challenges of motherhood, Children, School

Dear Teacher, Sometimes You Need to Believe Without Seeing

What if I come and have lunch with you at home one day? Then I can see the meltdown for myself,” suggested my son’s teacher at the height of the school troubles.

The thing is she just didn’t get it. I couldn’t make her understand. My highly sensitive child won’t perform for just anyone. He needs to feel safe. He only lets his emotions go in a trusted environment, with people who love him unconditionally. His lunchtime meltdowns are reserved for me. Not for his teacher, not in her classroom, nor in our home.

Three hours at a time with thirty other children has its toll on my highly sensitive son. Let’s be honest, for many people some kind of minor breakdown would be on the cards after a day with thirty children. For a child with heightened senses a busy classroom is a minefield.

We use the metaphor of a bucket; every direct interaction my son has, every indirect interaction he witnesses, goes into his bucket. Every sight, sound, smell and action gets thrown in there unfiltered. With a classroom teeming with small children his bucket fills quickly. In no time it overflows.

Photo Credit: KD Kelly

But my son doesn’t want to be the centre of attention. Anything but. He lets that bucket flow over without a word, a sensory overload seeping over the sides of his bucket, forming puddles around his feet. He walks around silently in emotionally sodden shoes until he leaves the classroom, until his teacher leads him out onto the playground, until his eyes meet mine over a sea of children and parents. I can read in those eyes, in a split second, that his bucket is too heavy for him to carry. In the split second it takes to meet my eyes he knows it is safe to let go and his face contorts with anger and confusion, his eyes darken and a thundercloud appears over his head. But his teacher’s attention is long gone as he runs to me.

I put my arms around him and I feel the energy raging within his little body, stress with nowhere to go. Words stumble over each other to get out of his mouth, trying to sum up the whirlwind that has been his morning, trying to empty his overladen bucket.

We walk home. Either there are tears as we walk, or the beginnings of a meltdown. Or silence. But no matter how the short walk home has been I know that when I open the front door to our home, once he crosses that threshold to safety, he will fling the bucket he has spent the morning filling across our hallway.

He will scream, cry, lash out, fight my every move; nothing will be right. His jacket refuses to hang on his hook. He can’t get his shoelaces undone. His sandwich filling is wrong. The bread is cut wrong. His brother is making too much noise. His plate is the wrong colour.

For eighteen long, emotional, stressful months we search for solutions. We talk to his teachers. I share that he is highly sensitive. I share that he needs time out, he needs quiet time, a place to reset, to empty his bucket out before it fills to the top. But I face a brick wall.

His teachers say he doesn’t want quiet moments, doesn’t need time alone. They tell me he’s a good learner, that he’s their idea of a perfect child in the classroom: he listens; he follows instructions; he doesn’t make a fuss. They tell me he’s enjoying himself. They tell me he’s never had a tantrum in school, never kicked a chair in his classroom, never shouted at them or a classmate. They tell me they see no problem in school, it has nothing to do with them; it’s a problem our family needs to solve at home. We need to leave the scientifically unproven idea of highly sensitive children at home, and let him get on with it at school, where he’s the perfect student.

They refuse to scratch beyond the surface, to see beyond the façade. They don’t see me dragging a screaming, crying little boy over the threshold of safety back into the world every day after lunch. They don’t see me coaxing a five-year-old boy out of the house for an afternoon at school. They don’t see the bruises on my shins from the kicks I get as I try to get shoes back on my distraught child to leave the house. They don’t see my tears, the conflict raging inside me. I want to keep him home but I can’t, not every day. They refuse to see the conflict raging inside my son.

By the time the battle is over and he’s back in school both our tears have faded, his anger has subsided.

I tell his teacher it has been a struggle to get him back there. I can see her rolling her eyes. Not literally of course, but I know she’d like to. And I walk back home, knowing I’ll do it all again in two hours because his bucket will fill unhindered during the afternoon.

