As a parent of children in high school, middle school, and elementary school, it is not unusual to hear the following comments from my children:
“I just don’t want to go to school today.”
“I had a bad day at school.”
“I hate school!”
In response, parents are prone to say things like, “Your day couldn’t have been that bad!” or “You don’t really hate school.” But think about your experiences as a working adult, and sometimes you might say to yourself, “I just don’t want to go to work today,” or “I hate work right now.” You don’t want someone else to ignore you or invalidate your feelings. Similarly, when your children express dislike or anxiety about school, they need you to listen and provide support.
Local professionals who work with kids, parents, and in the educational system weigh in on how to help the child who declares, “I hate school!”
Pay close attention and note if there are “triggers” for your child’s feelings about school. Watch him for several days to figure out if the negative sentiment he expresses about school is a temporary, “one-day” episode or a continuing pattern of anxiety or frustration. Kim Bushaw, an extension family life specialist with the NDSU Extension Service and long-time parent educator, says, “You need to observe and note when it happens and also what is happening at the time; do lots of observations—it could be a teaching situation, a bullying situation. Observe and find out if there is a particular source of anxiety for your child.”
Talk and Listen
Open the doors of communication and really listen so you understand your children’s concerns and know what is going on at school. At dinner each night, we ask our children to tell us two or three things about their day. This fosters communication and also keeps us updated on their feelings and experiences.
Sue Quamme, a former school counselor and a parent educator in Fargo, says, “Have a conversation with your child and find out why he or she feels negative about school. The first thing we should do is make sure there is nothing else happening at school to cause this feeling, so try to find out the reason he or she dislikes school right now.”
Rule Out Health Concerns
Check on your child’s physical and emotional health with your health care provider to discover if there are health-related reasons your child is reluctant about school. Learning is demanding and requires consistent attention. If a child has a vision problem, is sick, overly tired, or is struggling with emotional concerns, the demands of school can be overwhelming. Quamme encourages parents to talk with a pediatrician (or other care provider) to make sure there is nothing physical or emotional that might be interfering with the learning process.
Consider Maturity Level
Determine if your child can make sound choices about her feelings for school. Or do you need to intervene? Children growing into young adulthood need the opportunity to work on their own problems, but may need adult support and guidance.
Deb Theurer, parent resource coordinator in Dickinson, N.D., says, “A young person may need help to find choices that he or she could exercise within the limits of what is going on. ‘I hate school’ sounds a little powerless and frustrated, so that is a signal something is going on. Some of those things a kid can handle, while some of them will require adult assistance and guidance from others.”
Help your child cultivate friendships so he will be excited to participate in school activities. School is a social atmosphere, and children may dislike attending if they feel a lack of friendship or connection with others. Encourage your child to invite children over and support her in developing relationships outside of school. “If children have someone else they like going to school to meet and see, that will encourage them to attend school. Children need to have a confidant, a peer, a friend—even just one friend is very helpful,” says Bushaw.
Pay attention to how your child is doing with classwork, homework, and exams. Children in middle and high school are expected to be aware of class assignments, keep up with homework, and manage these tasks effectively. When they get behind or don’t perform well, stress can build up, so they become discouraged. Talk to your child and your child’s teachers and help manage assignments and homework, or make adjustments as needed.
Watch for Learning Difficulties
Is your child being affected by any personal challenges that affect the learning process? When the work is too hard or your child doesn’t understand something, it is discouraging to participate in school. A variety of screening tools are available to assess potential obstacles to learning such as vision problems, reading difficulties (dyslexia, etc.), or attention and behavior challenges (ADD/ADHD, etc.). “Assessments for learning style, behavioral challenges, or various learning difficulties can help parents detect problems and find solutions,” says Quamme.
Forge Relationships with School Personnel
Talk to the school counselor and/or your child’s teacher to gain more insight into what he may be experiencing at school. Let them know your child could use some extra care and support for a period of time. In some cases, a child may not fit well with a teacher and a change to a different class might be needed. “Help your child build a connection with the teacher or a school counselor, so he or she has another support connection at school,” says Bushaw.
Problem solve with your child to find solutions to the dilemma of disliking school. Instead of feeling permanently unhappy with school, you can help your child come up with ideas on how to improve the situation. “If your child gives some suggestions, ask him or her to evaluate those options and how he or she thinks different choices would work out. If it is a problem a kid can solve, then I would try to help him or her solve it,” says Theurer. If the situation needs adult intervention, contact the teacher to get an adult perspective, but try to involve the child, if possible, in developing a solution together.
Find activities at school to help your child feel interested, challenged, motivated, and accepted at school. A child may decide he “hates” school for a variety of reasons, including being bored, disconnected, or not accepted. Schools offer a variety of interesting activities and options for students, ranging from music and sports to academics and clubs. Sometimes, you need to help your children experiment with and experience some of these options. “Does your child feel he or she has a place in school—activities to engage in, peers to connect with, extracurricular options of interest? Helping your child to find these ‘connection points’ at school can make all the difference in how he or she feels about school,” says Bushaw.
Every parent wants their child to have a positive experience in school and to learn from the adventures available there. When a child hates school, it ought to be a “wake-up call” that a parent’s attention, support, and intervention are needed.
Sean Brotherson is a professor of human development and family science at NDSU. He lives in Fargo with his wife, Kristen, and their eight children.
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