A sudden change in a child's feelings about school might be a warning that something is amiss. (For Spectrum Health Beat)
A sudden change in a child’s feelings about school might be a warning that something is amiss. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

“I don’t want to go to school!”

It’s a complaint many parents hear time and again.

It could just be typical kid complaining. But could it be more? And how can a parent best learn from their child what’s really going on at school?

There are countless reasons a child may not want to go to school, according to Brittany Barber Garcia, PhD, a psychologist at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

Perhaps they don’t feel well, or they’re dreading an academic challenge. They could be facing a stressful situation involving a peer or a teacher. Or there could be something going on at home with a sibling or parent.

When parents hear a child complain about going to school, they sometimes panic and imagine the worst.

“Parents often feel like this is an issue they need to get to the bottom of right away,” Dr. Barber Garcia said. “Unfortunately, parents tend to use that as a cue to start asking a whole bunch of questions. And very few things turn off a kid more than being peppered with questions. Try to resist the temptation.”

Listen before you talk

Dr. Barber Garcia urges parents to stop what they’re doing and listen to their child. Say something like: “OK, I hear you saying that you don’t want to go to school. Tell me more about what’s going on.”

“Let your child lead you into a conversation,” she said. “Don’t feel like you need to lead the conversation. Listen before you talk, and let your child define the problem.”

Keep in mind that your children might not even know exactly what the problem is. Even if they do, they might have trouble articulating it.

All of this is OK.

If your child is having trouble communicating, rather than guessing what the problem is, press the pause button on the conversation, but let them know you are still available to talk.

Open-ended but specific

Parents often wonder why children give one-word answers when they ask how their day at school went.

Typically, very young children have yet to totally separate from their parents for any extended period of time. Consequently, they assume their parents’ experiences are the same as theirs—and they also assume their parents know what is going on.

Older children, meanwhile, might assert their independence and refuse to talk to their parents about a problem.

Open-ended but specific questions can help, Dr. Barber Garcia said.

Some good examples of these types of questions: “I remember you saying earlier today that you didn’t want to go to school. Can you tell me what the problem is?” Or: “I know that you have been having some trouble with Charlie. How did things go with him today?”

Talk is not always best

When something is wrong, parents tend to think that talking about things is best. But talk is not always a child’s preferred mode of communication, Dr. Barber Garcia said.

Pay attention to other emotional cues. Stop your children and pull them in for a hug if they’re reassured by a kind touch. Or engage them in something else—playing with dolls or action figures, for instance—to see if they bring up any concerns.

“Play allows young children to communicate what’s upsetting them without having to put words to it,” she said.

Dr. Barber Garcia shared the story of a young boy and his family she worked with.

The boy kept saying he had a stomachache and didn’t want to go to school. When she met with the boy, they started playing with toys. Soon, he acted out the teacher yelling at a little boy for being naughty and always being on “red light.” (Some teachers use a green light, yellow light, red light discipline system for children.)

“I asked him, ‘Have you been in that situation? Do you know anything about being on red light?’” she said. “It opened up the door for us to communicate about what was going on. Play is how young people communicate.”

For older children, she suggested trying to start conversations while doing other things, such as riding in the car. In such scenarios, kids feel less pressure to talk.

Pay attention to time of day

Immediately after school is not a good time for most kids to open up, Dr. Barber Garcia said.

“They have had a long day at school where they have been adhering to structure and learning new things,” she said. “It is a demanding environment for them, and most kids could use a short break at the end of the school day before engaging in a conversation or another activity, just like most adults enjoy a quiet car ride home at the end of a work day.”

It’s better to engage them toward the end of the day, or as you’re doing evening activities, such as preparing dinner, eating dinner, driving in the car or going over homework.

Involve a professional if needed

You can learn to recognize signs that your child is facing serious problems that might require the care of a mental health professional.

In younger children, these signs can include significant changes in behavior or temperament—being easily irritated or defiant, for instance, or withdrawing and refusing to engage in anything, Dr. Barber Garcia said.

Also, be cognizant of your child’s attitude toward school. If it changes suddenly, don’t ignore it.

“If your child is being picked on or bullied, it’s important to communicate that to the school right away,” she said. “Communicate to your child that you have heard them and want to help them to make sure school is a safe and supportive environment.

“Despite zero-tolerance school policies on bullying, some parents feel that the school does not do enough to stop bullying,” she said. “I urge parents to do as much as they can so your kids feel you’re in their corner.”

For older children and teens, look for signs of depression. This can include significant withdrawal (although asserting some independence is normal), complaints of body symptoms such as stomach pain and headaches, and other signs of significant stress.

If you notice these, it’s likely time to involve a mental health professional, Dr. Barber Garcia said. Your pediatrician’s office or your insurance company can refer you to someone who can help.