Back-to-school is supposed to be a fun and exciting time, but for parents of a little one who is scared to go to school, the start of the year is often filled with stress and anxiety instead. Whether it’s your child’s first time going to school and they’re terrified of what lies ahead or they’re a returning student with no desire to go back, school resistance can be an incredibly difficult issue to deal with for the whole family.
How do you force a child who is having a hard time to go to school? Even if they’re small enough, you can’t exactly carry them kicking and screaming out the door and deposit them at the front of the carpool line as a sobbing puddle. It can be a challenging situation, but fortunately, there are some things you can do to get through it.
Why Wouldn’t a Child Want To Go to School?
“There are a number of reasons that may cause children to avoid school, including academic, peer, and emotional/behavioral concerns,” Jennifer Weber, PsyD, director of PM Behavioral Health at PM Pediatric Care tells Pregnancy & Newborn.
“Children struggling in academic subjects or struggling to focus in the classroom may wish to avoid going altogether,” she adds. “Children who are struggling to connect with peers, make friends, or who are victims of bullying may similarly wish to remain home.”
She explains that feelings of rejection, exclusion, or victimization can also cause children to withdraw or act out, both of which may manifest as school refusal. Dr. Weber also adds that children with emotional or behavioral health needs, such as social, general, or separation anxiety, depression, or behavioral disorders characterized by acting out or opposition may not willingly go to school.
“Social and generalized anxiety can be magnified in the classroom setting where there are myriad opportunities for spontaneous and unscripted communication and academic pressures,” she says.
Monica Vermani, C Psych, a clinical psychologist in Toronto and author of “A Deeper Wellness: Conquering Stress, Mood, Anxiety and Traumas,” agrees that there are a vast number of reasons why a child might not want to go to school; some of those reasons, like stressful events at home, might not even seem to have anything to do with school. Dr. Vermani has several suggestions as to what could be causing this behavior:
- They’re struggling with self-esteem, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy and worries about not fitting in.
- They’re trying to cope with a conflict of some sort, such as parental, sibling, or with peers.
- They’re fearing the unknown at a new school, whether they’re just entering school for the first time or after a family relocation.
- They have failed to connect with their teacher, so the classroom doesn’t feel like a safe space quite yet.
- They’re struggling academically and feeling discouraged to the point of anxiety.
- They’re feeling insecure due to a learning difference and/or anxiety around capabilities.
- They’re encountering challenges due to a (known or unknown) health issue such as poor vision or hearing.
- They’re trying to avoid anxiety-provoking, scary events, like tests, presentations, group assignments, subjects, specific teachers, or students.
- They’re under stress due to a crisis at home; a child may want to stay home if a caregiver or another family member is struggling, depressed, in chronic pain, or being abused/victimized.
It’s easy to understand why a child struggling with any of these issues might be exhibiting school avoidance behaviors. But the fact is school attendance isn’t optional, so what can help the situation?
How Should a Parent React When a Child Doesn’t Want To Go to School?
“When your child doesn’t want to go to school, it’s best to sit them down and remind them of the importance of attending school and getting an education,” says Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, New York City-based neuropsychologist and director of Comprehend the Mind.
“Instead of being harsh on them, it’s essential to try to change their mindset and understand why they may not want to go. Most of the time, it’s a temporary state of mind that you can ease their concerns about.”
“It is important that a child feel supported, heard, and understood when they are exhibiting a reluctance or fear of going to school,” says Dr. Vermani. She suggests the following tips for talking to school-resistant kids:
- Facilitate open communication and ask positively framed and open-ended questions that spark honest conversations with your child.
- Talk to your child about what is happening at school and at home; if there’s something they’re worried about at home, put their fears to rest.
- Reinforce unconditional love and support; children need to feel understood and heard at all times. Dr. Vermani emphasizes that you should “Be careful to not communicate disbelief, negative judgments, or disappointment in them for their feelings or symptoms.”
- Help your child problem-solve: First, identify the problems with going back to school, then brainstorm possible solutions.
- Help your child manage their physical symptoms. As Dr. Vermani explains, children under the age of 10 with anxiety tend to manifest symptoms physiologically with symptoms like headaches, stomachaches, bursts of anger, or a need for physical comfort from a parent.
- Use clear, calm statements. Let your child know that they have to go to school. “Use the word when rather than if statements,” says Dr. Vermani, for example: “‘When you’re at school tomorrow,’ rather than, ‘If you make it to school tomorrow.’ This communicates that you believe your child can go to school.” This gives them a boost of self-confidence.
What’s the Best Way To Help a Child Who Doesn’t Want To Go to School?
Once you’ve discovered the root cause of your child’s school resistance, you’ll need to devise concrete steps to make going to school easier. Providing the right support is crucial in helping your child get back on track. Here are some steps to take.
Re-evaluate their routine
“Try to give your child some control over other aspects of their daily and weekly schedules to decrease stress in other areas,” says Dr. Weber. “Let your child co-create the week’s dinner menu with you. If your child has a demanding baseball schedule and really is not all that enthusiastic about it, preferring free play in the afternoon, see if eliminating baseball and giving your child some free time after school makes the day seem more doable.”
Explore school-based counseling/mentorship for your child
“Utilize the team of professionals at your child’s school,” says Dr. Weber. “Explain why your child is refusing to go to school—whether it’s bullying, learning difficulties, or a mental health problem. Ask about their strategies to manage and prevent bullying. Ask whether the student welfare coordinator, school psychologist, or counselor can help your child.” Also, be sure to request regular updates on your child’s progress, and if your child has any learning issues, make sure that the school is providing the right support.
Seek professional help for your child
If the support at school isn’t enough and your child’s symptoms are getting worse, talk to your family doctor about whether a mental health professional, such as a therapist or psychologist, would be helpful.
Consider professional help for yourself and/or your partner or co-parent
Keeping in mind that oftentimes a child’s anxiety or depression is modeled after a parent, Dr. Weber recommends seeking professional help for your own anxiety and depression to help your children learn healthy coping skills. “Evidence-based therapies, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) are tremendously effective in treating anxiety and mood disorders,” she says.
If your child is exhibiting school refusal behavior, don’t despair. “It is completely normal for there to be periods during a child’s school career and experience when they do not want to go to school,” assures Dr. Hafeez.
While school resistance can be challenging, you and your child can work through it successfully. The key is to encourage your child to communicate with you about what they are feeling so that you can start to pinpoint what exactly is going on. From there, it may be a fear you can help them overcome on their own, or you might need to seek outside help to properly support your child. Above all, remember to show your child empathy and reassure them that you are on their side so they feel confident putting their trust in you as you help them navigate this difficult transition.