Why does my child hate going to school?

Our school-going years are the ones we wax most nostalgic about as adults, about teachers and classmates from way back when who helped us grow into the person we are today… it would come as a surprise then, to know that these very same years are fraught with tension and worry for children of the school-going age. Or is it, really? The human mind has a tendency to gloss over the troubles and tears of the past, preferring instead to remember as a golden age the time when everything was ordered for us and no responsibilities lay on our heads, except to study, eat and sleep at regular times.

But think a little more and you’re sure to remember the heartaches and frustrations of being made to go to school every single day, having to face dragon-faced teachers about unfinished homework or missed tests. Think of the way we longed to grow up, so no one could make us do their bidding just because “I’m older and I say so”. If any of this strikes a chord, then you can glimpse some of the difficulties your son/daughter of a school-going age may be facing.

Some reluctance to go to school is common, especially in the early years of kindergarten and first standard. Blessed are the few parents who have children who delight in school and are indeed happier there than out of it. Most of us are the kind to have struggled with children of various unwilling degrees (from non-cooperation to wailing and clinging) to get them to school on time.

Generally, the child gets used to the idea – if not actually liking it – by the time s/he’s in the first or second standard. They begin to take pride in being ‘big’ and like the idea of getting into successively higher classes, and that offsets the studying they have to do to accomplish this. But for some children, this stage may extend into middle school, or further. School refusal could be due to a number of reasons, like:

  • Direct or indirect support from home over missing school. This could be, for example, the lenient attitude of one parent or caregiver, or a lack of discipline over missed classes.
  • Ill-health in the initial stages of starting school that has been given greater attention and comfort than the situation warrants.
  • A difficulty in school, like a strict teacher or bullying from classmates, which the child has been unable to express at home, and is therefore afraid of facing.
  • Trouble coping with class work, due to a previously unnoticed problem like poor eyesight or hearing.
  • A failure to acquire and practice the required interpersonal skills in order to be able to communicate and be rewarded by peer relationships.
  • A change in schools or residence, either planned or unplanned.
  • A loss of an important relationship with a significant caregiver – divorce, transfer or death could be the reason for the person going away from the child.

Children generally face some form of pressure once in school in terms of peer interactions. From being a special person, often the only child in the house, to being one among a crowd – a competitive and critical crowd at that – is something that daunts even the most self-sufficient child. And occasionally, even a single bad experience can cause him/her to become apprehensive about school and how to manage there. Most would learn through a process of trial and error, but some children may end up feeling scared and/or angry about peers.

Children are wonderfully resilient; generally, they adapt after a period of stress and adjustment. However, as parents we would be alarmed about signs of poor adjustment in school. This could take the form of poor marks, misbehaviour in class or non-attentiveness and withdrawal from class activities. Problems that are self-resolving generally do so within 3-6 months; if it goes on beyond this time period, the chances are that your child may need some help getting over the difficulty.

Sometimes, the child could also end up with (seemingly mysterious) illnesses – a stomach ache or a fever that miraculously clears up once the school bus has gone away and there’s no chance of being sent to school that day. For the most part, these are not examples of faking or pretending – your child may genuinely be experiencing these symptoms during a stressful time.

If the parents take a non-empathetic attitude towards these illnesses, the child may end up feeling more miserable and lonely. At the same time, taking the illness in all seriousness and aiding the child in staying at home may end up causing the child a loss of confidence and a tendency to run away from problems. So what is a parent to do?

  • Take some time out to talk to your son/daughter – not when s/he is in pain and unwilling to go to school, but at a later point when s/he is calmer and more open to sharing. Sometimes the act of just sharing whatever the child has been experiencing can help him/her to feel better.
  • Don’t give advice in a direct “this is the way you should deal with it” fashion – it closes off options for the child and may cause him/her to lose faith in you if it doesn’t work.
  • Encourage him/her to make the connection between not feeling well and being scared, rather than confronting them with the coinciding behaviours.
    • Bullying is another unwelcome and yet ever-present part of childhood – your child may be the target of a bully or a group of them in school, in the bus or at the playground. There are ways to deal with this, and most parents and children reach a satisfactory outcome on it. But it is vastly more disturbing for a parent to come to know that his child is the bully. The natural reaction is of shock and defensiveness, a thought that “the other kid must have done something to deserve it”.

      But this kind of thinking would only serve to worsen the problem, since the child may sense and use the parents’ confusion to his advantage. Anguished parents are even more stressed once they realise that explaining to the child why he shouldn’t do this is taken as a sign of their weakness… the child then goes on to defy other authorities, with a detrimental effect on his social, academic and emotional development.

      If you have noticed your child’s behaviour changing in any of the ways described above, and if it is continuing beyond 6 months and/or is seriously disrupting family and school life, you can contact TalkItOver for help in overcoming the situation.

      Talk It Over

      Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someone
      About Gayatri Swaminathan

      Gayatri Swaminathan is a clinical psychologist with 7 years of practical experience in the field. She has worked as a trauma counsellor, a qualitative market researcher, lecturer and private practioner. She has an M. Phil in Clinical Psychology and M.A. in Applied Psychology from Delhi University and B.A. (Psychology, Sociology, English Literature) from Bangalore University. She is trained primarily in the cognitive-behavioural approach, but also incorporates other schools of therapy and techniques as and when needed. She works with individual adults, couples, children and adolescents and their families.