by Cynthia M. Braden, MFT
It can be enough to drive a parent nuts, when a kid for no good or apparent reason, decides not to go to school. I have noticed a few reasons why kids don't want to go to school even with our beautiful schools in Manhattan Beach and the South Bay. And several things parents can do to help. Trying different ways of looking at situations, and getting rid of shame and blame is a good way to start.
Here are a few things your child might want to tell you:
1. "I'm afraid to be away from Mommy and Daddy. "
When a young child doesn't want to go to school, he may be afraid to be separated from you right now. He may be feeling less secure in his attachment. This is often due to recent changes in relationships or stressful problems that may have come up for the family. If the child is hearing fighting in the evening or sensing an atmosphere of anger, tension or anxiety, he may wake up afraid to be separated from you. There's a sense that something bad might happen, or I might never see them again, and who will take care of me... if I go away from my parents. Learn more about separation anxiety.
1. When you have a quiet moment with your child (not when it's time to go to school), ask him something like "I notice you have been having a hard time going to school in the morning lately, can you tell me about that?"
Then whatever he says, let him talk and encourage him to continue telling you about it. Please avoid statements like: "You know you have to go to school!" "Everybody has to go to school!" "It's time for you to grow up now, stop being a baby!" "I can get in trouble with the police if you don't go to school!" Avoid all these types of statements. Try not to teach him anything in this moment. This is a listening moment not a teaching moment.
Instead, focus on the child and his process. Let him talk. Ask him to draw a picture about it, or put on a costume and act out something about it. Realize that young children are fantasy- driven. Their play themes demonstrate what's on their minds in a metaphorical sense and conflicts and challenges are worked out in play.
This doesn't mean that you are going to let him not go to school! It just means that you are slowing things down and understanding. Once he has thoroughly blown off steam about it, you will find him more willing to separate from you the next day. If you are trying to force or reason with him, it's probably not going to work.
2. Engage in child-directed play, 20 minutes a day (floor time)
Get on the floor with your child and let him be the director. (I don't mean sitting in front of the TV together.) Let him direct the play scenario. Sit, give him your undivided attention, observe his play, participate, but let the child lead. Follow along, or shadow him in his play themes. This helps the child develop a sense of competence and self-worth. He is learning that he is important to you. If you do this consistently, it should help in the mornings and save you from hours of dealing with tantrums.
Other problems leading to school refusal:
2. "The kids are mean."
Again, facilitate your child's expression, Let him talk about it. Try not to blame anyone or tell your child it's his fault, or not his fault, this leads to anxiety, fear and blame. Teach the child to identify and express how he feels. For example, I feel mad, scared, afraid, embarrassed... really, really mad. Have him draw pictures. Act out a play about it. Obviously, intervene with teachers as appropriate and never engage another child directly.
3. "I have a tummyache... I have a headache..."
Be aware that children will often complain about physical issues when they are feeling anxious or depressed. Realize that children understand their vulnerability, and if adults are acting unpredictably or have mean faces or loud voices, children experience a physiological fear reaction which results in emotional and behavioral manifestations. Helping the child release his emotional stress in an appropriate or creative way is the goal.
Try the floor time, and if you're still having a problem with your child refusing to go to school, come in and let's talk about it!