When my 4-year-old daughter started a new school, every morning was a struggle. My husband and I tried everything to make it easier for her—starting the day with a nice, healthy breakfast, a new lunchbox, a new backpack, and the promise of getting to play all day with her new friends. And yes, I may have tried a bribe or two to get her excited. But alas, my efforts were for naught. In my daughter’s little head, school was terrible and she didn’t want to go.
So, what can be done to help encourage a child who doesn’t want to go to school? How can we try to explain to them that school is essential? That they have the possibility to learn, experience new things, and make friends along the way? Here with the help of therapists, healthcare professionals, and a school counselor, we will explore how to help encourage a child who doesn’t want to go to school.
How To Encourage a Child Who Doesn’t Want To Go to School
Get to the root of why they don’t want to go to school
If a child does not want to go to school, the most important first step is to figure out why and then address the cause. “Possible causes could include academic struggles, behavioral struggles which lead to them getting in trouble a lot, severe anxiety, issues with other children that might include bullying or an unsympathetic or overly critical teacher,” says Dr. Stephanie Nova Fieldes, a psychologist specializing in childhood and certified school psychologist.
Dr. Fields explains that whatever the issue is, there is usually some form of action that can be taken to remediate it. If it is not obvious what the concern is, and parents are not able to understand what it is, they can engage school personnel to help them figure it out. The teacher may have an idea, or the counselor can observe the child on the playground during recess. Once the issue has been clarified, steps can be taken to address it, which should then make the child more willing to go to school.
Understand your child’s perspective and create connection and trust
You will have a better chance of helping your child if you are open to listening to them and creating a connection based on trust, explains Sapna Rad, parenting expert and author of Yelling to Zenning. “Validate their feelings and let them know you understand their challenges. Encourage open dialogue to create a safe space for them to express themselves.”
Dedicate quality time for one-on-one conversations and activities, to help create a nurturing environment where your child feels supported and understood.
Get your child involved in school group activities
School refusal may involve some anxiety that the child needs support processing and managing, explains Kendra Fogarty, a licensed school counselor. Techniques vary based on the age of the child who doesn’t want to attend school, but across all age levels, a team approach with school staff is helpful. Children who are involved with their school (clubs, sports, playgroups, etc) are also more likely to approach school with a positive attitude.
Try gradual exposure
If the child’s anxiety is a contributing factor as to why they don’t want to go to school, consider a gradual exposure approach, says Adina Mahalli (MSW), a certified mental health expert and family therapist for Maple Holistics. For preschoolers, see if you can start with shorter periods of time at school and gradually increase them as the child becomes more comfortable and confident.
When we’re facing an unfamiliar situation, most of us feel better when we have a friend with us. “Helping your child arrange get-togethers with friends over the summer can pay off with feeling more connected in the fall,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., child and family psychologist.
Remember that no two situations are the same
Keep in mind that each child is unique, so a blanket approach won’t cut it says Dr. Kelvin Fernandez, a physician and healthcare educator at Ace Med Boards. Some children might respond well to positive reinforcement like praise or rewards, while others might need a more nuanced approach that includes addressing any fears or misconceptions they have about school. Conversations and understanding should always be at the heart of this process.
Set a routine giving them some control
Kids thrive on routine and sometimes they need to feel like they have control of the situation. My 4-year-old daughter needs a set routine and likes to be independent and some choice in her decisions. Preparing for school the night beforehand gives her some of this control—and can make our mornings less stressful.
In preparation for school, let them pick their outfits, ask what they want to bring for lunch, etc. I also let my daughter pick out her school supplies—like her backpack, lunch box, folders, pencils, paper, etc.