This may seem an impossible question to answer. By reflecting on our own experiences and identifying what happiness at school or lack of it meant to us, we sometimes identify the key factors at certain periods of time in our own school careers. Some parents refer to particular classes, teachers, or extra-curricular activities that were formative. But children and new schools are so different today, and happiness is dependent on such a range of factors, that it makes it hard to generalise. Nor can we associate tangible results such as success in exams with happiness at school, as so many adults confirm. But most parents would agree unanimously that having friends is one of the most important factors that will determine our children’s happiness.
Friends do not have to be in the same class, or always in the same lessons. At the early stages of education, when it is combined with care, even friendships with other children may not feature largely in the creation of happiness at school, as a good alliance with a teacher can make all the difference to a child. A child does not have to have a best friend at school to be happy, and many do not. Attending a large school where parents hope their children will have “a choice” of friends does not seem to have any tangible impact on happiness, especially as institutional routines can reduce an individual child’s ability to develop self-awareness. A well-ordered environment may make it easier for one child to make stable friendships; another child might relax and be happier when learning is more spontaneous.
The easiest time to work out what sort of friendships your child is making at school (provided you speak the kindergarten language!) is while they are very young. At their first school, it is obvious if they love their teacher, enjoy friendships, and can manage the often-intense social relationships that are common between children under the age of seven. Here the emphasis is usually on developing a vocabulary for friendship and learning to describe emotions and think about them before acting on them. Teachers of young children are very close to their social development and can share a lot with you.
Even as children grow up this intensity can be repeated, not only during the teenage years but also if there is a big change in their environment at home or if they have to change schools. This makes choosing a school particularly challenging when you move to a new place, where you do not know the others with whom your child will spend many hours every day. If it is not possible to visit or find out much about the other children in their new school, you can increase your chances of understanding their experience by learning the local language or at least their new school language as soon as possible. You will need to interpret what you hear once your child starts and make a bigger effort to meet other parents, if your children start at a school after the local children have already established various routines.
Parents are increasingly aware that it takes years to settle a family into life in a new country. The ambitious among us want not just to settle but also to integrate by making Swiss friends, and many bravely choose the local school systems to expedite familiarity with local culture. Rather than closing our eyes and letting our children “sink or swim,” it might be helpful to consider some issues that influence social integration and ultimately happiness in a new school.
Learning a language
This is funnily enough not necessarily an issue at the very start, because it takes a lot more time to learn a language than it takes to feel comfortable in a new social group or community. The friendliness, attitude, and experience a teacher has in welcoming new children of different cultures to their own are often more important than which language they speak. So much can be imagined even if a child is nervous or shy, so provided the staff are sensitive to newcomers your child, if she or he is not having to deal with too many teachers, can settle into a new language environment without actually being able to be completely understood by anyone for some time! This does not mean full social integration will be achieved quickly, but the time it takes to work out if it will be achieved is bound to be longer if a new language must be learnt and before real friendships can be established.
Taking it slowly
Our enthusiasm for throwing our families and ourselves into a “campaign for social integration” might make persistence difficult. Don’t forget to let your child integrate gradually; do not expect them to learn how to make friends in a new school immediately. They cannot do it without your support and participation, which from your own attempts to learn new ways will help you understand why it may take many months or even years, especially if you have several children who speak another language at home or a strong family culture. Choosing a bilingual or English-speaking school can create some structure in this inevitably long-term process if you have not lived in Switzerland before having children.
Appreciating the small things and trying not to judge
Children do not often show what they do during the day; they live in the present. At the moment you pick them up, their minds are on the last few moments; then they think about leaving their new community, and then they finally focus on you. What they did in the morning is a long time ago to them! It is worth asking what sort of day they had, but don’t expect a comprehensive answer. Details may, however, be emotionally important so if they mention even small things about school, you might want to find out more about them from an adult who was there at the time.
A piece of work your child made at school can help prompt a conversation about what they have been doing. What you see is probably one aspect in a series of work, and often the process is more important than the finished product. What their classmates were doing at the time was probably also influential. Similarly, one example of something said by a new friend does not represent the whole relationship or communicate the social reality at school. So try to go into the school regularly, if not frequently, not just to see what they are doing but also to prevent yourself from coming to hasty conclusions. Learning and making friends happen over a long period of time.
Getting a perspective from play dates
Playing outside school gives parents a lot of information about the child’s feelings and level of social maturity. Play styles at home often bear no relation to how the same children play at school: expectations, space, planning, and group dynamics are completely different in each environment. As kids get older they are more able to talk about their different friendships, which makes the effort very worthwhile.
If young children play beautifully together outside school it can encourage you to make friends with their parents; sometimes these families will become family friends for many years to come. On a more practical note, play dates give you valuable information for planning birthday parties. I recommend inviting children you like to your home, even if it is just once or twice, to see how it goes. It also helps build a community around the school if you then decide to invite their parents, too.
Listening carefully to what your child enjoys at school
When my art teacher called my parents and suggested they buy me a book about Degas for Christmas, he could not have known the impact such a present would have on my life or that I would still be remembering his kindness thirty years later. If your child has an interest that you do not know about, someone else who notices becomes a channel for your sensitivity as parents and could influence your child’s attitude forever more! To facilitate this, teachers need to know that you are interested in what they discover in your child and that you will listen to them if they want to share information with you.
