Backing My Son in a Decision about School

My son has struggled for years in a traditional school setting. This past year he had a very hard time in fourth grade at the public school he had been attending. He and his teachers had difficulty connecting with each other, he was not completing any of his work, and the other students were targeting and teasing him on a daily basis for his difficulties and for being different. We tried many things, including meetings with his teachers and the principal, playdates, special time,* and sessions after school. A girl in the class was also being heavily targeted, and she and my son began to target each other. The mother of this girl and I became allies and got our children together for two playdates. That was a great success and helped them to turn around their relationship. But the overall situation was not changing.

About halfway through the year the school situation was having a big impact on my son’s self esteem. I began to question his staying at a school where he was so heavily targeted. I thought it made sense to consider switching schools. I did some research and found a small alternative school where the students took charge of their own learning and a lot of attention was placed on creating an intentional learning community. To my complete surprise, my son was resistant to the idea of switching schools. He agreed to visit the school, spent a full week trying it out, and seemed to love it. However, he still did not want to switch. He wanted to keep fighting to make things work at his current school.

I was faced with what felt like a huge dilemma. I wanted my son to leave his school as soon as possible and be in a place where he could be more accepted for who he was. I was concerned about how the targeting was affecting his sense of self, about his isolation, and about how miserable he seemed day after day.

My feelings of hopelessness from my own childhood were affecting how I saw the situation. I discharged and tried more things with my son. At a certain point I decided it was his decision. I would share my thinking with him as it evolved over time. I would offer him information, perspective, special time, and sessions. But I would trust that he had a good mind and the tools he needed, including his relationships with my husband and me, to make his own decision. I thought it would hurt him for me to decide on his behalf and go against his wishes. There are times when I have needed to make decisions on his behalf. But I felt that in this situation it would be a betrayal that would add to an already difficult situation; it would be a hurt coming from the person closest to him who had spent years trying to build with him a relationship of mutual respect.

My son wanted to keep “fighting” and not give up. He was able to remain hopeful in a way I was not. I also knew that he carried around a lot of fear, was scared of change, and as a Jewish boy had internalized Jewish oppression and doubts about his self worth. His rigidity in not being open to switching schools also stood out to me. I wanted to figure out a way to back him but not leave him alone with his distresses unchallenged and undischarged.

I set up four-way sessions for him with Co-Counselors who had known and loved him for years. In those sessions he really got to show what the targeting had been like for him. We also had a family meeting in which we took turns sharing our thinking. I asked the potential new school to give us a deadline, so we would have an external deadline to meet. With my son’s agreement, our Area Reference Person came over for two sessions in which my son kept refusing to say good-bye to his current school, we laughed a lot about decision-making, I cried saying good-bye to his school and naming all the people I would miss, and he got very angry.

The day the deadline came, I asked my son what he wanted to do, and he said very simply that he would like to try the new school.

That he chose to finish the year at his old school and take charge as best as he could was a huge victory, his victory. That we decided to back his decision no matter what it was and stay close while he tried to make it, pulling in all the resource we could muster, was also a huge victory. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the process brought all of us as a family a lot closer together.


New York City, New York, USA

(Present Time 186, January 2017)

* Special time is an activity, developed in RC family work, during which an adult puts a young person in full charge of their mutual relationship, as far as the young person can think. For a specific period of time, the adult lets the young person know that she or he is willing to do anything the young person wants to do. The adult focuses her or his entire attention on the young person and follows her or his lead, whether the young person tells, or simply shows, the adult what she or he wants to do.

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00