separation

What to Do When Your Child Says “I Don’t Wanna Go to School”

Parent Taking Child To Pre School

At some point, most children go through a phase of not wanting to go to school. For others, that push can ebb and flo for years. My younger daughter, Claire, has always had a difficult time going back after the Winter Break. There were tears in January throughout elementary school.

Smooth, calm morning – I understand their not wanting to go to school upset alone can be enough to knockout off the feeling of a smooth, calm morning. They may lose it, but you need to stay calm. Be the rock. If you need ideas to meet this goal, you might read Screamfree Parenting by Runkel or Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids by Markham.

Matter of fact empathy – When your child is upset, it is best to start there. Matter of fact empathy mean acknowledge the emotion, then continue with the routine. On a difficult morning this might be, “I know you are upset, you don’t want to go,” as you help put on their shoes, and, “I hear you want to stay home. I like staying home with you too,” as you walk them in. You are recognizing emotions and moving forward. Avoid starting with denial or reasoning. Denial would be “You like school. This shouldn’t be so hard.” Reasoning is “All of your friends are there, you’ll have fun at school.” Denial and reasoning are fuel for the argument.

Focus on the routine – It may be helpful to refocus on the routine. Talk to your child about the time available, steps that need to be done and the order. It may be helpful to make a chart together to keep track of the morning. Within each step, it’s often good to offer choices or challenges. When it’s time to get dressed, they might get dressed on the bed or the floor. A challenge might be racing you to get dressed. Here’s a blog post focused on improving your morning routine. If it is truly difficult to get through the morning, you might also start 15 minutes earlier to give everyone a chance to relax.

Note any patterns – By day two, the second year of Claire’s January blues, I was ready. Maybe it’s worse in September in your house. Maybe Mondays each week are hardest. Most things are easier when you see them coming. Knowing the pattern can help you plan.

Speak with their teacher – Whenever there’s a school related difficulty, it’s good to check in with the teacher. The teacher may be able to point to something specific happening at school, or may let you know everything seems fine once child is there. Either way, it’s helpful information. You might also ask the teacher for help. This might include setting up a specific way for your child to start school each day. Coming into a known situation (everyday the first thing will be this) may be easier than not knowing day-to-day. This might be giving your child a morning buddy; a friend to be together with for first transition activities and classwork.

Speak with your child – Occasionally and out of the moment, ask them what’s going on in the mornings before school. Ask what they are thinking about. Ask if there’s anything they are happy about, worried about, excited about or scared about at school. One question here and there, in a relaxed tone, at a calm time may be helpful.

Organize one-on-one playdates with a variety of kids from the class – Playdates give kids a chance to get to know their classmates. The more positive social connections they have with classmates; the more they might want to go to school.

Carpool – So this might be more time consumming than the initial push to avoid school, but your child may be more willing to go if they arrive with a friend. If your child is a bus rider this may mean having a bus stop buddy or asking the bus driver to help with seating friends together.

Alternate who manages the morning or drop off – It may be easier for a child to move through the morning with or separate from one parent than another, or from a sitter or grandparent versus a parent (if that’s available, even short term).

Things to bring – Not everyday, but occasionally, it may be helpful to have something for your child to take to or deliver to school. This might be something small to show his teachers or friends, a note he wrote or drew to someone, a snack to share with the class or a thing you need delivered to the office or guidance counselor.

Open talk time – As children move into late elementary school, keeping communication open is so important. Open talk time is an easy way to work towards that goal. This allows time for the child to vent and be heard, and for you both to work through things in a calm exchange.

Address any known causes – If there are academic concerns, revisit your homework plans, find new ways to practice the needed skills or hire a tutor. If it’s a social concern, meet with the guidance counselor, coach your child on ways to manage or follow up with the teacher. On either front, continue to monitor and follow up with interventions as needed. Do what’s needed to support your child in the area of concern.

Read related storybooks – For younger children, these books could be I Love You All Day Long, Llama Llama Misses Mama, The Kissing Hand or DW’s Guide to Preschool. For older children, Sophie’s Squash Go to School, The Brand New Kid or Sometimes I Worry Too Much but Now I Know How to Stop.

Read related parenting books – If it becomes a longer term or bigger issue, helpful parenting books include Helping Your Child Overcome Separation Anxiety, or School Refusal by Eisen and Engler or When Children Refuse School by Kearney and Albano.

There are also therapists who work with children around anxiety issues and school refusal.

 

Tips for Separation at the Start of the School Year

It is normal for young children to experience some level of separation anxiety at the start of a new school year. It often represents a change in caregiver, schedule, setting and classmates. As a parent, it makes sense to prepare yourself for some upset, and be pleasantly surprised if it is an easy transition.

