When the School System Feels Like the Bully

Dawn Davenport


ARGHH! Nothing in parenting has caused me such frustration as working with the school system to help my kid who struggled at school. I have felt so helpless and frustrated at times that it has brought me to tears. Of course, it’s no walk in the park for the kid who is struggling either, but make no mistake, parenting a child who has difficulties at school is hard, hard work.

When the school system feels like a bully

I was speaking at a conference once when a dad of a child adopted from Guatemala told me that his child’s difficulties at school made him question the wisdom of international adoption.

“At least if he was in Guatemala the pressure wouldn’t be so intense for him to succeed in school, and he wouldn’t have to face the end of the year tests each year. The pressure of school has made him a different child. Maybe he would have been better in a culture where he could have dropped out and had a chance to farm or do manual labor and not feel like a failure.”

His words stuck with me over the years. It does seem as if our schools have little place for kids who don’t excel, or at least hold their own, academically, but aren’t so severely disabled that they are on the non-academic special education track. Maybe our schools, however, are a reflection of our society where it is hard to survive without a high school diploma, and hard to get ahead without a college degree, even though not all kids are cut out for college. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that any child would be better off in an orphanage, but his comment has given me pause over the years as I try to navigate through the school system with my children.

Round peg kids thrive in school; oval peg kids learn to adapt, and although they may have their edges scraped down, they can ultimately fit the rigid mold; but heaven help the poor square peg kid and his/her beleaguered parent.

Have Schools Always Been So Inflexible?

Has it always been this way? I wonder if our schools used to have the flexibility to allow those kids who struggle to make it through with less trauma (read: standardized testing and strict graduation requirements). I feel torn because I appreciate the need for accountability, but it has honestly reached the point that they are forcing many kids and families out of the system. Is it any surprise that homeschooling rates are soaring?

I can’t tell you the number of parents I talk with who are considering taking at least one of their children out of “the system.” I totally understand. We homeschooled one of our kids for many years. Even though it was a huge commitment of time, it was so much less stressful than dealing with the rigidity of the school. Ultimately, we decided that it was in his best interest to go back into the school system, but we continue to homeschool him in selected courses. (I should also point out that some of my greatest heroes have been many teachers and a couple of administrators who have worked hard to make “the system” a better fit for my child.)

Help for Parents (and their kids)

A while ago I interviewed Heather Forbes about her book, Help for Billy: A Beyond Consequences Approach to Helping Challenging Children in the Classroom. She focuses on ways to help children who have a smaller tolerance for stress and act out in class, but much of her bountiful wisdom could apply to the child with run-of-the-mill (as if that phrase could ever really apply) learning differences or ADHD. She paints the possibility of a world where children who struggle can succeed in school and makes practical suggestions for how parents can help create this environment. It’s a beautiful thought.

School system feels like the bully

Heaven help the poor square peg kid and his/her beleaguered parent.

If you’re the parent of a square peg, do yourself a favor and listen to the show and then buy the book. I thought it was interesting that she homeschooled one of her kids for a time until she was able to find a school that could better meet her daughter’s needs. She had to move to another state, however, to find the right fit – not an option for most of us.

Another book that I found surprisingly insightful was A Special Education: One Family’s Journey Through the Maze of Learning Disabilities by fashion designer Dana Buchman. Her struggle with schools was minimal since she could afford the best of specialized education that New York City had to offer, but her candor at her difficulties as a parent rang true.

What has been your experience with schools? Have you considered homeschooling?

Originally published in 2013; Updated in 2019
Image credit: WinPhoto

11/03/2019 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog, Fostering, Fostering Blog | 25 Comments

25 Responses to When the School System Feels Like the Bully

  1. Terrie Rauscher Terrie Rauscher says:

    What also frustrates me with our school system is when your child is in grade school they do all types of accomadating to make sure your child is as successful and possible. Our child has behavior issues and those cause some major issues with learning. We had a wonderful plan in place to transition from grade school over a year and a half ago to middle school. Our school head office had a major fire destroying some information etc our son has not been given the accomodations in that originial agreement and now their answer is call the cops Excuse me what?

  2. Cynthia Averill Campbell Cynthia Averill Campbell says:

    Stanley I could agree with you until you got to the celebrate Halloween part. Our schools have no business “teaching” Halloween to very young children still struggling with separating from mom all day; just beginning to remember dreams; still interpreting fantacy from reality. Our schools begin first of October to put these images on every paper our boys and girls work from using the symbols and words and expect them to process learning through it all. We as parents can certainly shield our kids with PTSD from unnecessary exposure; but surely in a classroom that they MUST attend we can ask for understanding.

  3. Avatar Sherry says:

    We’ll homeschool our 32 month old, and plan to homeschool (at least at first) his soon to be sister from Latvia. Our bio girls, ages 11 & 15, are in parochial school. We pulled them from a magnet school within the public system 3 years ago. The final straw is that our then 1st grader witnessed a child molest another IN CLASS and the school wanted to sweep it under the rug.

