Everyone has days when they feel like they can’t even. From the tough-love approach to doing a little detective work, here’s how experts suggest handling it when your child doesn’t want to go to school.
Take your child seriously
“Every child has a bad day now and then,” says Jane Healy, author of Different Learners: Identifying, Preventing, and Treating Your Child’s Learning Problems. “But if your child says this repeatedly, please pay attention.” Reluctance to go to school, Healy says, may signal a problem, whether it’s social, emotional, or academic. Healy suggests explaining that school is the child’s job and attendance is non-negotiable, but that you want to understand and help.
“There could be a lot going on,” says Jane Bluestein, author of The Win-Win Classroom. “If a kid has been loving school all along and suddenly comes out with that — that would be a signal for me. I’d ask, ‘Is this academic? Is this social?’ If kids suddenly don’t want to go to school because it’s boring, that’s very different from a kid who doesn’t want to go to school because he’s being beat up every day, which is very different from the kid who doesn’t want to go to school because the teacher is being nasty.”
Talk to your child about what is happening during the day, advises Healy. “Are there bullies on the bus or in the lunchroom? Is he embarrassed about his handwriting or about reading out loud?” ‘Hating’ school, Healy points out, is sometimes the first signal of an undiagnosed learning difficulty such as dyslexia.
“It’s obviously different if the child has a transient concern, like, ‘There’s a test today’ or ‘My stomach hurts,’ as opposed to there being a pattern of concern about what school is like over time,” says Alfie Kohn, author of The Schools Our Children Deserve. “That concern has to be taken seriously. The obvious response to the child here would be, ‘How come, what’s going on?’
It may be necessary, Kohn says, to be a detective over time to try to arrive at a full answer, rather than go by what your child tells you at that moment. A pat answer, he adds, is probably not the solution. “The question here is not just what the parent says to the child, but what the parent’s position is about whether the child’s concerns may be legitimate. So I wouldn’t want to just come out with some way to make the child feel less anxious at the moment or exert pressure to go. I would want to see if there really is a problem at the school in terms of how he or she is being treated by teachers or other children.”
Healy suggests making an appointment to talk with the teacher. “Say, ‘We are concerned because Sarah is saying in the morning that she doesn’t want to go to school. Can you help us get to the bottom of this?’ Some schools allow parents to observe or volunteer in the classroom to get a feel for what is going on.”
Hear them out
Sometimes a child’s reason for not wanting to go to school is minor and can be resolved by simply listening to their concerns, says Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness.
“I think the thing to do is to sit them down when you have time to actually talk it through with them,” she says. If a conversation in the moment isn’t possible, Carter suggests saying, “That’s a serious thing you just said to me and I’d like to wait until we are alone or until we are not in the car and I can actually look at you and talk about it, because I take what you said very seriously.” Your child’s response, she says, may give you an idea of how much is going on.
“It’s definitely a cry for help in some ways but it might be a really small thing. You just have to hear them out and acknowledge how they are actually feeling.”
Consider giving your child a personal day
“A lot of parents let their kids stay home and then send in a note that the child was sick,” says Sara Bennett, author of The Case Against Homework. “The first time I let my third grader stay home and told the school secretary that she was taking a personal day, the secretary laughed, told me she appreciated my honesty, and thought it was a fabulous idea.”
Bennett says that sometimes when kids complain about going to school, they just need a break. “If it’s something simple, I’m a big believer in the personal day — perhaps two or three a year. A lot of adults get a few; why not extend that same right to children? So if a child wakes up one morning and says, ‘I don’t want to go to school today,’ you might say (assuming you can make alternate arrangements for your child that day), ‘Do you want to use one of your personal days?’ Just having that choice might be enough for the child to decide to go to school after all.” Bennett says when her daughter was in high school and woke up tired and reluctant to go to class, she’d muse aloud about what she’d miss if she took a day off. More often than not, she’d end up deciding to go to school. It’s a lesson, Bennett says, that has served her daughter well in school and beyond.
Take the tough-love approach
Sometimes, kids just don’t feel like going to school, and you can sympathize with that feeling, but they still have to go. “The bottom line is that you have to know your child,” says America’s Supernanny Deborah Tillman. “There are children that say, ‘I don’t want to go to school,’ and they’re just acting lazy and it’s like, ‘I’m tired and I don’t want to go to school.’
“I’m really not going to feed into that if I have that kind of child. You explain to the child that not going to school is not an option. ‘You have to go to school. Just as Mommy has to go to work to pay the bills and Daddy has to go to work to pay the bills, the bottom line is you have to go to school to get an education.’ My mother and father taught us that at an early age. The bottom line is: If you have education in you, if you have knowledge in you, knowledge is power. The more you learn and grow, the better you are for the world.”