He will come home overwhelmed because the new girl has been crying on her first day, because his friend fell over and hurt his arm, because the last piece of the puzzle he was doing did an impromptu vanishing trick, because the noise levels in class reached a new high, because he couldn’t get the teacher’s attention for help, because he hated the drawing he made.

He’ll come home overwhelmed because he’s highly sensitive and he doesn’t yet have the tools to filter out the things he doesn’t need to keep in his bucket. He needs help with it all. He needs support. He needs a reminder to seek out a quiet space. But for some reason I can’t get that for him in his classroom, where he spends most of his day.

Instead I get the offer of a lunch date at our house. Failing that maybe I could videotape one of his meltdowns for them. Because seeing is believing, right? Perhaps it would be better to accept the word of a mother, a mother at her wit’s end trying to help her son, a mother whose heart breaks every time she picks her son up from school because she sees his soul being destroyed little by little in a classroom that is a long way from being suitable for a highly sensitive child.

He’s in a different school now, one that understands that all children are individuals. That the boy at home and the boy in school is part of the same whole. His teacher understands that he needs time, space and quiet to empty his bucket. She believes without seeing. She supports him, without needing to see him at his worst. Sometimes seeing is believing, but other times it needs to be a matter of trust.

Photo Credit: Karolina Michalak

*Please note that as of 1 November 2014 I have launched a new blog called Happy Sensitive Kids,  for parents of highly sensitive children, or for those parenting children as highly sensitive people. Please visit Happy Sensitive Kids for more information sources and the blog – You can also keep up to date on the accompanying Facebook page of the same name.*

Mami 2 Five


23 thoughts on “Dear Teacher, Sometimes You Need to Believe Without Seeing”

  1. Always a hard one when you're choosing schools to know which is the best for your child. Glad he's now in a school which is working better to understand and support him and you as a family #sharewithme


  2. Ugh – how stressful. Hope the new school and teacher help things to improve. One thing I found with my kids (some of whom had similar issues) was to get out of the routine. When you come inside and the same thing happens every day, when you could almost write a script, it's time to change the setting or tweak the script otherwise the plot remains the same. Could you perhaps go for a swing in the park before getting home? That make take his mind of what's going on in his head and perhaps lighten it a little. I'm sure you've thought of everything though; it's just something that worked for me.


  3. I can't imagine how stressful that must be for you. I can relate to this so much…from the child's point of view, that is. I am a highly sensitive individual and school was extremely overwhelming for me as a child. My mom went through the same battles, I was a “model student” but I ended every day in a state of overwhelm. I still get this way if I don't “empty my bucket” frequently. Kudos on being an attentive mom and recognizing his needs early on!


  4. Thank you all for your wonderful words!

    Emma – before you have a child in school it is hard to picture what a child may or may not need. It's a shame when you need to learn the hard way and heartbreaking that he had to feel so unsupported for his first two years of school. Thanks goodness we made the change!

    Expat Mum – thanks for the timely reminder. When we were at the height of the 'nightmare' I tried everything you can imagine and things worked as a one off but nothing consistently so the wise words about getting stuck in a rut ring true. I need to try a few things out again at the moment because I am seeing old patterns emerging as he comes through the door, but on a milder scale.

    Brandyn – I have thought back a lot about my own school days and I remember preschool being a huge stress but beyond that I don't know. By the time I got to secondary school I know I loved school. I just hope I can nurture that feeling in my three boys, and particularly my HSC, so that school doesn't just feel like something that is overwhelming.

    Sofia – thanks – having support in the classroom is vital – for every child.

    Thanks Trisha & Rita for your kind words!! 🙂


  5. I saw some of my former students in your son's shoes. The model student who, despite their behavior at school, have a meltdown when they get home. Granted, I taught middle and high school students, but I recognized their need for a moment's respite from interacting with others.