    The standards are high still, which I support, but because these teachers are doing it as a “mission” rather than tenure, they actually care about and even love the kids. They also know the parents are paying their salary and that we can take our business elsewhere. It’s a powerful motivator!

  4. Avatar Paulina says:

    Great blog. you’ve now got a new subscriber!

  5. Avatar Debbie says:

    My son is a freshman in high school and is having problems with one teacher. We are changing his meds because adderall was making him aggressive and he couldn’t sleep. SO now he is starting out on concerta. This one teacher kicks him out of class almost daily for his talking in class getting up and walking around and not focusing on his work. I have tried to talk to this teacher and tell him we are trying to find the right fit for his meds and he may do this. He fell farther and farther behind and the end of the semester is at the end of the week. after asking for help and not getting it he resorted to copying a neighbors paper. Yes this is wrong and he is now going to for sure fail this class. He fells the teacher belittles him and has no understanding for how he feels and what he is trying to do. I am sick of fighting with the school and don’t know what to do to help him. Does anyone have any suggestions to get this teacher to see his point of view

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Debbie, I’m so sorry this is happening. I don’t have any magic, but I can tell you what has worked for me. First, I think it is really important to acknowledge our kid’s role in all this and how hard it makes it for the teacher to teach. It is so easy to jump in advocating for our child, that it may look like we don’t understand that our children have to ultimately be held accountable and also acknowledge how much trouble our child is causing for this teacher. I guess what I’m saying is that the teacher needs to feel heard. They also need to see that we are willing to work with them to solve this problem in a way that works for them as well as our child. Second, once the relationship between the child and teacher has soured, it is often helpful to have a third party help mediate finding a solution. Does your son have an IEP? If so, call for an IEP meeting and ask for this teacher to be included. If your son doesn’t have an IEP, I would consider getting him one. For the time being, I’d ask the guidance counselor to assist/mediate this meeting.

  6. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I feel the same way…my daughter is from Guatemala…adopted at age 6…no English. We put her in the school our sons attend…its college prep. Talk about STRESS!!!!

  7. Avatar Joie Black says:

    Well, my daughter is in her 5th school after homeschooling her for 2 years as a Senior & it has been most difficult finding a fit for her. She is presently in a school for kids with learning differences (a lot dyslexia), although my daughter has some ADHD, but mostly has struggled from attachment issues. Our first 8 yrs. we spent trying to fit the square peg into the round hole, resulting in lots of stress & feelings of failure on both the child & parents part. I am also a veteran teacher & what has worked with the majority of students over the years does not with my child. I will say the emotional stress has improved greatly, but academically she is not being challenged at all! It is very difficult to find the balance of motivating them to be all they’re created to be, but at the same time, not creating an environment that causes them to dis-regulate! Thank you for you understanding post!

  8. When children go from being fun and outgoing to aggressive and mean once school starts, it is a sign that the school is too stressful. I encourage all parents to take action as soon as possible. These issues do not just “go away.” They typically only get worse. There is always a way to return our children back to their natural love for learning; it just takes tenacity, creativity, and a willingness to do something different. On a personal note, my daughter who I thought wouldn’t even get through Kindergarten, was accepted today to her first choice college and will attend in this coming fall! Never give up, love will prevail.

  9. Autumn, I am so sorry this is happening to your son. We were very fortunate that we did not ever have an issue with an individual teacher. Most were wonderful. The school administrators were often less easy to work with, especially after elementary school. Some felt they felt they had to rigidly enforce all the rules without any consideration of how they could be modified to help the child.

  10. Avatar Deb says:

    I am going thru this. My son was so excited to go to school in Kindergarten. Now in second grade, he dreads it and I can see his stress starting each Sunday morning. For the last 2 years his teachers have suggested that he needs to be tested for ADD. We finally got in for testing, it took 10 months to get an appointment. Come to find out, he is not on the ADD spectrum in any way, he is right at grade level or slightly above grade level in all testing, BUT he is exhibiting anxiety related to depression. Per the testing and evelaution, the depression is all centered on his teacher.

    from my perspective, the face that he comes home with 2 hours worth of homework every night, that his school expects the students to be a grade leve ahead, it is putting too much pressure on him. I have been talking to other parents whose children have this teacher and they are all saying the same things I am saying, this teacher is not a good fit.

    My son and I are now in counseling in the hopes that conseling can undo what school has done to him. It is so frustrating to see my son upset over school when he wants to learn and he is courious about the world around him. I am considering another school for him next year- a decision I have until August to sort out.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Deb, I feel your pain! I strongly strongly encourage you to consider another school. Is there anything you can do this year within the current school. Even if it doesn’t work it would be so good for your son to see you going to bat for him. He would feel that you understand his pain.

