It was just like any other day. The morning started the same way. There was no change in the weather, no change in the routines, and no big plans looming that could have caused what was about to happen. This morning was very different than every other morning, despite it starting just the same. My child refuses to go to school. If you’ve ever been in this situation, you know how helpless it feels to be staring at a child with their feet firmly planted in the ground like quicksand and big crocodile tears streaming down their face. If you aren’t careful, you might even find yourself in a head to head power struggle with your child (and no one wants that)! You need help, just like I did.
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It happens at least once in every parents lifetime. You are not alone. In fact, for some of us parenting children with anxiety, sensory processing disorder or autism, mornings can be the bane of our existence (we can talk about that another day). No matter how old your child is, whether they are developing typically or not, school anxiety is a real thing and it can be completely debilitating if it happens to you and your child. Today I want to share some of my go to strategies for getting through these tough mornings and get you and your kiddo back on their feet and ready for an awesome day.
Your Child Refuses to Go to School
I have three children and each of them have done this at least once. My three year old, however is a special one. She goes through patterns of school anxiety… for a whole month she will be completely fine and excited to go to school and then BAM… out of the blue (so it seems to us) she plants her feet and refuses to get in the car to go to school.
This is a very common problem. In fact, I see this happening more and more during the holidays and after long breaks from school. I am gearing up for an uptick in this behavior in my own home as well as in my support group where many parents and teachers see this same behavior and feel lost when it happens.
First thing to remember… your child feels that whatever is bothering them or worrying them is very valid. They might not have the words to tell you what is bothering them, which causes tantrums and meltdowns and unruly behavior. But I assure you, their fears and worries feel very valid to them. The first step to take when you see your child starting to gear up for a big refusal session is to acknowledge their worries and fears. Yes, I know you need to get out the door and you are running late already. I know the other kids are begging for your attention in the car.
I assure you, taking the time to acknowledge your child’s feelings now, will make the world of difference. Take 2 minutes to slow down, get on your child’s level and let them know you see they are upset and you are there for them when they are ready.
Why Your Child Refuses to Go To School
There are so many reasons your child could be refusing to go to school today.
Step one: Identify any underlying physical problems that could be causing your child to not want to go to school.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I want to share a few go-to questions I always ask myself when we are struggling with this at home or when I saw it in the classroom.
- Is my child sick?
- Did my child eat?
- How much sleep did my child get?
- Are there any changes to the routine recently?
- Is there a big event coming up?
- Are there too many things happening at once?
Making sure I have covered all the basic needs of my child, I can now dig deeper and get to the root of what could be causing so much trouble at the moment. 7 times out of 10 the root of the problem is one of the core issues I mentioned above. Too tired, too hungry, coming down with a cold, sensory overload, or anxious about a change in routines. However, those other three times, it can feel like a complete loss.
Step Two: Identify any school factors that could be causing your child harm, worry, or fear.
Honestly, my first instinct is to get mad at the school and assume someone else is doing something to my poor baby girl that is causing her such distress. It is human nature to want to place the blame somewhere is. It is only natural to want an answer and if we can’t fix it, to assume it must be someone else’s fault. Now, I never let these thoughts get very far, but I also don’t want to dismiss these things either. Here are a few questions I like to ask myself, my child or the school to make sure environmental factors aren’t playing a role in my child’s newest battle.
- Is my child safe?
- Is my child having trouble with school subjects (a big test, difficulty reading, etc)
- Does my child have friends? Is there something going on between them?
- Is my child being bullied or threatened at school?
You might be thinking, “but I’ve covered all these and none of these are the reason my child is refusing to go to school.” If so, you are not alone. This is where many of us find ourselves and why we turn to others for help. We want to look at our child and say “Its fine. Just get in the car. You are going to school.” but at the same time we worry about our children and why they are so upset. Grabbing your child in their pajamas and carrying them into the school isn’t really the answer to the problem. What you need is something concrete you can try the next time this happens to you. That’s when you need a few go-to phrases to use to help you and your child get out the door, into the car and into school.
The Best Way to Respond When Your Child Refuses to Go to School
In the heat of the moment, you need to have a toolkit of strategies ready to go. These phrases are meant to be a guide and tool to add to your toolkit.
I notice you are … This is a simple phrase to help your child know you see them, you hear them and acknowledge their frustration or worry. In this sentence, try inserting what you see, hear, or notice about what they are doing. Don’t assume their feelings or what they are upset, but instead say things like “I notice you are crying this morning.” “I see you are having trouble getting your words out.”
