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What To Say To a Child Who Doesn’t Want to Go to School

young girl with back up against wall in school yard with red backpack on ground

When your child starts to hate school and wants to stay home, these strategies are crucial to support your child and ensure the greatest outcome with the school. Here you will find expert tips from parenting experts, a former school principal and university instructor as well as videos from a family therapist.

My five-year-old daughter woke up before the crack of dawn talking all about her friends at school, and her big brown eyes sparkled as she chronicled the events of the school day before.

“Did you know that for her birthday Abby got one of those massive LOLs?”
“At school, every day when I write my name I add a heart at the end. That way people know I signed it!”
“During lunch the other day at school, Lane pushed Charles. Lane got in trouble but I just think he was having a bad day.”

She went on and on with great enthusiasm, never once asking to stay home. She always wanted to go to school.

My daughter was born ready to fly. In the short time that she has been on this earth, that has been evident. The day I dropped her off at preschool I used loads of self-talk to keep from crying. I was fearful she’d miss or need me throughout her school day. She was elated to break out on her own. That day, she made her way through the oversized red school doors of the school and down to her classroom with no fear at all and didn’t look back.

It was the first of many days like this.

Kindergarten came and I worried about the duration of the school day. More than six school hours every day seemed like such a long time for a five-year-old to be away from home. I thought for sure she’d be asking to stay home and have a break. But she came back from school energized recounting stories of her teacher’s outrageous sense of humour and all the names of her BFFs. She described her classroom in great detail and all the children in her class, and she was always so excited to go to school.

When her school report card came, I poured over two pages that truly captivated who my daughter was. She loved school and was flourishing.

She liked to work hard, she recounted in detail every aspect of her daily schedule, and she rarely had bad days. In her classroom, she was viewed as a hard worker who got along well with others. When her teacher was teaching a lesson, my daughter was an attentive listener who was able to encourage her peers to do the same.

On weekends, she begged to be brought back to school. When she was sick, she hated to stay home. I felt I was held emotionally hostage for keeping her from kindergarten.

She started first grade and it was business as usual for my eager student. My daughter loved learning, and enjoyed doing her school work. She never asked to stay home, and on the weekends she always asked to be brought back to school.

Little did I know we were weeks away from my daughter hating school…

Leading up to the Christmas holidays, my child who never wanted to miss school was asking for days off. She would ask to stay home and would rarely want to talk about her school day when she did go.

I figured it might be because she was overtired and in need of the two-week break. I thought if she had a break and didn’t have to go to school, she would be ready to return when the holidays were over.

But once the holiday was over and it was time for back to school, it started again.

Her stories about school still featured other children, her best friends, and her accomplishments. Now she also describes instances of her teacher yelling and writing names on the chalkboard of kids who didn’t listen with strikes beside their names. Her school day wasn’t sounding as fun as it once did.

One day, the fateful words I never thought I’d hear came.

“I hate school.”

Even though there had been a build-up to this moment, these three words were a punch to my gut. My precocious child had used the worst language she knew to describe how she felt. She no longer enjoyed her school day and was asking to stay home much more often. On the weekends, there was no desire to go back to school like there used to be. When Monday morning arrived, it was met with “I don’t want to go to school today.”

I felt paralyzed. I wanted to support her and help solve the issue of hating school. But I didn’t want to intensify the problem by making a mistake. I feared talking to the teacher would only put a target on her back, so I didn’t know what to do. There was no way to prepare for me a child who wanted to stay home and didn’t want to go back to school.

There was no way I wanted to transfer my daughter to a new school, so I knew that the first step was figuring out why she was feeling this way about school. While it is totally normal for a child to have the occasional bad day, if they continue to hate school, then it is time to address your child’s concerns.

Related reading: Parenting a Strong-Willed Sensitive Child: This is What You Need to Know

How should you respond when your child says she hates school? If your child starts to hate school, this is how to respond in a way that supports your child while working with the school to come up with a solution. #parenting #positiveparenting

This is what to say to a child who doesn’t want to go to school.

My mom, a former school principal who currently teaches in the Education Department at a local university, teamed with me to address this issue of my child hating school. Here is our best general advice based on my experience with positive parenting and her decades of educational experience.

