An eight-year-old boy suddenly refused to go to school. He was usually the first one up and ready to leave the house each day, but in the middle of October, something changed. Daily stomachaches made getting out the door on time nearly impossible, but his doctor couldn’t find anything wrong. Meltdowns became a nightly occurrence. He appeared irritable and stopped asking for playdates.
As it turned out, he was struggling with reading. He was embarrassed to tell his parents that he was struggling, and there was a lot of reading in the second-grade classroom. The fun school days of kindergarten and first grade were behind him. Second grade was frustrating and long.
It’s perfectly normal for kids to experience peaks and valleys during school. Though school can be a ton of fun, it can also be difficult at times. From academic struggles to social issues to stress and pressure, school isn’t always a breeze. Coping with these big issues can be difficult for little kids, as kids don’t enter this world with adaptive coping skills in place.
Try not to sound the alarm if you find that your kid does hate school at times. There are steps you can take to help your child enjoy school again.
Get the teacher’s perspective. It goes without saying that your child’s teacher is a valuable resource when it comes to sorting out issues happening during the school day. Though your child may not be the kind of kid who speaks up and asks for help, chances are, the teacher is already keeping an eye on a child who shows big changes in behavior.
Request a meeting to discuss your concerns about your child, and ask your teacher for feedback. Is the teacher seeing the same behaviors? Is your child less talkative at school? Are there any peer issues that might be contributing to the problem? The first step toward helping your child is gathering balanced information. Kids tend to share their best and worst with Mom and Dad, so you might not be getting the complete picture from your child.
Work out a transition plan. If your child is a worrier by nature, separation anxiety might be the culprit. Though we are conditioned to think of this as a “baby” issue, many older children go through periods of time where separation anxiety feels overwhelming. Kids learn and grow at a rapid pace, and some of the new real world worries they learn about can contribute to increased stress and anxiety.
Having a solid home-to-school transition plan in place can work wonders for worries. It takes the guesswork out of the morning routine. Start with a consistent sleep schedule. School-age kids need 11 to 12 hours of sleep. Insufficient sleep can cause anxiety, irritability, and poor concentration.
Once you have your sleep routine figured out, go back to the classroom teacher, and ask about a transition activity to help your child feel better about school. Your child might help set up the classroom or organize the classroom library, for example. A morning job can ease the transition at drop off time.
Reduce after-school activities. It might seem like increasing the “fun” after school stuff is the best antidote to school hatred, but too many activities can lead to exhaustion, burn-out, and sleep deprivation. Talk to your kid about his favorite activities, and what he would do if he simply had more free time. Kids need plenty of time to play and recharge. Running from adult-directed activity to adult-directed activity may do more harm than good, as it increases stress for the whole family.
Talk about growth mindset. It’s no big secret that kids face a ton of assessments in school, and the pressure to succeed even affects the youngest learners. Kids sometimes put pressure on themselves because they want to please their parents and teachers.
Chances are your child hears about using a growth mindset at school, and it helps to echo this at home. To decrease achievement pressure and fear of failure, try to work these phrases into conversations as often as possible:
- I’m on the path to learning this.
- Mistakes help me learn.
- What am I missing?
- This might take some time.
- I can always improve.
- I’ll keep trying.
When kids learn to flip their negative thinking and fears into positive thoughts about their ability to learn, school no longer feels overwhelming. When they know they can work through their struggles, they are empowered to return to school with a positive outlook and keep trying.
A pattern of school refusal can be a red flag for an anxiety disorder, learning differences, or significant peer issues. If you believe this is the case for your child, seek an assessment from a qualified educational or mental health therapist to develop an appropriate treatment plan for your child.