By Betsy Brown Braun
Now that the school year has begun, it won’t be long before one morning you’ll awaken to the declaration, “I don’t want to go to school.” It’s a cry, actually more of a plea, which every parent is likely to face at least once, if not ten times, each school year. It’s never music to your ears.
Not wanting to go to school for the younger child or proclaiming “I’m not going to school” for the older ones, can challenge even the most savvy parent. How easy life would be if there were a one size fits all answer that you could whip out of your back pocket. But the response to this showstopper will be different for every child. It will depend upon your child, upon what’s going on in his life, and upon you and what’s going on in yours.
“I don’t want to go to school” seldom means just that. It is usually the tip of an iceberg. There is either a need that is not being met or a cry for help about something. It is your job as parent to play sleuth and figure it what is really going on.
Here are a few tips for figuring out what’s behind “I don’t want to go to school.”
Ask yourself how long it has been since school began. It takes 6 full weeks for a child of any age to dig in and get comfortable in school. Give it time before assuming the worst. The child may not have adjusted to a new schedule, may not know the ropes and feel overwhelmed, may still be in transition. Give it time.
It is not likely about school. With preschool age children, the issue is often about separation. Learning to attend school without a parent is very different from being left at home with a sitter but without you. Remember, the process of separation can take anywhere from a few days to a few months. It takes time to form a trusting relationship with a teacher and to make new friends. Your child just might prefer to be home with you.
What is going on at home? If grandma is visiting, if Mommy is taking a sick day, if little brother is having a playdate, if the workmen are at his house, the child might want to be at home where the action is.
Is she not well? Your child just might be coming down with something. You know that when you feel sick, your get up and go is gone! But beware of the child who feigns illness to get out of school.
With elementary school age children, all of the above may be at the source, but any of the following may also be the cause:
Does your child feel that she doesn’t fit in? As children mature, so too grows their social awareness and their need to fit in. Does she feel that she has no friends? It’s no fun to go to school if you feel out of it or feel like you have no one with whom to eat lunch.
Friend trouble? It can be difficult to face social issues. Things that you might brush off can deeply affect a child and make staying home a much more appealing option.
Is there teasing or bullying going on? You’ll have to do a lot of fishing, as it can be hard for children to ask for help with teasing or bullying. Elementary school age children often think they should be able to tolerate or solve these problems, but they can’t. Staying home enables the child to avoid them all together.
Is the course material too difficult? Fear of failure is enough to make a child want to stay home. And her pals’ awareness that she is having trouble makes it even worse.
Is your child bored…really bored? There are some students who are just that advanced. Without a challenge or new material, school can be pretty dull. Teacher trouble? The child who has gotten in trouble, has had a consequence imposed, is embarrassed to be outted, just may not want to go to school and face the music.
With middle and high school age children, all of the above may apply, but in addition:
Social issues are the number one cause of a child refusing to go to school. There can be bullying or teasing on the campus or via cyberspace.
Genuine fatigue can be debilitating. Teens need much more sleep than their interests and life styles allow them. You child may be exhausted. Period.
The method for uncovering what is underneath your child’s school refusal will be different for every child. What is the same, however, is every child’s need to be heard, acknowledged, and understood. That is the first step in solving the problem. When the child knows that his feelings and problems are heard, he will be much more open to brainstorming about a solution.
Betsy Brown Braun, is the bestselling author of the award winning Just Tell Me What to Say (HarperCollins 2008), and You’re Not the Boss of Me (HarperCollins, 2010), also a best seller. A child development and behavior specialist, popular parent educator, and mother of adult triplets, and grandmother, she is a frequent speaker at educational and business conferences, has been a guest expert on Today, the Early Show, Good Morning America, Dr. Phil, Entertainment Tonight, Rachel Ray, Fox and Friends, and NPR, and has been cited in USA Today, the New York Times, Family Circle, Parents, Parenting, Woman’s Day, Real Simple, and Good Housekeeping among countless other publications and websites. As the founder of Parenting Pathways, Inc., Betsy offers private consulting and parenting seminars as well. She and her husband live in Pacific Palisades, California.