Detecting Family Problems: The Role of the School

19 January, 2020
Schools can be the front-line for helping families through difficult circumstances and in helping children to cope when there are problems at home. The school can effectively detect problems with the student and suggest resources available to the family. The school can also monitor the student's progress to assure they're getting the support they need.

What actions should schools take when they become aware of family problems? First, schools should work towards effectively detecting family problems. The school should help identify the problem early on before there are consequences for the student, both academically and emotionally.

Second, the school should be a source of information for the student and their parents. School staff should be aware of all the resources available to assist the student and their family through their difficulties. Finally, the school needs to assure the student’s needs are being adequately addressed.

Two potential paths: helpful or hurtful

The school plays a decisive role in detecting family problems and evaluating how the problem may affect the student. There are essentially two potential paths: The school could either help the student and their family to face their difficulties and work through them; or the school could make the situation worse by ignoring the problem and adding pressure on the student and causing them more anxiety.

All schools should have a service that helps the students, parents, and teachers to resolve crisis situations. The school could detect a great variety of problems early on and effectively intervene by coordinating between professionals, parents, and teachers.

This type of intervention would make schools authentic centers of development and foster a new sense of collaboration between parents and teachers. Schools should establish guidelines and general principles to detect family problems and help with suggesting concrete solutions.

Actions when schools detect family problems

Detecting Family Problems: The Role of the School

Work as a team

When a teacher encounters a student experiencing problems at home, they could help the family feel they’re part of an educational community and that the school cares for their wellbeing.

The school should be proactive and know what to expect in a family crisis. They should be well versed in what kind of help they can give the student and their family, given the situation at hand.

Detecting family problems: Key axes of action

Some of the main axes of action schools could adopt when they encounter family problems are the following:

  • Early detection of the problem
  • Useful resources and possible solutions
  • Close attention to the needs of the student

In respect to these three aspects, every educational center has to weigh how it will respond based on their own resources and what their staff is capable of accomplishing. It also depends on the norms and procedures within the school itself.

The staff should know what indications of trouble they should watch for and receive training on how to respond when students have either family or personal crises. The school should make decisions about how the information flows internally and which professionals, such as counsellors or therapists, are the most appropriate to mobilize in response.

They should know, above all, how to make the curriculum more flexible in such circumstances. The academic norms and rules can be made more flexible when a student is facing these kinds of difficulties.

Academic repercussions

The role of the school is detecting family problems but not resolving them. Schools can do more to help prevent a student from becoming demotivated and unfocused at school. At least, they can help to lessen the impact on the student if it is clear they’re struggling.

To do this, teachers and staff need to pay more attention and adopt a more flexible attitude to schedules and attendance. Teachers should help the troubled student to prioritize and plan in terms of what is realistically possible in their situation. The important thing is to avoid feeding into the problems the student is facing and negatively impacting them instead of helping.

Long-term goals

Once the school has identified a family problem, the staff should facilitate the matter so the parents and the student feel there is a genuine concern and good intentions at helping the family to overcome their crisis. It should be clear the school is looking out for the welfare of the student in the long term.

The most common family crises

Sometimes school staff are unaware there are problems at home and it’s the parents who tell the staff themselves or the student who lets a trusted teacher know. The common types of family crises that educators encounter are the following:

1. Detecting family problems: parental separation or divorce

In this situation, parents should try to resolve their differences without confrontations and come to a mutual understanding by way of a family mediation process.

Children will go through many stages and different feelings when their parents divorce. Sometimes children have difficulty expressing their emotions about the divorce. This can lead the student to develop a block where they bottle up emotions until they unexpectedly explode.

The school should try to be accommodating and take some of the burden off the student. The school could give them a little space academically, especially when it comes to routine homework and tasks.

Detecting Family Problems: The Role of the School

School responsibility: Showing more flexibility

More flexibility can also be shown during the exam period, for example. Educators should consider each individual case and whether the student can handle the workload or not.

The teacher should help the student to understand how their emotions might be affecting their performance. Ideally, the child should receive some professional help during this process from a therapist recommended by the school.

Crisis due to death or illness

Tensions at home caused by the death or illness of a loved one can escalate to where they’re out of control. This can cause the student to emotionally withdraw and develop behavior problems in the student.

It’s not uncommon in this kind of crisis that a student who was once responsible and attentive suddenly behaves like they don’t care. School administrations can do more to help students who face the loss of a family member or loved one.

To date, there are few resources or services really dedicated to helping families. It’s rare even for schools to provide lists of service providers they can recommend.

For example, the presence of a social worker who knows the public and private resources in the area can be very helpful. In the case that a student is requesting psychological help, the school shouldn’t hesitate in recommending a professional whom they trust and have worked with in the past.

Detecting family problems: drug use

The school plays a large role when it comes to drug use and prevention. However, if the student has already started to consume drugs, then families and school authorities should consider the intervention of specialized professionals.

If the school suspects drug use and especially if they have proof of this, they should inform the parents of the student immediately. However, this has to be done with a lot of tact. Because the parents’ can have a negative reaction on many occasions.

The student should be dealt with firmly but fairly. The school should do its utmost to remain neutral in the process, especially when it comes to applying a sanction. They shouldn’t compromise on the official policies or sanctions or lower their academic standards unless the student consents to receive treatment and rehabilitation with the consent of the parents.

Crisis due to abuse or sexual abuse

In such cases, the school’s first obligation will be to protect the minor. The official charges or complaint should be made in writing. The case should be brought to the attention of the social services in the area.

From that point, it will be social services that assume responsibility for the welfare of the minor at all levels. The school shouldn’t do more in order not to obstruct or complicate the intervention of the professionals who are in charge of attending to such cases.

School responsibility: Be aware of the case

It’s okay for the school to coordinate and cooperate with the parents as long as they’re not the aggressors. The school can also insist that social services examine a case especially if there are new developments that the social services seem to be unaware of. There may also be special requests or requirements that social services will send the school.

In addition, with the mutual agreement of all parties, the school can make recommendations for private services so the student receives psychological care periodically.

Detecting family problems: anorexia and bulimia

The school cannot ignore the fact that eating disorders are serious conditions that can even cause the death of the student in extreme cases. In some cases, they may require hospitalization and psychiatric care.

The school should make an effort to inform students of the dangers of this kind of behavior and also alert parents to any warning signs. Nonetheless, once a student presents telltale signs of these disorders, then more direct interventions are necessary.

Detecting Family Problems: The Role of the School

Students who have this disorder tend to perform up to standards academically because they’re perfectionists. They have a great capacity for self-control. However, when the disorder is very advanced and they cannot continue to function normally, the school should help the student to remain engaged with their studies so they aren’t tormented by their grades.

In sum, these are effective measures that schools can take when they detect there are family problems in the home. We also suggested ways that the school staff can proceed in the case of personal or family crises.

  • García Fuster, E. & Musitu, G. (2000). Psicología social de la familia. Madrid: Paidós.
  • González Alamagro, I. (1986). “Familia y Educación”. En J. Mayor Sánchez (dir.), Sociología y Psicología Social de la Educación. Madrid: Anaya.
  • Fuentes, M. C.; García, F.; Gracia, E., & Alarcón, A. (2015). “Los estilos parentales de socialización y el ajuste psicológico. Un estudio con adolescentes españoles”, Revista de Psicodidáctica, 20 (1): 117-138.