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How to tell if your child is thriving at school

Sometimes it's hard to tell whether young children are happy at school - ever tried to get a straight answer out of a six-year-old? We asked an expert how to gauge whether things are going well.

One of my Muddy colleague’s kids is going through a phase at the moment of saying she hates school.  Hard to get to the bottom of these things isn’t it? The question all parents ponder when their children drop this kind of bombshell without any further info (the little girl is not being very forthcoming apparently) is whether there’s a real problem or whether the child is being ‘interesting’.

Timely then that I had a catch up planned with Rob Harmer, the head of St Mary’s in Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, a charming, bijou prep school that I reviewed here. Rob had some interesting thoughts on how to work out if young children are thriving at school. Six things to look out for, according to Rob – how well does your child fare?


1. Their overall wellbeing is good

Thriving isn’t just about academic results. The number one priority is to ensure that a child is happy and their needs are being met – and then it tends to follow that a happy child will do extremely well. Mental health and wellbeing are very important – at St Mary’s we have two mental health nurses and an annual Be Well day that focuses on exercise, eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, the notion of living in the moment, having less screen time etc. All of these things being in place can contribute to children getting the results they deserve.


2. They take part in sport

For children to thrive, they need to join in. Sport isn’t just about winning, it teaches them about team spirit, collaboration, resilience and helps them make friends. It also allows them to let off steam and switch off from academic concerns. If you have a child who says they don’t like sport, that’s OK – we are all different and it’s not at the top of everyone’s list. But as a parent you can help by exposing them to all different types of activity until they find something they like. They might not be a team sport player but perhaps they’re a cyclist or a cross country runner. There’s something out there for everyone.


3. They like their teachers

It’s not always the be-all and end-all but it certainly helps for a child to like their teacher – they will want to put in more effort for teacher they like than one they don’t like. If the child doesn’t like their teacher and has that same teacher for every subject, it can be demoralising for the pupil. At St Mary’s the children move around with different teachers for different subjects from year 3 so there’s no opportunity for children to switch off or get bored. Teaching is all about relationships and a good teacher will understand how to get the best out of every child. If you’re concerned it’s worth having a conversation with your school’s head.


4. They have a strong friendship group

If children say they have no friends or are having problems with their friends, it’s really important that these things are shared. Listen to your children and ensure you’re taking their concerns seriously rather than dismissing them  – it may seem trivial to you that a 7-year-old is upset that they’re not sitting next to their best friend in class but to them it’s a huge deal. If they repeatedly raise the same issue at home then it’s time to raise it with the school.

Remember sometimes what is said at home isn’t a true picture of what is happening at school – it could be a call for an attention. But you must take it seriously and frequently check in with your children about how they’re feeling. Sometimes these things need adults to help resolve them, sometimes it’s a matter of giving them the tools to develop resilience. For our Year 5 & 6 children, we have an app on which they can share their concerns, anonymously if they wish. It’s another method of communication for those times when children feel unable to speak up face to face.

We also have a behavioural management system, where all teachers can log  and share things like disagreements between children. It’s a great way to track how children are feeling and if the same names keep coming up, we can pick up on any patterns and nip problems in the bud.


5. They have the confidence to try (and fail)

This is really important from early on. Inventors and entrepreneurs often fail many times before they succeed and having confidence is key to this. Children should recognise that you have to fail in life – you have to get things wrong in order to progress. Within a school setting children can be self conscious about getting the wrong answer in front of their peers so you need to ensure they won’t have children sniggering behind their backs. So we try to build confidence early on so they feel comfortable in their own skin.

Drama lessons really help with this – from Year 1 upwards our pupils will stand on a stage and speak out in front of the whole school. We also work with the kids on metacognition which helps children take control of their learning so rather than spoon-feeding we ask open ended questions from an early age, and allow them to feel confident to think for themselves, see other points of view and problem solve.


6. They’re not bored

If an able child isn’t being stretched enough, they can get bored and this can lead to negative changes to behaviour. A coasting child will not achieve their full potential. Any good teacher will notice when a child isn’t putting in as much effort as they’d expect and as a parent you’ll see this coming through in school reports. It’s key to ensure children are enthusiastic and engaged.


Every day is an open day at St Mary’s so you can just call the school to arrange a visit when it suits. 13 St. Andrews Road, Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire, RG9 1HS. Tel: 01491 573118.

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1 comment on “How to tell if your child is thriving at school”

  • Nina September 7, 2019

    This needs to be nationally available info! For parents, schools and teachers!

    Well done!



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