  11. Avatar Sheryl says:

    Dawn…I am anonymous…accidently. She is doimg …ok but the stress is mounting. I just got her into counseling and I am hoping that will help. She mostly gets C’s which I to me is just fine. She is 10 1/2 now and is beginning the path of adolescence which is beginning to complicate things a bit…lol. She is a very good child, but the comprehension of the English language takes years and years.

    Stanley…I get what you are saying..HOWEVER…have you ever been abandoned by your biological mother, spend the first 6 years of your life in an orphanage, moved to a foreign country, had to learn a new language, leanr to be part of s family, learn to live in a different climate.?????! I am guessing not!!

    Your comments are very insensitive.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Sheryl, glad your daughter is holding her own. Actually, I think Stanley might have an inkling of what our kids have gone through since he was in foster care.

  12. Avatar Autumn Starcher says:

    Thank you for posting this i am just starting going thru this with my 5 yr old. It is horrible that seems the school system is the bully..now he has not had any trauma except for his first teacher this year in kindergarten she yelled in his face and used sarcasm…and now we are having huge behavior issues and my outgoing fun child in school is now yelling in kids faces or acting out and saying he is stupid…i will fight for my child and refuse to take the schools easy way out of “well some kids just need medicated”. Thank you again i am so thankful i stumbled on this!!

  13. Avatar Stanley says:

    The purpose of school is to educate children, right? “End of year tests” and “strict graduation requirements” have been imposed to ensure that a child has, in fact, learned the material. A poor child in Guatemala may not have the opportunity to attend school (if, say, his parents can’t afford tuition) – and the American father who adopted the boy presumably did so in part to be able to provide him with opportunities he would not otherwise have had. Like an education.

    A huge part of succeeding in school is the ability to show up on time, learn algebra (even if you hate it), follow directions (even if you think they’re stupid) and not hit your assigned partner in English class (even if the kid is a jerk). These are CRITICAL life skills – just try getting hired by McDonalds’ if you are constantly late, refuse to follow instructions and hit your coworkers. Little kids are slow learners and slow to mature — which is why the law requires all kids to be educated for a minimum of 10-12 years (age 16 or 18, depending on the state). Tons of time for repetition. Learning to behave like a civilized human takes YEARS and helps prevent the world from descending into anarchy.

    A kid has a smaller tolerence for stress? He’s got 10-12 yrs in which to learn to manage it stress in a classroom, surrounded by other people.

    Poor tramatized little muffin shouldn’t have to do circle time? He needs to. Period. Even if he has ADHD and PTSD.

    Pulling a kid out of school to homeschool simply teaches the child that if you have a big enough of a fit, you can avoid an unpleasant task (like learning algebra). Or that it’s acceptable to hide from the world indefinitely (aided and abetted by your parents) if classmates call you names. You’re depriving the child of the opportunity to learn vital “soft skills”.

    The school system is required to give each kid a free **appropriate** education – not the best education on the planet (though that would be lovely!). The sooner the better. I can’t imagine it’s *easier* to learn to share at age 16 than at age 4. The real world will not give you extra time on tests or help you remember to take everything you need to give a presentation just because you have ADHD.

    (I write all of this as an adult with ADHD, who grew up a foster kid from a “hard place”. I’m in my 40s, so there were no meds, no “sensory breaks”, no “little darling has PTSD and no one else should be allowed to celebrate Halloween because it scares him”).

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Stanley: “A huge part of succeeding in school is the ability to show up on time, learn algebra (even if you hate it), follow directions (even if you think they’re stupid) and not hit your assigned partner in English class (even if the kid is a jerk). These are CRITICAL life skills.” I absolutely agree. But what if, no matter how hard your child tries, she can’t learn Algebra. She can study like crazy and pass the chapter tests, but even with repeated tried can’t pass the end of grade test. In the past, there was a place for that child in the school system. Now, however, in some schools she will not be able to graduate from high school because passing the Algebra 1 end of year test is a graduation requirement.

      I honestly do see both sides and have experienced the pros and cons to end of year testing in my own family. I want schools to be help accountable for educating our kids. But I also want some compassion.

  14. Terrie, my experience, sorry to say, is that even without the records getting destroyed, the school system’s willingness to work with us to make sure out child got the accommodations and support he needed decreased with every year–supportive in elementary school, less in middle school and significantly less in high school.

  15. Avatar Deb says:


    I have meet with his teacher 2 times, his principal and intervention team 1 time. We are all scheduled to meet mid February again, but I am going to ask for the meeting to be moved up. he knows that I am meeting with his school staff and teacher to determine how to change things.

    The problem with moving schools is that he is very change phobic- it does trigger him. So I have to balance the damage changing schools could do with staying where he is and asking for a specific teacher next year (yes, I know who would be best for him and who he DEFINITELY should not have).

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Deb, boy do I understand. My boy is change-phobic as well and it is a balancing act because even if the situation was bad, he was afraid of the unknown, even if it might be better.

  16. Avatar Rebecca says:

    Hi from ICLW. I don’t have children but I can remember what it felt like to not excel in school.

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