I Don't Want to Go to School

I Don’t Want to Go to School

Picture of Meri Wallace
Meri Wallace

Meri Wallace, LCSW, a parenting expert and child and family therapist for over thirty years, grew up in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Meri completed her Masters degree in Social Work at NYU, specializing in child development. Meri writes a blog for “Psychology Today”, and is the author of “Birth Order Blues” (Henry Holt and Co.) and “Keys to Parenting Your Four Year Old” (Barron's Educational Series.) She has been a columnist for Sesame Street Parents, New York Family Magazine,and Brooklyn Parent and has been a consultant to Children’s Television Workshop. She is frequently interviewed by national publications including Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, and Parents Magazine.

There are many explanations for why a child would refuse to go to school

Parents are often shocked when, a month into the school year, their child suddenly says, “I don’t want to go to school.”

Their child seemed to have adjusted just fine. What went wrong?

There are many possible explanations for this refusal. First, young children often feel that school is just temporary. The first few weeks, or the “honeymoon period,” feel very novel. When it becomes clear that school will go on indefinitely, children may suddenly balk at leaving home. In general, kids prefer to be at home in their pajamas playing with their toys surrounded by the people they love. Why would they want to leave the house?

Another possible explanation for the resistance is that school is very stressful and tiring for kids. They have to sit and concentrate at circle time, follow rules, and cope with sharing and waiting for their turn all day long. This takes a lot of energy and self-control, so it may seem easier to stay home. Over time, however, children adjust to these challenges and they look forward to their time at school.

Kids also fight going to school if something hard is happening there. If they do not have friends, they are being bullied by other kids, or there is some friction with a child or the teacher, they may oppose leaving. Before jumping to any conclusions and assuming that your child is just giving you a hard time, investigate the situation. Here’s how.

Talk to your child: Ask him if anything is making him unhappy at school. Did someone make him angry or hurt his feelings? It could be a small issue that is bothering him — for example, maybe he doesn’t like music time. Or something more upsetting, like his best friend has started playing with another child. He may need you to teach him some skills to handle the situation, such as finding someone else to play with when his friend is busy.

Alert the teacher to what your child is saying: The teacher may assure you that your child is doing fine at school. In any event, you will raise the teacher’s antennas and she or he will observe your child more closely.

Ask the teacher some pointed questions: Does your child have any friends? Does she participate in activities? Did anything specific happen in school to make her feel unhappy? Does anyone at school bully her or are the kids leaving her out of group play?

If any of these issues are the case, you can work closely with the teacher to help your child overcome the problem. For instance, the teacher might help you to set up play dates with other classmates to help your child build new friendships and feel more comfortable. Or she may work with your child to help her gain skills for asserting herself.

Meet with the school’s counselor: Some schools have a social worker or a psychologist who can observe your child throughout the day and offer some psychological insight. If need be, the counselor can meet with you to explore if there are any contributing factors from home that are causing the child’s behavior. For example, maybe your child is jealous because you are at home with a new baby and he wants to stay at home with you.

Help your child to separate: In the final analysis, if it appears that your child is just having a tough time leaving home, here are some helpful tips. Explain to your child that all children go to school because they learn very important things. Then, try to keep your child moving. You might sit down next to her and say, “I know it’s hard for you to leave,” while you help her slip on her pants. You can also motivate her by talking about pleasurable events ahead, for example, ”We’d better hurry. Your friend Sara is waiting for you in the dress-up corner.” Parents often find that having a race with their child to see who gets dressed first, or setting a timer and telling her, “Let’s see if you can get dressed before the timer rings,” can also distract her and move her along.

Over time, your child’s resistance to school will subside as he becomes more attached to his friends, the teacher, and the activities. However, do not be surprised if this behavior reappears after a weekend or a holiday when he has spent some special time at home with you.