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What to do When Your Child Doesn’t Want to go to School

Amber Brandt  |  August 15, 2023
Everyone knows that familiar feeling – you took a long vacation and it’s hard to get back into the groove, or you had a busy weekend and Monday morning just came too fast.
Many kids feel the same way about going back to school after a holiday, summer break, starting at a new school, or other big life change. It can be tricky to get down to the root of why they’re avoiding the routine, and some resistance is normal for all children from time to time. Just like us, they need a mental health day every so often.

In other cases – about 1-2% of kids – the pushing back is a sign of something bigger, officially called “school refusal.” This refusal is characterized by extreme anxiety, tantrums, desperately begging to stay home, or complaining about physical ailments.
Here are a few of the most common reasons why kids may get upset or push back about going back to school. Your unwilling child may be:
  1. Worried about leaving home
  2. Experiencing learning difficulties, bad grades, a fear of testing or problems with a teacher
  3. Facing social problems or bullying
  4. Struggling with anxiety or depression
  5. Not getting enough good rest, nutrition, or exercise
  6. Feeling unsupported or uncertain through a big life change
  7. Simply making excuses to stay home
How to help
  1. Be understanding. The first step in helping your child overcome their struggle with school is trying to see the situation through their perspective. Take them seriously, ask questions about how they’re feeling, if there as an upsetting incident or situation at school, and if they know why they’re scared to go back to class. Be sure to maintain a posture of patience, keeping your voice low and gently inquisitive.
  2. Identify why they’re having trouble. If you have difficulty getting your child to open up and name what’s really the cause of their distress, or they’re simply too upset to communicate, reach out to the school. Talk with your child’s teachers, peers, and recess aids. Think through where your child spends their time each day and reach out to the people associated with those activities/rooms throughout the school until you can piece things together more clearly. (If your child is complaining about a head or belly ache be aware that it could be symptoms of anxiety or sickness, but that it may also just be an excuse to stay home. In this case, eliminate the draw of “fun” activities like screen time or treats at home and see if that solves it.) 
  3. Consider that the issue may be outside. Just because your child is exhibiting a resistance to school, that doesn’t mean the upsetting factor is within those four walls. Have you recently lost a loved one, moved to a new home, or undergone a family shift? All those things can contribute to a lack of confidence in your child and make them feel insecure about being at school.
  4. Problem-solve. Once you’ve identified the source of their school refusal, help your child role play anything that would help them “fix” their situation. How can they adjust their perspective? How can you offer greater support? Tell your child that you’re going to work with the school to lower the barriers to getting them back to class. If you need to reach out to a counselor or psychologist, we can help you connect with a good resource.
At the end of the day, no matter the severity of your child’s symptoms or reactions, it’s important to treat everything they say with respect. Many times a refusal to go to school is their way of telling you something is wrong without having to find the words. Remember how hard and intimidating it can be to do new things even as an adult, and exercise empathy and support.

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