Related reading: 11 Things Your Child’s School Principal Would Like You to Know

Listen actively and respond to your child paraphrasing what she has said.

As parents, when our children use the word hate to describe someone or something, our knee-jerk reaction tends to be, “No, you don’t.”  When we tell our children how to feel, their feelings become repressed and spill over as anger in other areas. Even though your child might not actually hate school, they are feeling as though it is no longer a positive place to be, and there is a fear of going.

Authors of How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & How to Listen so Kids Will Talk, Faber and Mazlish say the best course of action is to address even the harshest of words with empathy. Young people benefit significantly from being heard and understood.

Avoid responses that repress like:

  • “But you’ve always loved school,”
  • “You’ll get over it,”
  • “All your friends are there,” or
  • “Don’t say hate.”

Instead, respond with understanding. This will help your child sort through his feelings about school faster. Examples include:

  • “I can tell you’re really upset. This is hard.”
  • “This must be frustrating. Can you tell me more?” or
  • “You must have really felt ___ when___.”

Listen until your child has fully expressed herself. Ask your child to draw or journal how she is feeling to get the release she needs and to give you a better understanding of how she feels. It is totally normal for children to have difficulty putting their feelings into words, so as parents, we need to teach them how to do this.

Children need help finding the proper outlets to get rid of negative feelings about school, in order to help process them. Whether it is fear, anxiety, shyness, or something else, helping them to find the right outlet can help wonders. They need to feel safe letting out those troublesome feelings, especially when it comes to school avoidance.

Not only will she be able to get release from any emotions she has pent up, but you will also likely gain insights into the root of the issue.

Related reading: 5 tips for finding balance during crisis schooling and navigating our new normal

Childs hands writing in a journal

Try the magic want technique.

I learned this in counselling at university and it can work wonders for problem-solving. After you have listened to your child express his concerns, anger and fears. First, empathize. Then, ask him, if he had a magic wand to make going back to school better, what would he do? He may choose to fix friendships and have a better relationship with his teacher, or it could be something simple that makes him feel empowered.

When my son started crying when it was time to go back to school, we used this technique. His magic wand request was that I wake up with him (I usually stayed in bed from when he woke at 6:30 until just after 7:00 a.m.). He also asked that my husband or I pack his backpack for school. Just these differences alone stopped months’ worth of crying.

Read: After School Meltdowns: Why they happen and what you can do about them

If you suspect the issue is separation anxiety or generalized anxiety, avoid giving days off.

Though a day off can provide a necessary reprieve, it can also create a negative feedback loop. If the child wants to avoid school and stay home, a day off will feed the desire to be away more. The one thing anxiety loves is avoidance. And, if the child has anxiety associated with school, missing school will essentially feed the anxiety and allow it to grow bigger.

If your child tells you that they want to stay home from school because they feel sick, that’s one thing. But, if they only want to stay home to avoid what is causing them stress at school, then allowing school avoidance will only make the issue worse.

This vicious cycle can make it very challenging to get your child back to school. As their parent, it is important that we hold firm and not allow them to stay home every time they ask to.

If you feel that it could be a case of generalized anxiety that your child needs support with, consider contacting a mental health professional for further insight.

Don’t fan the flames. Stay positive when you express your opinions about the school and the teacher.

Empathy gives license for all of your child’s negative emotions to come to the forefront. But we do this so that we can address the child’s feelings so that they don’t build up and become worse. Empathy should not be mistaken for adding fuel to the fire. In the case of empathy, the parent is acknowledging only what the child has said in different words. For instance, Child: “I hate school.” Parent: “You’re really angry. It’s hard.” It is often hard work trying to find the correct language to demonstrate empathy, but it is important to make that effort every day.

We also want to acknowledge how they’re feeling without making assumptions. When they are asking to stay home, it’s not that they just want to be playing video games. When they say they feel sick, it is not that they are just trying to avoid school. It’s that home is a safe place, and they are craving that sense of security. If it’s social situations that are causing stress for your child, avoid making them worse by getting upset about what another child might have done.

In contrast, fanning the flames would be the child saying, “I hate school” and the parent responds with, “I saw how rude your teacher was at the pumpkin patch. I don’t like her either.”