Finding a school culture and atmosphere that suit your child’s temperament and interests
Parents who have been either very happy or very unhappy at school seem to pay a lot of attention to their choice of school; their reasons for this include intangible issues of culture and atmosphere. Happiness includes a sense of belonging and identification; in other words, children find it comfortable when parents and teachers share values. This does not mean being “the same” in terms of class or background, but home and school being able to cultivate mutual tolerance and respect. I have heard tales of unhappiness that basically boil down to long-term loneliness because being the odd one out is just miserable. However, most teachers excel in making connections between different individuals, and most expatriates are privileged in being able to choose where they live and therefore which schools to be close to.
I add interests to temperament because schools vary so much in their accommodation of different interests and abilities. In German-speaking Switzerland, parents like to be able to use the local area school for the primary phase, even if after that their child will be travelling far if they pass the academic test for entry to a Gymnasium. Vereine are the clubs used for hobbies and other interests. Being the only child who asks lots of questions in a class can be even more isolating socially than being among a few children not following what is being taught. It all depends what kind of response an expressive child gets, because teachers set the cultural tone in a class discussion. I focus on difference, because children notice if they are more intelligent than average as well as if they are less clever, and they need to learn to handle it in a socially acceptable way. Learning to be humble and not to crow at one’s own talents is quite different to suppressing one’s natural intelligence in an attempt not to stick out. That can be tiring and a waste of potential.
Few Swiss primary schools have policies on respecting diversity, but many are very international by virtue of the parents who live nearby. The problem in local schools is a systemic one: only a minority of children are expected to become “academic” rather than “vocational.” The egalitarian principles in the Swiss education system make it less than desirable for your child to become an academic, which is ironic, because in much of the world academia is prized.
You as parents are the gatekeepers at the start, who can ensure that the culture of the school will accommodate your child rather than treating them as too strange to fit in. Even after you have chosen a school, you may have to become an advocate, making it your mission to see that your child does not remain a respectful guest or an outsider. It is, of course, very important to many children to fit into their school culture. But they cannot change their identity to do that, nor should they.
Whether a child is different because they are foreign, or bright, or interested in sport, or speaking several languages, they have the same right to equal respect as every other child in their class.
Developing skills that motivate them
Parents hope that a child’s education will spark a passion for a particular talent in him or her. From a teacher’s point of view, gaining a long-cultivated skill, whether social or practical, might be more valuable than a newfound desire to pursue a recent passion. Teaching topics and skills and seeing learning before your eyes in the context of a healthy group dynamic are the most exciting parts of a teacher’s job. However, the requirement to perform and lead can obscure communication about an individual child’s skills, which is why progress meetings with parents are so important. Real observations relayed to parents by teachers provide an insight for parents into their child’s daily learning and their friendships. Social skills and learning to negotiate fuel a child’s motivation to learn and are worth enquiring about, even if they are less tangible than learning to write and less visible than homework.
Sharing the pleasure between home and school
I wish I could make video clips of a child’s development in every part of the school day, over time. Modern recording systems (at Children First we tend to use photos) help us to inform each child’s parents about their developing personalities at school as well as their learning and are useful to in analysing and describing learning styles. Good ratios make this possible in the private system but even in large classes, technology is making the process of reporting on children’s progress much simpler these days.
A child who is happy at school is likely to learn the most, but it is unrealistic to expect children to be happy every single year to the same degree. Tangible skills can be evidence that a child is happy and learning at school, but not always. Fascinatingly different from concrete results such as language and practical skills, the detail of a conversation with a friend can reveal your child’s character. They need to learn about themselves and their impact on others at school. Something they have said that contributes to the group or shows a flash of insight, or their social maturity, might be just as important for teachers to relate to parents. In addition teachers are dependent on you as parents to tell them about significant steps or issues at home. If you can find a way to share the positives as well as informing teachers about difficulties, without taking more than your fair share of their time, a partnership starts to be established between home and school. Although respecting the independence of children involves not trying to control them at school, as that is the teacher’s responsibility, children who feel understood can behave more responsibly towards their friends and towards their own learning.
What about testing?
Parents are not able to witness every daily purposeful activity but can see from the perspective it brings being outside a school, how their child is developing socially over time.
Teachers are in the opposite position, they can be so close to what children feel, that every little step forward is celebrated. Academic tests can therefore feel like an unwelcome intrusion on the daily happiness of children at school, but to get a perspective on learning their achievements have to be compared with averages outside the school. This does not reduce the joy of seeing what learning is for each individual child and should not detract from an appreciation by both parents and teachers of the community of friendship that each school represents.
By Monica Shah
Monica Shah is a child development and early education specialist. Her book Working with Parents (2001) was produced for the Heinemann School Management series. She was director of a north London counselling centre before coming to Switzerland in 2002. Monica founded Children First in 2006, an international daycare and kindergarten in the city of Zurich.
Illustration by BVisual
Beth (“BVisual”) graduated from university after studying visual communication, specialising in illustration. She’s has been working as a freelance creative and undertaken projects such as the V&A Illustration Awards in London. Beth has projects involving portraits and editorial illustrations under her artist’s name BVisual.