When your child doesn’t want to go to school

A little bit of parental understanding goes a long way when it comes to school aversion, Angela Counter writes


Maybe your child complains about a sore tummy, they move extra slowly in the morning, or they say outright, “I don’t want to go to school!” Although it’s very common for a child to occasionally resist school, if it’s becoming a pattern or becoming more severe, it’s time to understand why. 


Before you can help your child feel better about school, you need to understand what’s causing the behaviour. “Look for red flags early on,” says Leigh Giles, clinical director at ABA Connections in Ottawa. A behaviour like school refusal could be driven by the following underlying factors:


  • Your child wants to avoid something, like another child or a test.
  • Your child wants access to attention that they don’t get at school.
  • Your child wants to do something that they can’t do at school, like play with a favourite toy or watch television.


With that in mind, you can start to zero in on the cause of your child’s resistance. You can start by talking to your child, but be aware that children aren’t always able to articulate their feelings or connect the events of the day to feelings. Erin Friend, marketing strategist for Kumon Canada, suggests asking specific questions, and asking the same question in different ways to help them remember details.


You should also talk with your child’s teacher. Because they are with your child at school, they will have insight to offer. Together, you can look for any patterns as well.


After you understand better what’s going on, you can take steps to help your child. Each child’s situation requires a different approach, but here are a few examples of causes and steps to try.


Social problems. If your child isn’t getting along with a schoolmate, then they might want to avoid school. Your child’s teacher can help by finding opportunities to encourage the children to interact positively. If you think that your child is being bullied, then talk to school staff.


Dreading a school subject or activity. Your child’s opinion on a subject could cause them to dislike the class and resist going to school. Try using activities at home to relate the subject to your child’s day-to-day life. For example, playing board games can help children understand a math concept like counting. If your child needs extra help, their teacher can provide advice.


Trouble with staying focused. “The high demands of school can make it easy to forget how fun it is to learn,” says Friend. Your child might struggle with classroom expectations like sitting still. Ask your child’s teacher about ways to help your child learn to stay motivated in the classroom, like by using checklists or taking breaks to divide an activity into manageable chunks. “Figure out what works best for your child,” says Giles, as well as what the teacher can accommodate.


Anxiety. There’s a lot going on at school, and that makes some children nervous. Giles recommends getting a “social story” from the teacher – learning all the details of your child’s day so that you can remind them what to expect. Encourage your child to talk about favourite at-school activities to help their attitudes about school. Seek professional support if anxiety is preventing your child from taking part in regular activities.


When you have strategies in place, it’s normal to first see the behaviour worsen, according to Giles, but soon it should start to make a difference. Be sure to adjust as your child settles in, and stay in close communication with the school. “Parents are the strongest advocates for their children,” says Giles. With support, your child can look forward to going to school every day.