We must stay as positive as possible so our children feel empowered to handle their everyday interactions at school as best they can. As their parent, we must model a growth mindset and a positive attitude toward school no matter what.

Read: Reframe your child’s mistakes as opportunities for mastery

Arrange an in-person meeting with the teacher to address your concerns.

Email is great for little details or arranging the meeting. However, tone can easily be misconstrued, and email tends to prompt a lot of back and forth. Set up a face-to-face meeting instead; it can be during school hours or after school.

When meeting with the teacher, remember that while your child’s perceptions are completely valid, they are lacking context. Assume the best of the teacher and ask questions to generate a better understanding of what’s going on. Approach the meeting with the intention of working as a team for the best outcome. Talk about what could be causing your child to feel upset about school, whether it be academics or social situations.

This teacher will likely be your child’s teacher until the end of the year. Giving the teacher the benefit of the doubt will make a resolution easier.

Talk to the principal.

In general, this should come after meeting face-to-face with the teacher. It may seem easier to avoid talking to the teacher about an issue in his class, however, most principals will ask that you meet with the teacher first. That said, this may not be possible based on what is happening with your child at school.

Meeting with the principal is where options such as switching classes can be discussed, as well as more comprehensive solutions like working with the school’s guidance counsellor if necessary.

Fortunately, for us, this was the pivotal point. We arranged to meet with the vice principal and came up with a plan that suited our family and, most importantly, our daughter. Through this meeting, the vice principal was also able to better understand the issues in our daughter’s class and was better equipped to deal with them.

Read books about adversity and changing perspectives.

Stories help children generate a better understanding of their feelings and also make solutions seem more tangible. Helping your child to develop a growth mindset is also a great way to help them understand how they’re feeling and develop resilience. It will also help you to figure out what to say to a child who doesn’t want to go to school without creating negative effects or a battle of wills.

Here are some recommended titles for grappling with not wanting to go to school.

I Don’t Want to Go to School by A.J. Cosmo

The Juice Box Bully: Empowering Kids to Stand Up to Others by Bob Sorenson

The Girl Who Hated Books by Manjusha Pawagi

I Just Don’t Like the Sound of No by Julia Cook

Train Your Angry Dragon: Teach Your Dragon to be Patient by Steve Herman

The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn

There’s hope.

A child’s impression of school can last a lifetime, and so it is important that children love to learn. If you suspect your child is being mistreated or struggling with school in any way, arrange meetings to generate a better understanding of what is going on. Each family is unique and each child’s needs are different, no matter what you know what’s best for your child.

For more great resources like this, check out:

Reframe your child’s mistakes as opportunities for mastery

Parenting a Strong-Willed Sensitive Child: This is what you need to know

The Yes Brain Child: How to Cultivate Curiosity, Courage and Resilience in Your Child

After School Meltdowns: Why they happen and what you can do about them

10 Things Your Child’s School Principal Would Like You to Know

School Principal Says Follow These 10 Tips for a Successful Start to Kindergarten

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  1. That’s all well and good for a child that loves school suddenly upset by a teacher or a bully or something like that. But what about when your child has never liked school? Since preschool, he’s not been a fan. In Pre K, he was bored no matter what the teacher did (I was one of his teachers!) and being told to clean up, to write his name, to sit for a story…he didn’t like any of it. At home, he listens to stories just fine. He cleans up after himself. He does chores, writes in a journal, everything. But at school, apparently such tasks are terrible and hard.

    1. Hi Megan, Thanks so much for your question. It is difficult when a parent is teaching his or her child because the dynamic is different in the classroom. Boundaries can be tested more. While the intro in this post may not apply to your child, the plan of attack can be similar. Asking questions, using social stories to scaffold cooperation, working with the school can work well. What have you tried so far?
      I’d love to hear more so I might be able to help.

  2. What if in response to your empathy your child goes no further than agreeing that they are angry / sad etc. They don’t / can’t / won’t elaborate further. Any tips?

