A reader is worried about her son who is having a hard time wanting to go to school. Last year he went happily each day. This year there is a lot of resistance and tears. Each day it’s a battle to get him to school. She feels like he’s miserable and he shouldn’t have to be.
First and foremost, this is something that lots of parents struggle with; so know that you are not alone.
There is a difference between a kindergarten age child not wanting to start to go to school and an older child who has already been going to school happily for several years who then makes a change.
We both feel strongly that when an older child suddenly begins to act unhappy about going to school that there is a good chance there is an underlying problem. Your child may be giving you reasons such as “school is boring” or “the teacher is mean”. But just like a runny nose is a symptom of a cold rather than the main problem, the reasons your child is giving may also be a symptom rather than the real problem. The key to resolving the problem is figuring out what the problem is. Easier said than done, right?
Suggestions to help get to get to the root of the problem
- Talk to your child. Choose a time when you are both calm and relaxed (not in the morning when the problem is happening). Ask them what they love about this school year/grade/class/teacher. (I feel passionately that there is always, always, always something good to find and focus on. Even with the most defiant, misbehaving students I always found something wonderful about them). Ask them what they could change if they could change one thing. This can be very telling.
- Talk to the teacher. Let the teacher know that your child is struggling. Ask if they have seen any changes that may be a factor. Or if they have any ideas what might be causing the problem. Get into the classroom. Spend a day, or a few mornings as a volunteer in the room. Help the teacher and scope out the class at the same time.
- Do some role-playing. Take turns being them, friends, the teacher, etc. You may be able to figure some things out this way that you were unable to while talking.
Here are a few common things that may be going on:
Bullying – Being bullied is a very common underling problem of kids not wanting to go to school. This could include being targeted by a specific child, or by a group that has excluded your child. Difficulty making friends or poor social skillscan cause dreaded playground troubles. Ask your child what they do at recess, who they play with, or their favorite or least favorite part.
Curriculum—The academics or workload may be different than what they are used to. They may feel like a new concept that is being introduced too difficult and overwhelming, or too easy and they are bored.
Friends—maybe they feel like they don’t fit in or don’t have someone they can rely on. Maybe they are being picked on or feel alone.
Fear—There are so many things they could be afraid of! Failure, being late, getting in trouble, ghosts, etc. When I was in 4th grade the big thing was “Bloody Mary”. Kids went into the bathroom, turned off the lights, said “Bloody Mary” three times and she was supposed to appear in the mirror [all spooky, dressed in white, and with blood running down her face]. That year I was afraid to go into the bathroom. I never went at recess for fear some of the other kids would be in there doing that. At home I always made sure the light was on before I went into the bathroom. That TERRIFIED me. This just goes to show that a child’s fears can be so real and lasting.
Trouble with the teacher—This could be a number of things.
– Classroom environment
Separation anxiety—This could be especially common for a child who is staring school for the first time. Or an older child who is just coming back from summer break, or another extended break from school. They have been used to spending all day with siblings and Mom, or used to one schedule and suddenly everything changes. Be sensitive, too, to changes that have happened at home that might be a concern to the child; job changes for parents, financial challenges, marriage relationship challenges, or health issues. Even thought it’s parents that are dealing with these issues, these types of things can worry a child and have an affect on them. If they over hear parents voice concerns that they don’t completely understand, they may feel insecure or be afraid to be away from the parent because something might go wrong while they’re gone.
Lack of motivation or laziness – If a child knows that when they stay home from school they get to sleep in, watch unlimited TV, play video games and eat what ever and when ever they want then staying home looks like a pretty good choice. If your child stays home from school for a day, set limits. If he’s not sick enough to be sleeping, pick up work from the teacher that he can do while he’s home. Make being at school seem more fun than being at home during school hours.
Remember that for kids these concerns feel real and big. They are not just making them up to give you a hard time. This is a sign that they are not coping with something. It’s a time for you to help them learn new skills and ideas. Don’t waste your energy blaming yourself for what’s going on. Talk to your child. Ask open-ended questions like, “What is your favorite part of the school day?” or, “What is your least favorite part of school?” or, “What do you think would help”.
You need to believe that your child will get over the problem and let your child know that you believe in him/her.
Also keep in mind that there isn’t a magic solution that will work for every child in this situation. Solutions are often found through trial and error. Each kid thinks and feels differently, reacts to situations differently, and adjusts to things in their own unique way. Something that works for one child may be totally different than what will work for another (even within the same family!)