What to Do When Your Child Hates School

Some of the most common reasons kids hate school range from anxiety and learning difficulties to bullying. These strategies can help.

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With just a few minutes left before school was to start, my six-year-old, Dustin, was pouting. “I don’t want to go,” he said. Ever since he’d entered first grade, he hated school. What’s going on? I thought as he trudged out the door. If he hates school this much now, how bad will it be later on? Is the American school system damaging our kids?

Every kid occasionally grumbles about school. But five to ten percent of kids dislike it so much they don’t want to attend, says Christopher Kearney, director of the Child School Refusal and Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

If a child seems depressed or anxious about school, fakes illness to stay home, repeatedly winds up in the nurse’s or principal’s office, or refuses to talk about large chunks of the school day, you should be concerned, say school psychologists Michael Martin and Cynthia Waltman-Greenwood, co-editors of Solve Your Child’s School-Related Problems.

Fortunately, you can usually solve the problem–sometimes very easily. In our case, my husband and I visited Dustin’s class and noticed that the teacher, fresh out of college, called only on kids who scrambled to sit right under her nose. Dustin, who generally sat near the back, was ignored. We simply told him to move up front. He did, and his enthusiasm returned.

Here are some of the most common reasons kids hate school–and strategies to put them back on the road to success:

Anxiety. One fear that keeps children from enjoying school is separation anxiety. It most frequently occurs during times of family stress or when a child is about to enter a new school.

Unfortunately, parents can feed a child’s anxieties by the way they respond. With younger kids, watch how you say good-bye those first few days of school. A firm “Have a great day, and I’ll pick you up at 2:30!” is more confidence-inspiring than “Don’t worry, I can be there in ten minutes if you need me.”

Thomas Ollendick, head of an anxiety-disorders clinic for children and adolescents at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va., treated one boy who was anxious about entering middle school. He worried about everything from getting lost in the new school to getting beaten up. His mother took time off from work so she could stay home to “be there” for him–“inadvertently sending the message that something dreadful might indeed happen,” Ollendick recalls.

Once the mother realized she was contributing to the problem, she began fostering her son’s independence by taking him to the school so he could learn his way around and meet his homeroom teacher. His fears diminished, and now he’s a well-adjusted student.

You can help your child handle fearful situations–from speaking up in class to taking tests–by rehearsing at home. Help make large projects less daunting by breaking them into manageable pieces. Teach your child to replace thoughts such as “I’m going to flunk” with “I can handle this.”

Loneliness. Some kids dislike school because they have no friends. This may be the case if your child is always alone, feigns illness to avoid class outings or gives away treasured possessions in an attempt to be liked.

Often loneliness problems can be solved by bolstering social skills. “A child may need to learn how to look others in the eye when he speaks, or how to talk above a whisper–or below a yell,” Ollendick says. You might teach a young child a few “friendship openers,” such as “My name’s Tom. What’s yours? Do you want to play tag?”

“A lot of kids who are very lonely have never been told anything good about themselves,” says Miami teacher Matty Rodriguez-Walling. “If a lonely kid is skilled in some area–computers, for example–I’ll often have other students work with him. That does a lot for self-esteem and helps the lonely child make friends.”

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