How School Impacts a Child’s Mental Health – What Makes a Good School?

After the family, school is the second great institution to influence a child’s development. For some, their school days are the happiest of their lives. For many school is, as the poet Philip Larkin put it, simply “a forgotten boredom.” Others, however, endure so much bullying, failure, and humiliation, that they are scarred for life.

What Makes a Good School?

No parent wishes to send their child to a bad school, but how do you judge a good one? Some places achieve brilliant exam results but create a nasty, competitive atmosphere in the process. Creativity, empathy, self-esteem, and an enthusiastic love for knowledge all need to be cultivated as well. Confidence and people skills are also vital if a child is to flourish.

As with any institution, those at the top will set the tone. But, once again, there is the question of priorities. If you are a School Principal, responsible for selecting new teachers, what do you look for? Even an Oxford or Harvard graduate can make a poor teacher. They may know their subject, but what if they lack warmth and humour? Children find it difficult to learn when they neither like nor respect the person who is teaching them. Given this, some now argue that trainee teachers should be subjected to psychological tests. Numeracy and literacy are important, but so are empathy, kindness, and a sincere interest in the happiness and development of the children under their care.

What Do Children Want?

Students dislike two things above all: boredom and inconsistent discipline. Of course, boredom can take many forms. A gifted child will grow bored if the work is too easy, just as a child who struggles will grow bored if the work is too hard. Students are now living in the information age, which is why some teachers believe their role should change. Rather than stuffing little heads with knowledge, it is argued, they should instead be teaching their students how to analyze and interpret the limitless information now available. Others argue that education should be more personalized. In other words, the teacher should first help the children identify the subjects that fire their imaginations and then help them to pursue it.

Contrary to popular belief, children dislike anarchy; they feel happier and more secure when there is structure. Observe a class of boisterous children presided over by a weak and incompetent teacher. Some will be enjoying themselves, but you will also sense a great deal of unease, even fear, among the rest. Children prefer a harsh teacher to one who cannot be trusted. The same is true of families. A child will be more stressed by a parent whose moods fluctuate and whose punishments are arbitrary than by one who is harsh but fair and consistent.

Criticism

When teaching children, it is often necessary to criticise their work or behaviour. But criticism should always be administered cautiously. Ask some elderly people about their school days and you may be surprised at how many can remember a cutting or harsh remark made to them by a teacher some 60 years ago. Criticism hurts – and it sticks. Countless adults avoid art galleries and science museums for the rest of their lives because a teacher once convinced them they were stupid.

Criticism in itself is not the problem. In fact, it is often necessary. But it should always be administered in a constructive way. The child should feel that they are being corrected and guided so they will do better next time, not yelled at because their stupidity has annoyed the teacher. Above all, children should feel there is hope of improvement.

Bullying

It is a peculiar fact that while violent bullying at work can lead to dismissal, or even prosecution, when it occurs at school many shrug their shoulders and dismiss it as part of growing up. Yet serious bullying can have a devastating effect, especially in the age of social media. In the UK, for example, recent government statistics revealed that teenage suicides are at a 20-year high. The chief executive of Kidscape, an anti-bullying charity, has blamed this on modern technology. Bullying no longer ends with the school day. Children can now be bullied from the moment they switch on their iPhone at the breakfast table.

Of course, children are not the only perpetrators. Teachers can be the worst bullies of all! Even so, greater psychological damage is caused when the bullying is inflicted by another child. After all, when the bullying takes place within their peer group, children feel rejected as well as frightened. Recalling his time spent at an English boarding school, C. S. Lewis wrote that, sadistic as the Principal may have been, “hardly any amount of oppression from above takes the heart out of a boy like oppression from his fellows.” It is worth noting that Lewis later claimed to have been more traumatised by such bullying than by his experiences as an officer in the British Army during World War One.

Behaviour

Children will behave according to what is expected of them. And they are often more aware of their reputation than adults realise. This is why labelling can be so dangerous. A child with a reputation for disruptive and unruly behaviour will feel almost obliged to swear, vandalize and disobey. Such labels, and the behaviour they provoke, can even last beyond school. Indeed, some people never grow out of these patterns of behaviour. Others are simply looking for boundaries. Again, you can observe this in families. A teenage boy whose father is weak and distant will often misbehave so as to provoke a response and receive the discipline he craves. Children like to know that there are boundaries – it makes them feel safe.

The effects of school on a child’s mental health should never be underestimated. Indeed, it would not be an overstatement to say that school experiences shape an individual for years to come, establishing patterns of thought and behaviour that can last into old age.



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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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