  • Take Advantage of Previews – If your school offers a summertime classroom visit or an opportunity to meet their teacher, attend. Attend the back to school night with your child if that’s available. Play on their playground, and make playdates with their classmates as soon as you can. Any preview experience can be helpful.
  • Don’t Sneak Out, Say Goodbye –  As hard as it can be, sneaking out builds mistrust in the system. Children are more likely to cling harder the next day.
  • Goodbye Rituals Can Be Helpful – Children may be comforted by a sense of routine. In our house, this meant I would give two high-fives and a hug before I left them anywhere. This helped them to relax in new situations because they knew I wouldn’t leave unexpectedly.
  • Avoid Pushing Them Out – It can be helpful to give them time to hang back, to observe a bit before they dive into a new setting. In these moments, often the more you push them out, the more they resist. Avoid saying, “you should play legos,” while directing them there. It’s better to hang out with them and comment on the fun, or go with them to see the legos together.
  • Wait Until You Mean It, Then Say It and Go – Avoid saying goodbye several times only to stay longer. This builds more tension in the system as the children try new ways to keep you there, and they learn you don’t really mean it when you say it.
  • Ask for Regular Feedback from Teachers – The teachers want a smooth transition for your child as much as you do. It helps everyone to stay in regular communication. It is fine to ask them to call you at a given time, or ask them to track how it is going over the first few weeks.

Blended Families and Re-Building Relationships

Hi Dr. Rene,
We are a blended family and have been for more than five years. One of my step children has suddenly decided they dislike me, and will avoid eye contact or any type of interaction with me if possible. I am getting sighs and dirty looks for doing something as simple as saying good morning. To the best of my knowledge, there have been no changes or incidences to cause this sudden change in behavior. Before this started we were very close, got along well and spent regular time together doing activities we both enjoyed. My husband and I have tried talking to the child about the behavior; that seems to help for a day or two. We’ve tried ignoring the behavior; which seems to make it escalate. We are at the point of wanting to enforce some sort of discipline for being disrespectful and rude. I’m not sure if this will help or hurt the situation, but things cannot continue this way, the behavior is affecting the entire family. Any advice would be welcomed.  Thank you!

Sincerely,

Michelle

Dear Michelle,

I am sure this is upsetting, but I would avoid discipline, at least at the emotion. First, I would try to look at the emotion behind the behavior and address that. While you may be unaware of any change, it doesn’t mean there wasn’t one. It may have been a piece of a passing conversation, a new understanding of an old problem as they mature or a sense of slight from his other parent. It may be impossible to find the cause, even the child may be unable to pin point it, but clearly there is upset. I would go out of my way to validate the difficult emotions when there is a behavior. When child rolls eyes, this sounds like, “I get you are frustrated with me, you don’t like what I just asked you to do.” Without lecturing, this can be followed by a simple, “and I need you to do it now.” The idea is to validate the emotion, but follow through with the behavior. It is a narrow road, but if you move forward with discipline, it is along these lines. Validate the emotions and discipline the related behaviors. In the moment this would be starting with, “I see you are grumpy this morning, I will try again later,” or, “I know you are frustratted, let’s go back and try that again.” You might also coach how the child can better display emotion. Rather than a dirty look to a “good morning,” coach that they can say, “I’m not awake yet.” This coaching is best out of the moment, when all is well.

In all this coaching, avoid putting pressure on the individual relationship. Rather than saying, “you and I are family, and you will treat me with respect,” go more global, “that is an unfriendly way to say good morning, it would be nicer to say…” Focus on coaching how to speak to people in general, how to be kind and how to carry conversation rather than pressuring the relationship.

I would also make every effort to have child spend individual time connecting with each parent. There’s no need to make an announcement, but think at least weekly each of you are spending a bit of time. This can be a trip to the grocery store if you are focused on conversation and spending the time together. You might also read about and practice Greenspan’s Talk Time as presented in Playground Politics. This is a book about social and emotional development through the grade school years, and it highlights the importance of children having open talk time as they move out of Floortime. It’s an interesting way to open up conversations and emotions.

If you decide to go more specific at the discipline, I would initially make it a whole family effort. Sit and talk with everyone about how you are going to make an effort to be kinder and gentler with each other in communicating even when people are upset. Make it an effort in your marriage and in the parent-child relationships. If there are consequences for negative tones and words, this goes for all. Likely more successful here is, it is a global effort rather than a narrow focus. I would look to discipline more specifically only if all this fails. I hope this helps!

Sincerely,

Dr. Rene

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