    I'm glad that the new teacher and school has a better understanding. 🙂



  6. Just saw your post through another blog I follow. So glad I read it, this is our son! He has always done well at school and loves to go, but the meltdowns at home have perplexed us for years, he's currently in 2 nd grade. We also know he is a sensitive soul-this opens up such possibilities for what is going on at home. We knew it was probably because we are his safe zone. His current teacher is good at letting all kids go to a “cool down” area or to a place that is more quiet for work. We are also considering moving him to a different school, smaller classroom, etc. If anyone has ideas to try at home to help with preventing or coming out of the meltdowns, we would love to hear about them.


  7. Oh hunny how stressful and what an ordeal to have to go through before he got a new teacher to actually help you and him together. That's what they all should do. So glad you have found a better school to support you. You know your child more than anyone and that teacher should be ashamed of herself. Thank you so much for linking up to Share With Me I hope to see you again soon. #sharewithme


  8. Very interesting post. I´m glad now both are better. I´m a teacher (about 23 years of experience) and I can assure you it´s not easy to “manage”,to understand every child and every problem. Sometimes we feel alone or lost because every person is different and we´ve got to “teach” (or just try to…) all the class…Anyway, your writing helps me to think in my everyday practice.

    Thanks a lot

    (I do apologize because my English is not to fluent and rich)


  9. I felt so relieved when I at the end read that you have found another school for him with a more understanding teacher!

    I work with students (adults) with a background in mental illnesses. One of them is also highly sensitive.

    Yesterday I got so sad when she told me how she felt in a situation at the university. She continued with “I know my feelings are not the correct response to the situation”.

    One can only imagine how often her feelings have been somehow not accepted when she thinks she should not feel that way!

    What is the point in not accepting feelings as they are? They won't go away just because somebody says that they are rubbish?!

    Good on you for listening to, supporting and finding a more suitable surrounding to your child! He will now have time to learn ways that he can protect himself on and he with those skills he will cope well even in this dynamic world!


  10. Great blog post…I recognise this so much and it brought tears to my eyes! My (highly sensitive)son has just started school and thank goodness it's a very supportive school and he loves going. But I know exactly what you mean having a child that is very different at school and at home..people just don't believe it when you tell them what he can be like at home. Glad you found a good school for your son!


  11. Wow, I'm new to your blog and think your writing is beautifully eloquent about a time that must have been so hard for you. So glad to hear that you've found a school that understands your sons needs, it must have felt so awful before. x #sundaystars


  12. What works really well for us (but not always) is taking him aside to a quiet area and just holding him. Identifying that he is on the verge of a meltdown before it actually happens is helpful – try to work out the signs – and try to help him understand his emotions (we used a traffic light system). That way he can talk about how he feels before he erupts. What ultimately helped us was understanding in school – quiet periods to 'empty his bucket' as we put it. You can read more ideas here on this topic:


  13. Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving your thoughts – it's great to hear from the 'other' side. I completely understand that having to take every individual quirk into account is impossible and I have soooooo much respect for teachers. I think it is one of the most difficult jobs to do, and one that has so much responsibility with it. What I do think is needed though in education systems around the world, particularly in societies where extrovert behaviour is seen as essential and more desirable than introvert behaviour, is an understanding that some children thrive in quieter environments. And not just that, but actually wilt in environments that are busy, noisy and where they are expected to behave in a way that is not natural. Raising awareness that highly sensitive children exist is a first step!


  14. Thank you for your kind words. As a society we really need to wise up and stop letting our children believe there is a 'right' way to respond when it comes to feelings. I feel this particularly because I have three sons – and it is even harder for males when it comes to being authentic with their emotions.


  15. I'm so happy to hear that your son has a supportive environment – it is so important! How highly sensitive children are when they feel safe and protected is so different to in the classroom or other places. I also recognise it as being true for myself even now……


  16. Thank Goodness this story has a positive ending. I could feel your desperation as I read. I really hope things get better in his new school. Thanks for linking up and sharing your story with #coolmumclub x MMT


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