When your child doesn’t want to go to school

By: Lisa Simmons

It's one of those recurring nightmares parents have, your child clinging desperately to your arm, leg or neck crying "mommy, please don't leave!"

Maybe it's your kindergartner's first day of school, an older child still reeling from the effects of a move, or a special needs child who knows only frustration lies behind that door. We dread the daily refrains of,

"Mommy, I don't feel good"
"I don't want to go to school."
"Why do I have to go?"

Whatever the cause, the effects on both parents and child can be gut- wrenching. So what should we do? How do we ease both our own and our children's fears? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Make sure it truly is a safe place

    Unfortunately, in today's day and age you can no longer assume that your child's school is a safe place to learn and play. Ask school officials if there have been incidents of violence at your child's school. Talk with your child about the other kids in their class -- be alert for comments that may indicate a bully or overly aggressive classmate. If you think your child may be a target of violence or teasing -- discuss the situation immediately with your child's paraprofessional, teacher, or principal. For more resources related to bullying see: http://www.ideallives.com/generic.html?pid=191

  2. Be sure the elements for success are in place

    If your child is simply struggling with normal "transition" fears, then you can make sure they are prepared by providing a healthy diet, making sure they are well rested and assisting them with homework as needed. If your child has special needs then their individual "elements for success" may be more complex. Talk with your child and his/her teacher about the following:

    • Can my child do the work as it's presented?
    • Does he get frustrated during certain subjects or times of the day?
    • What kind of modifications or extra support would help my child be successful in class?
    • Does my child seem to be getting the right amount of support from his/her paraprofessional?

    Once you are comfortable you know what the issues are, request that your child's support team meet to review his program. If your child doesn't have an individualized education program (IEP), ask about having an assessment for eligibility done.

  3. Explain what will happen when they get there

    Many children are simply scared of the unknown. It can be reassuring for them to hear stories from parents, older siblings, and family friends about when they started kindergarten or moved to a new school. Sharing positive memories will also help establish school as a place where "good things happen". If you aren't sure what the routine will be -- ask! Most teachers welcome parent involvement and will be glad to talk you through a routine day so that you can prepare your child.

  4. Share strategies that work

    If your child can tell you what it is about school that bothers them, they have offered you a rare opportunity. Instead of brushing their fears aside with an, "Everything will be fine -- just give it time" attitude, talk to them about situations where you had similar fears and how you handled it. This helps your child understand that fear is a natural part of life, but also that there are things they can do to manage their fear. Your attention and active listening will also encourage your child's trust in you and keep the lines of communication open to deal with future issues.

  5. Talk to the "pros"

    Instead of avoiding the issue, talk with other parents or the school counselor. Many have faced similar situations and will probably be glad to tell you how they handled it or at least offer reassurance that it will get better with time.

  6. Use pictures

    Sometimes our children experience feelings that they simply don't have the words or the ability to tell us how they're feeling. It can be helpful for everyone to step back and use a more neutral "tool". If your child likes to draw, encourage them to draw pictures of their school, classroom, teacher, and classmates. When the pictures are done having your child explain them to you can often reveal much about the situation. If your child is nonverbal, try playing a picture matching game. You name people, places and activities (this can include school, but also other familiar items) -- after each item have your child select the "feeling face" that they would pair with that person or activity. Feeling to include: a happy smiling face, a sad face, a confused face, a scared face, etc.

    Another great visual tool is a book. Many favorite children's series include a starting school story. Read the stories together and then talk about them. Be sure to key in on feelings the character experienced as well as concrete actions the character took (sometimes it helps to talk about not only what worked but also what didn't work!). Here are some great books to consider:

  7. Make it a game

    If your child enjoys creative play, then try "playing" school. Let your child experiment with all the different roles -- themselves, the teacher, other classmates, and the principal. It can add an extra element of reality if you join the game and play your child. Not only will this allow you to see what your child is keying in on, but also it will help them develop some understanding of how their actions effect others.

  8. Don't linger over good-byes

    Although listening to your child and discussing the situation at home may be helpful, providing your child with extended discussions and attention at the classroom or schoolhouse door will only reinforce their fears. Try to keep good-byes short and matter of fact. If your child is physically clinging to you, ask the teacher to meet you at the door for a few days to guide them into the room. Another possibility is to plan to arrive at the same time as a favorite peer. Frequently your child will either be distracted by talking to the friend or too embarrassed to show fear in front of a friend.

  9. Make routine your friend

    Start a week before school begins and develop a "school day" routine. This let's kids get used to the new schedule before it actually HAS to happen. For younger children this will help prevent those familiar power struggles over a new bed time or having to leave for school in the middle of a favorite cartoon.

  10. Give your child a "love note"

    For many children the tears are simply separation anxiety, mom and home are associated with security and love. To help ease this separation try to think of a creative way to let your child take a little piece of home along to school. This could be a note from mom tucked in their pocket, a laminated family photo to keep in their backpack, or a hand drawn picture of the clock showing what time you will come back and pick them up.

In the long run --- Most children will eventually work through their fears. Stressed though you may feel as a parent, here are the keys for you in the meantime:

© 2001, Lisa Simmons

Lisa Simmons is the webmaster of Ideal Lives.com at http://www.ideallives.com - Visit our website any time to read informative articles, pick up practical tips, and find great disability resources on the web. Subscribe to our FREE newsletter at: mailto:ideallives-subscribe@topica.com

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