he was told by other biggger boys that he was not good at football, but the psychologist came to talk to him and explain strategies for anger managment. I was told by his teacher that he is perfectly fine and doesnt need any help anymore with his social skills, she is a very positive teacher and takes her time to understand him and supports his sensitivities.
There are other boys who are HS as well and they all play together and have their own fun. I think this school understands that children are all different.
Lessons from Margaret’s Story
- Don’t be afraid to make big changes – sometimes our highly sensitive children are tougher and more adaptable than we think and they can thrive when we least expect them to
- Culture plays a big role in a country’s education system
- Individual teachers and their styles of teaching can have a huge impact on a child
- Strict, discipline based environments are often not ideal for a HSC
- Schools that see children as individuals and treat accordingly are worth seeking out
- Always ask what help and support a school can offer highly sensitive children – if nothing else you test the water to see if it is an environment that your child can flourish in
- The best school for your HSC may not be the easiest option but the pay off for the sacrifice can be huge
*Name has been changed