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Ask the Experts

My first-grader hates school

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist


My 6-year-old son hates school. He says he hates doing the work and he thinks it is boring. I have talked with the teacher and she says he has a negative attitude but he is very smart. She, and I have tried to find his interests but he says he only likes gym, recess and lunch. He was originally put in the gifted and talented program but was taken out because he seemed disinterested and was not putting any effort into it. He said he felt sad when he couldn't go with the gifted teacher anymore but things are not improving in class. He will sit in his chair until told what to do and not make any effort. Could he be bored and need more of a challenge? The teacher doesn't think so, but I don't know what else it could be. He does his work and seems happy at home. He has friends around the neighborhood and in school. He has always been exceptionally bright and willing to take on new things. I just don't know what to do! If you have any advice it would be greatly appreciated!


After reading your concerns, I find myself with more questions than answers:

Are these new behaviors/attitudes, or did your son display this same type of resistance in Kindergarten? If they are new, then something has changed for him. Perhaps it's a learning or attention issue. First grade requires increased task focus and attention to detail. In addition, new academic skills are introduced; children with previously undetected problems may begin to struggle in first grade or may refuse to work because they feel inadequate. How are things at home? Have there been any major changes within the family, such as separation, divorce, or the death of a pet or loved one? Sometimes children show no reaction at home but act out at school. If any of these is the case, you might want to arrange for your son to talk to a licensed counselor or psychologist.

How was your son evaluated for the T&G program? Did he undergo a full educational evaluation with multiple tests, or was he simply given a screening tool? If your son did not have a full educational evaluation, including an IQ test and evaluation of his academic strengths and weaknesses, then you should consider asking for a full-blown evaluation by the school district, to include both academic and behavioral assessments. As noted above, learning disabilities often are not detected until academic demands increase. The behavioral assessment will give you a clearer picture of what you're dealing with.

What does your pediatrician think? If you haven't already done so, schedule an examination and a consultation with your son's physician. Be sure to have documentation from the teacher regarding his classroom behaviors, so that the physician can get a full picture, as well. This way, any physical problems can be ruled out before you tackle the behaviors. I also suggest having his vision checked.

Finally, if learning difficulties, attention problems and physical illness have all been ruled out, then you are clearly dealing with behavioral issues. The good news about behavior problems is that oftentimes a child's actions can be altered with some simple changes in how the adults around him respond and reinforce him. As was noted previously, a few sessions with a licensed counselor or psychologist will help you find your way.

Dr. Stacie Bunning is a licensed clinical psychologist in the St. Louis area. She has worked with children, adolescents, and their families in a variety of clinical settings for 20 years. Bunning also teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent psychology, and human development at Maryville University in St. Louis.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from readers

"I have the same problem right now my son is in gr.1 he was ok for the first while up until about christmas time or just before i guess and he tells me he doesnt care and doesnt want to be in school he is giving me all kinds of reasons why... like ... i miss being with you... the kids pick on me... the teacher doesnt pay attention to me or doesnt help me when i ask... which if it is true i dont agree with..... i have tried talking to the teacher but she doesnt seem to care in my experience with her she seems like she has ADD or something she cant seem to keep 1 conversation going with 1 person and doesnt seem to get the kids attention when trying to explain the assinment... They are trying to make me believe it is my son who is not putting in the effort to get his work done but nothing has been said about the teacher that is in front of him everyday..... so what should i do ? i dont know i have tried just about everything I am close to moving him into a different school maby ! try and find something that actually cares about the child but it doesnt seem like they do anyway...... or i keep him home and home school him where it will do no good to his social aspect in life.... im so confused and frustrated...... "
"The psychologist above made interesting points but forgot to question about the school. I share my concerns about my child as the same happened to her - she used to be so excited about school and now, while she is not struggling, she is not happy. My take: classroom size. In kinder she was in a small school, and she always had an opportunity to shine, as well as the school incorporated music, arts and many other activities in the curriculum. At age 5, she was a full reader and writer, and was doing multiplication tables. Now at age 6, in a 23 kids classroom size and public school, she is bored. She became less interested in books and math, and while she is in the accelerated reading program, she comes home with unfinished work because she was socializing... Trust your instincts, mama, above all. If you know your child's potential, work with his personality and skills, and if you ruled out any physical or psychological problems, go with your guts. As for my child, I am consid! ering a different school for first grade or her former kindergarten teacher as a tutor. The last thing on my list would be to label my child or give her pills... "
"Well I have an little girl that's in the first grade and I can't really tell what going on with her but I have a strong belief that she is having a speech and language problem I detected this problem when she was in pre-k but the school that she went to close down and the speech therapist that seen her discharge her from the program is from what i am understanding from the papers that the principle gave me at the school that she attends to now. |But anyway they told me that they would be given her a full iq evaluation, but my question to you why i wonder that these teachers didn't discover this in my child i had to make some school visit to see exactly what was going on so when i presented to them and the principle that went all the way around the issues meaning the was practicully investigating me as if i was a unfit mother. makeing me feel like that i was the cause of my little getting in her shell at school and not passing the acadimic work that is presenting to her when ! she has to do it by herself but does find when she has some one beside her or shes in another room where there is more quiteness. |Cause she often tells me at home mommy i know that stuff the room is to loud for me to concentrate but her teacher tells me that when they are testing the room is very quite i don't know what it could be but i am hoping maybe these tests could tell us something."
"My first grader is being constantly harassed by kids at school because all the children in her class. They tell her clothes are ugly, her shoes are cheap and also her hair. So my daughter snuck some scissors today and cut all of her bangs off to get approval from her class. Her teacher does not seem to have the ability to take care of it so my husband will tomorrow. The Principle does not even discipline these trouble makers. I think this school should be on probation due to lack of consistency, lack of discipline, and I feel like they being easier on her because again my daughter is mostly the only one in her that i white. I would like her moved to a different class or perhaps a different school."
"It might be good to get an educator's perspective -- less clinical/medical intervention, and possibly alternative educational/pedagogical styles. If the child is doing reading/writing/math at home, but shutting down at school, he might be seeking an environment that is more self-directed (a Montessori-type classroom that will meet him where he is--individually, or in a small group--and not push him to focus on an exercise led by the teacher with a majority of the students in a relatively passive role). Many classrooms allow for movement of individual students and the exercise of the child's discretion in what the child studies on any given day (with some parameters, and various degrees of teacher interaction). This is not to suggest that clinical/medical testing regimens might not be in order, but only to say that advice that might lead to medicalized diagnoses could be followed after educational assessments that are more environmental. A child stating his interest in physical education, recess, and lunch, and a child who has evidenced potential for intellectual curiosity through at least some testing regimens, seems to be seeking an opportunity to move and socialize in exploring his class curriculum. If his current school does not allow for that, it might not be 'school' that's problematic, but the pedagogical style of his particular school/teacher. If a parent hasn't looked at the fit between his/her child's learning styles and a school's pedagogical styles, that would be a good first step."
"Thank you for this Q&Ae about the 6 year old boy. I feel like I'm reading about my own challenge with my first grade son. It's timely indeed. "