What to do when a child is refusing to go to school

As we gear up for the back-to-school season, I know many parents are facing a common challenge: what to do when a child is anxious or refusing to go to school. It’s essential to understand that these concerns are entirely normal, and there are practical steps we can take to support our little ones during this transitional period.

Understanding Your Child’s Worries:

Let’s start by acknowledging that worry is a natural emotion when we’re dealing with the unknown. It’s perfectly okay for our kids to feel a bit uneasy about going back to school. Identifying the source of their worry is the first step in helping them navigate it.

Initiating Conversations

Encourage open conversations with our children. Create a safe space for them to express their feelings and ask open-ended questions like, “What thoughts are making you feel worried about going back to school?” or “Is there anything specific that you are afraid of or unsure about?”

Putting Worries into Perspective

Parents can guide their children in putting worries into perspective by fostering open communication and empathy. Actively listen to their worries, showing understanding and validating their feelings. Once the worry is identified, discuss the likelihood of the feared outcome and explore alternative possibilities. Introduce the concept of perspective by asking questions like, “What’s the worst-case scenario, and how likely is it to happen?” Help them consider the broader picture, emphasising that challenges are a part of life, and they possess the strength to overcome them.

Share personal experiences of overcoming worries to inspire resilience. Encourage the child to brainstorm practical solutions and develop a plan of action. By engaging in these conversations, parents empower their children to face worries with a balanced outlook, fostering emotional resilience and a positive mindset.

When a child, who was once excited about going to school before the holiday, suddenly expresses worry or is refusing to go to school, parents should approach the situation with understanding and patience. Explore the reasons behind the change in behavior. It could be linked to new experiences during the holiday, separation anxiety, or general apprehension. Validate their emotions and reassure them that it’s normal to feel a mix of emotions.

You may want to involve the child in decision-making by discussing potential solutions or adjustments that might make the return to school more comfortable. This collaborative approach empowers the child and fosters a sense of control instead of refusing to go to school.

If there’s a specific issue causing worry, work together to address it. Whether it’s fear of the unknown, changes in routine, or concerns about friends, addressing these factors can ease their apprehension.

Maintain a supportive and understanding attitude throughout, emphasizing that their feelings are acknowledged and that you are there to help them navigate through any challenges associated with returning to school.

Practical Preparation Tips:

1. School Visit or Orientation: If possible, consider arranging a visit to the school or attending any orientation events. Familiarity with the school environment can significantly reduce anxiety.

2. Discuss the Daily Routine: Walk through the daily schedule, focusing on the positive aspects of each part. Knowing what to expect provides our kids with a sense of control.

3. Meet the Teacher: Establishing a connection with the teacher can help alleviate worries. Schedule a meeting or attend any “meet the teacher” sessions offered by the school.

4. Reconnect with Friends: Arrange playdates or social activities with classmates before school starts. Reconnecting with friends can ease social concerns.

5. Encourage Independence: Foster a sense of autonomy by practicing small acts of independence, such as packing their backpack or choosing their outfit.

6. Create a Calm Corner in your house. 

Creating a calm corner at home can be a valuable tool to support a child who is scared of going to school or having a hard time adjusting to a new school year.  Try establishing calming rituals before and after school, such as spending a few minutes in the calm corner together. You can also use the calm corner as a space for post-school debriefing, allowing the child to share their experiences and feelings in a supportive environment. Explore our Calm Corner blog for ideas of things to go in your Calm Corner.

The “1-10” Exercise:

Here’s a little exercise that I developed for my own daughter when she was reluctant to go to school. 

Step 1: Ask your child to rate their feelings between 1 -10 before they do something, e.g. going to school or try something new. It could be going somewhere without you or running in a race.

Step 2: Reflect on the worry at the end of the day or after they have done the thing that was worrying them.

Step 3. Ask the child to rate their feelings between 1-10 now that they have done the thing they were worried about. Discuss any difference and reflect on lessons learnt.

You might be surprised—just like my daughter was—by the positive shift. I’ve seen the same exercise work wonders with kids in our workshops.

You can use this for any situation that brings on big feelings.  Maybe its going to a holiday activity, staying at a friends house.  It can also be a new worry to a something they have done before. For example, it may be that they suddenly have worries about going to their grandparents without you.  

The Science Behind It

Let’s explore the psychology behind this exercise. Cognitive bias and expectation theory tell us that our minds often exaggerate negative outcomes, a phenomenon known as “catastrophizing.” By reflecting on initial worries and comparing them to actual experiences, children can reshape their expectations and realize that situations are often more manageable than anticipated.

Incorporating the 1 -10 Exercise in our kids art classes

In our workshops, we’ve witnessed the positive impact of the “1-10” exercise. It helps children build resilience, manage expectations, and develop a more optimistic outlook.

As we navigate our children through back-to-school worries, let’s remember that it’s a gradual process. By incorporating these practical strategies and fostering open communication, we can help our kids approach the new school year with confidence and resilience. A supportive approach sets the stage for a positive and successful return to school. Here’s to a great school year ahead! 📚🌟


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