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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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.