Let’s take a minute… While all of the phrases here are incredibly helpful, some children are not going to be ready to talk anything out in the moment. The first thing you need to do, is get your child to a safe place to let out their emotions and feelings. Give them space to cry, be mad, or even yell. Giving them the space to have a minute will usually make them more willing to talk with you when they are no longer in the “Fight” mode.
What is your biggest worry? Try to get your child to tell you about what is upsetting them and keeping them from school. Not all children will have the words to tell you hear, but it is worth trying.
When do you have the toughest time at school? Asking open ended questions can lead to finding answers to why your child is refusing school. Questions that begin with who, what, when, where, why… are all great starters when you are still in discovery mode.
What would happen if… Once your child tells you their big worry, explore the options of what the outcome would be if that really did happen. Let’s say your child is worried they won’t have anyone to play with. “What would happen if you couldn’t find someone to play with? What could you do?” This puts the ownership in your child’s hands and lets them know they are in control. They can ask someone to play, they can play a solo game, or they can introduce themselves to a new crowd.
Tell me about (your favorite)… Often times children can get stuck in a negative thought pattern. Remembering their favorite part of the day, friend or teacher can sometimes get them unstuck and ready for school.
Do you remember when… Reminding your child of positive memories from school or someone at school that made them feel safe is a great way to encourage them to try school again.
Let’s make a plan together. Refusing to go to school is often an outward behavior related to the flight or fight response system in our brains. When your child is upset, their brain is locked and unable to problem solve or develop a plan in the moment. They need help making a solid plan that will help them move forward.
We can solve this problem together. If your child has told you about a problem with a friend, a subject in school or even the teacher, let them know you are there for them and will help them solve the problem.
Let’s try taking baby steps… Avoiding school all together isn’t really an option. Missing school actually increases the anxiety and worry and makes the problem bigger the next day. Instead, use gradual steps to getting your child into the school. Start small. Day one: Walk your child to the classroom. Day two: Walk your child to the end of the hall. Day three: Walk your child to the office. Day three: Walk your child to the front of the school. and so on. The idea is that you are building on what they are comfortable with and gradually releasing control and ownership to your child.
Let’s look at today’s schedule… One of the biggest hurdles for some children about school is the unknown. If each day is different (like in preschool), your child might not know what is going to be happening today. If you have a daily schedule of school already go over it with your child. For my three year old, they have a schedule when we get to school. On days she is struggling most, we look at the list of things she will do for the day and pick one she can’t wait to try.
First… Then… Some children are so excited about what is happening after school that they want to just skip the school part altogether. Giving them a clear statement of “First school, then we will make cookies” can help your child organize their day. You can also use this to get them through the morning one step at a time…. First, we’ll eat breakfast, then we will get dressed. Walk them through the morning this way, all the way to the classroom.
I love you… I like to add this to any of my lists, because we can’t tell our children enough how much they mean to us. In a moment of frustration, worry or fear, we want to remind our children that we are there for them, we love them and together we will figure this out.
Anxiety and worry look different for every child. Not every one of these strategies will work for your kids. You are the expert on your child. If you try something and it makes their worries worse, don’t panic. Just pick something else from the list to try next time. Eventually, you will find a few phrases that are effective for sending a calm, encouraging and empowering message to your child.
When My Worries Get too Big is a great addition to add to any library if you have a child who worries or is anxious. Engaging and easy to read, this illustrated children s book is filled with opportunities for children to participate in developing their own self-calming strategies. Children who use the simple strategies in this charming book, illustrated by the author, will find themselves relaxed and ready to focus on work or play!
Print this School Refusal Cheat Sheet
This post comes with a free printable to help with you in a bind.
I have made a simple printable for you that has all of these phrases in a simple and easy to display format. Place it on the fridge, in a frame or even in your child’s calm down spot so they remember them as well. Don’t get caught struggling to remember your options!
This printable simplifies it!
Here is a sneak preview…
Download Your Free Printable
- Download the checklist. You’ll get the printable, plus join my weekly newsletter! Click Here to Download and Subscribe
- Print. Any paper will do the trick, but card stock would be ideal.
- Place it on your refrigerator.
Note: If your child’s worries are impacting their school functioning, sleep or eating habits, or are negatively impacting their daily routine, seek support from a mental health professional.
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