    1. Hi Sheena,
      Thank you so much for your comment. This is an excellent question. Based on my experience with other parents and my own children, sometimes we just have to give our children the understanding they need. You may be surprised how it spills out. It could be while your child plays, colours, or before bed one night. It could be because of something simple – one parent described the whole reason her child didn’t want to go to school was because of seating arrangements on the school bus. Aside from waiting, it might be worth talking to the teacher to see if he or she has insights. Perhaps (s)he has witnessed an exchange during class time where your child’s feelings were hurt. There could be a disciplinary practice that doesn’t support your sensitive child. For instance, there is a family I know whose daughter didn’t want to go to school because the teacher was writing names on the whiteboard with a sad face when they misbehaved. When the teacher knew this child did better being privately disciplined, everything changed.
      Chances are your teacher can provide insight.
      Please let me know if you have any more questions and I’ll do my best to help <3

  3. I am having a hard time with my son, who has always had such a hard time in school. Both preschool and kinder were so difficult, he would cry almost every day and on some days refuse to walk into school himself.
    I tried what I could think of: I volunteered to get an idea of why we did not like school, but could not see anything that was upsetting or frustrating for him. I talked with his teachers, explained to him multiple times a day how important school is, the positive parts of school, and actively listened when he told me he did not like school. I made charts for school attendance, homework, etc. I put notes in his lunch bag, let him bring his favorite stuffed animal in his backpack, visited him during lunchtime a few times a month, all to no avail.
    I thought changing school might help, so we are at a different school with a much lighter workload for first grade.
    He started complaining about school 2 days in. At 2 weeks in, he is sobbing every morning,. His biggest complaint has always been “it is too long” and “I miss you too much”. I have been talking with his 1st grade teacher to let her know the issues. I am just having such a hard time finding something that will help, and I am starting to react to his constant whining and complaining about school with my own frustration instead of kindly listening for the 3rd year. It seems to be a mixture of separation anxiety and clinginess, and I am having a hard time figuring out what to do next.

    1. This is also my situation also! First grade now and I still have my daughter crying in the back seat that she doesn’t want to go in. I’ve also done the charts, focused on positives and other avenues like those. It seems that nothing works and I am at my wit’s end with how much she doesn’t like school. She has wonderful friends, she loves her teacher, she is smart and is above average in testing. It seems like everything should be fine. But then I get the other side of clinginess and wanting to be with Mommy all day. It is really frustrating and hard to know what to do. I would also love a follow up with this question.

      1. This is very similar to my daughter this past year. First of all, I want to send you my sympathies. It’s so challenging. School is essential and a child who hates school is so challenging and heartbreaking all at once. It feels awful to try your best and not get results. I love how you volunteered and have done so much to help your child. My recommendation would be to talk to your family doctor or paediatrician to rule out any mental health issues such as generalized anxiety disorder or separation anxiety. I recently added two videos to this post. Both are directed towards children not wanting to go to school and can be quite helpful even if they don’t have diagnosable anxiety (simply anxiety about school). My other suggestion in terms of how to coach your child is to borrow from the library or purchase the book The Yes Brain: How to Promote Curiosity, Courage and Resilience in Children. . In it the authors do a thorough job of explaining how to raise children who are resilient and willing to step into what they don’t want to do and become stronger as a result. I hope this helps. If not, please feel free to let me know.

  4. I have an 11 year old boy that has struggled since the beginning with ADHD and attitude problems. 3rd grade he turned around and became an A, B honor roll student. Then in 4th it all went down hill, we were hit by hurricane Harvey, the teacher was not in the classroom for most of the year due to health reasons and not just my child but the whole class fell behind and barley pass. Now this year is the worse!
    The teacher, principle and myself have tried working together and nothing is improving it actually seems to be getting increasingly worse. He sits in class and in the office absolutely refusing to so his work. The principle called me today and told me last option in detention school!!!!
    He will not express why he feels this way, I have put him in tutoring but nothing seems to help!
    Now the stress has caused strain on the house! HELP!!!!!!

    1. I have this same issue with an 11 year old boy. He dreads school and considers it a prison. He puts his head down and will not do any work or respond the the teachers. He used to be a straight A student. I have talked to him and he is not getting bullied and does not hate his teachers, just school. It stresses him out. Any ideas??

  5. Teacher/ school administrators are not able to discipline students who has behavior issues. and this makes rest of the students suffer in the classroom. School guard or administrators have to pull such student(s) out every other week. How should I talk to my child about this situation when they complains?

