Generally, there are two behaviors that will let you know if your child is afraid of school: the child either directly acts out in some way when school time approaches (such as crying, defiance, or telling you outright that there is a problem at school and he doesn’t want to go) or indirectly shows signs of fear (such as frequent non-obvious illness or serious procrastinating in preparing to leave for school). If your child shows any of these signs only at school times but rarely during non-school times like vacation or weekends, fear is likely the culprit.
So what should a parent do when these school avoidance symptoms happen? And equally important, what should a parent not do? The best approach is a calm and communicative one. Rather than simply order, “You’re going to school and that’s final!”, you should take time with your child to talk and find the root of the problem. Once you know why there is fear, you should help the child in finding a solution that will make the child more feel calm and comfortable returning to school, knowing that the problem will be eliminated and that mom or dad is there to support him.
There are a variety of reasons a child will avoid school out of fear. Some are age-related, while others could be peer- or academic-related. Here are some common, open-ended questions to ask your child that will let him open up and trust you, knowing that together, you will fix the problems so he can enjoy going back to school without fear:
1. Young children: Children who are experiencing fear or anxiety about going to school and who are pre-school, kindergarten, or first grade aged may well be experiencing separation anxiety or fear of the unknown. Ask your child questions like, “Why are you feeling this way?” and “Is it because you think you will miss me during the day?” If the answer is yes, there are great solutions to this problem that will allow your child to feel protected and safe, thereby smoothing the transition into school. As the parent, you can ask the child, “What can I do to help with this?” Perhaps you could offer to go in and stay with your child a few minutes each day for the first week or two, sitting near the door quietly and slipping out with a small wave goodbye. If this isn’t an option, ask your child if he would feel better if you volunteered time at school once or twice a week, either in class or in another area. This makes the child feel safe, knowing you are nearby in case their fears overwhelm them. After a short while of this, your child should be weaned into the school experience with enthusiasm and new friends or activities, knowing it is safe and actually fun.
2. Children of any age who were previously fine with school, but who suddenly show great and constant resistance: Again, there must be a reason for this. Some questions to ask are, “Is somebody at school making you uncomfortable?”, “Is there something going on that makes you afraid to go?”, or “I know you liked school before this. What’s going on to make you change your mind?” Chances are, your child may feel threatened by peers, a bully, or even an outwardly-mean teacher. This should never be allowed. While you must pick your battles wisely according to your child’s age and own ability to overcome such obstacles, it is important that your child knows you can help them in eliminating this problem. Depending on the age and situation, some options are to have a parent-teacher conference to alert faculty of the problem you’ve discovered, have a school counselor sit down with both the peer/bully and your child to talk through the issue, or even have a rational, non-offensive discussion with the other child’s parent. Let your child know what actions you plan to take, ask if that or some other approach would make the child feel safer, then let your child know how the situation was handled, reassuring him that the source of fear should be gone. If your child is much older, talking together will help your child with strategies to solve the tension, thereby making school attractive again. No matter what the course of action is, your child needs to know he has an advocate who is making sure school is as fun and safe for him as it is for others.
3. Children of any age who were previously fine with school, but who gradually show mild resistance or simply refuse to go one day here or there: This is likely an academic issue. To prevent this, you should try to be continually informed of your child’s progress. Your guidance that academic diligence is a priority will help your child stay on track. However, in these situations, your child may be struggling with a specific subject or may have a test or paper due that day for which he is unprepared. This information is the hardest to get from your child because they’re not seeking your protection; they’re afraid of what will happen if you know. Again, communication is key. Allow your child to level with you, sending the message that if this is the issue, you will do what you can to help as long as he does his part. Some questions to ask are, “Do you have a test today?”, “Did you finish your project?”, or “Are you having trouble in one of your classes?” These answers will let you, your child, and possibly the teacher know that there is a problem, allowing you as a pair or group to work together to get past it. If trouble in a class or failing status is the issue, do express your dissatisfaction with the issue, but also help find a solution such as tutoring, helping with homework, or buying a little supplemental material to use at home that suits the child’s interest (such as a math CD for a computer-buff who is struggling with math using the textbook alone). If your child’s reason is sudden and test- or assignment-related, you must express the unacceptability of the situation, let the child know that it does happen, and ensure the child’s arrival at school to face the situation he created. You can’t allow him to get away with irresponsibility. Accountability is important and is a very good tool in ensuring the child doesn’t repeat this mistake, thereby eliminating fear from experience.
If your child is afraid to go to school, there is certainly a reason. A fearful response doesn’t happen without a causative factor. Always keep the lines of communication open. Don’t order the child to go face a situation alone which he didn’t create. Help your child by coming up with mutually-agreeable solutions on which you will both act to solve problems. And if your child didn’t live up to his responsibility, make him face it since he caused it, but make sure he knows that there won’t be any reason to be scared when he does his part the next time. With any of these strategies, you’re building rapport, letting your child know he’s not alone, and raising him to see your approach to a good solution, thereby teaching him to be proactive with good problem-solving skills. If your child knows how to avoid or eliminate fearful situations, he will welcome the academic environment and grow successfully.