  6. My situation is this- my kindergartener is a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of an 11 year old boy. She is in counseling and the school is super understanding of her particular needs, however, she has flipped from loving school to absolutely crying and terrified to go some days. She begs and pleads lately like her life depends on it . She also has had a few instances with bullies that the school has taken seriously and acted swiftly regarding, even changing her to another class to help her feel more comfortable. She only talks about the bullying when I try and listen and understand the why of her trepidation about going. I seriously am considering Home school or online school at this point. What do I do? Any ideas are greatly appreciated.

    1. Sorry to hear about your daughter. How horrible for her! I had a similar incident as a child and I did get over it and loved school however I have to say if I was in your shoes, as a parent now, I would home school. Even if temporarily while she is dealing with this horrific situation. Also she needs play counselling/ child sexual abuse counselling x

  7. My best friend is always complaining that she hates school and it makes her day horrible. I’m trying my hardest to make her happy because she is my best friend but she still hates school. I don’t know what to do!

  8. All summer long my son, 8, ran around with his friends, going places, riding bikes, having fun. School started and the first week the teacher called to tell me he was sleeping 2-3 hours in class. He was getting 10-12 hours of sleep at night and would also come home and sleep after school. Took him to the ER and they did blood and urine tests, all negative. I followed up with his pediatrician and he lowered his ADHD dosage but the school called the next day and made me pick him up because he had a headache and fever of 101. This morning he cried and told me for the first time that he hates school, he’s afraid he will get lost (he rides bus, not walks) and he worries something might happen to me at work. I don’t know what brought on this very sudden change. He says he loves his teacher, his friends and no one has bullied him but in less than 2 weeks of 3rd grade he is a VERY different little boy.

  9. i read the whole article and learned how to tackle our child when the hates school and how to make them love to their school. Thank you for sharing this wonderful article with us.

  10. In the article and in the comments no one has mentioned bullying. Bullying in schools is the major cause of kids not wanting to go to school and unfortunately the effects of bullying can cause many mental health issues for the victims. Very often children do not want to admit they are being bullied. Very important for parents to take immediate action if they believe their child is being bullied at school. Do not confront the bully or the parents of the bully.
    Do not expect the school to have a system in place to resolve the problem .If you communicate with the school, document dates and time, whom you have spoken with, all meetings, conversations, you have had on the subject. Educate yourself on bullying. There is an abundance of information on the web.

  11. Hi, I love your advice on how to help a child through school woes relating to people and around those issues. However, there is another factor – the learning itself. For my son (and a few others I know), who has been allowed to freely pursue his interests deeply from the beginning, school curriculum is rather stifling. It is very limited and teachers are expected to stick with the “plans”, so they don’t end up encouraging deeply exploring concepts and taking into account the organic discussions / research that kids naturally tend to engage in. It’s all very touch and go and agenda driven. There is a very top down hierarchy in most schools – that kids only learn from adults. I have come to see that each of us is born with intrinsic motivation and the ability to learn from exploration, play and whatnot. So from that perspective, a formal school can be rather limiting. Sometimes, when you’ve run through the gamut of other interpersonal issues and whatnot with the child regarding school and things are still not working, it is also worth stopping to consider the learning itself. Most schools are generally based on a top down system, where arbitrary rules must be followed based on the underlying belief that children must be controlled.

  12. I notice you did not write a comment to Blake or Anna. Would be very interested in what you have to say as I have an 11 year old grandson who absolutely hates school. My heart breaks for him and would love to help him. thank you

    1. Hi Bette,
      I noticed the same thing. My son is 10, has always loved school but this year has started hating it and dreading going each day. It is not bullying. I was also hoping for some insight into this specific issue.

  13. This is very true and the curriculum doesn’t challenge most children. They are constantly being told what to do by grown ups and are never left to explore independent learning or creative learning, both of which a child’s brain is naturally wired for. I love my boys and don’t want to rush their lives but will be glad when school is not part of their lives. Make the most of home time, don’t add any extra pressure onto your children and start telling them how important is is to play and be happy and if you could stay home with them you would.

  14. Pingback: What to Do When Your Kid Hates School | TouchMePro
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  17. well, when i read this i decided to show it to one of my parents.
    (i wrote it again because the first comment contained a mistake)

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