I loved having my kids home for the summer. Getting up early in the morning was as painful for me as it was for them. I also loved not having to rush out the door in the mornings. We spent a lot of quality time together in the summers when I stayed home. I’m not saying it was perfect. They complained when we had to go to the grocery store. They fought. A lot. The trick was balancing down-time with being busy. When they started fighting, it was always best to get out-and-about. It didn’t have to cost money. We did a lot of bike riding, going to the park, or, my favorite, finding a new free or nearly free, Kansas City destination. Sending them back to school was always bittersweet. I missed them, but I crave schedule and it was good to get back into a routine.
In our house, my daughter, better known as autopilot child, was all about the school supplies, new shoes, and getting back to school. Autopilot children are pretty easy to get to school. All of the standard “Back to School” advice usually works great and it seems you must be an awesome parent because you implemented the advice so perfectly that your child went through the front doors of the school skipping and singing. What do you do with the “other” children that hate school and don’t want to go back?
My son was a school-hater from about third grade on. In fact, he leaves for college in a few weeks and nothing is packed or really even purchased. It’s the first year since second grade that he is even remotely excited about school, but I have a feeling it is because he wants to join a fraternity and, I’m not dumb, get away from his parents.
I tried to interview my son about what made going back to school easier. It was a fast interview. His only response to my questions was, “Nothing, I hated school.” When I asked him why he went he said, “Because you made me.” A proud parenting moment (kidding). This post is for the rest of you out there who have kids who hate school. It was ugly, but there are a few non-standard back to school considerations I will offer.
The way you get a kid who hates school back to school varies by age. Given my son’s responses in our short interview, I am convinced getting a school-hater back to school starts at birth. Go back and review all of my posts about discipline. I tell parents of young children everyday that being consistent with discipline does two things: reduces anxiety and builds respect for the parent. Getting a school-hater back to school depends almost entirely on the latter. A consistent front that going to school is NOT an option is crucial. If you have not gained average to above average behavioral compliance with your school-hater when they are young, it will be much more difficult to get them back to school.
Evaluate why the child hates school in the first place. Mine started hating school about third grade. That’s exactly when his dyslexia and dysgraphia were making it very difficult for him to learn how to read and write. Throw in the ADD and it was a perfect storm. He cried before bedtime more often in third grade, he melted down more while doing homework, and studying for spelling took a good part of our week. Thankfully, he loved his teacher. He says he doesn’t remember any difficulties now, but, sadly, he also doesn’t remember ever liking school. None of the countless tutors and no amount of extra help that I arranged for him could have changed the genetics which caused the learning problems. In other words, I can’t take the fact that he hates school personally. I did not fail as his parent. There were so many tears that I actually take the fact that he doesn’t remember any of the heartache and embarrassment as a sign he felt pretty supported at the time. I remember reassuring him many times with, “I will never leave you. We will figure this out.”
There is usually an identifiable source for not liking or wanting to go to school when children are in elementary school. Rule-out learning problems, gifted status, and/or attention deficits. Look for any change in the environment. It could be a disruption at home like a death or divorce, they’ve changed schools, uncertainty in the classroom like a longterm substitute, or a poor fit between teacher and student. If the cause is still not evident, ask for the school’s help. I often ask school counselors or psychologists to help identify a possible source for a child not wanting to go to school by doing a little spying without the child knowing. If they can’t figure it out by not asking, sometimes an outside person like a school counselor can get it out of kids by asking. Kids are sometimes afraid they will be in trouble with their parents, but will tell another interested and trusted adult.
I’ve had many elementary school kids that heard that the teacher they got was the worst one and really mean. If kids suddenly become school-haters after learning who their teacher is, you may want to start there. An easy and usually affective solution is to ask the teacher for a lunch together. Get the child’s favorite fast food and make it enough for the teacher and your child. Then, get things set up to break the ice, and try to make your exit. I’ve had many kids that end up loving their mean and terrible teachers.
It becomes more difficult to identify a source when kids are in middle school because kids start hiding their emotions and actions from parents and teachers. I’ve talked to many sixth graders who suddenly hate school. The reason may be as simple as differing maturity levels. I’ve had kids who burst into tears in my office because their friends are starting to act like teenagers. They don’t want to become a teenager because they may start to act like one, too (feelings that quickly go away when they actually become a full-fledged teenager).
When a child hates going to school in middle school it often has something to do with peers. Depression and anxiety can result from poor peer relations. If peer relations are good, and a middle school child is depressed or anxious about school itself, always check to make sure there isn’t an attention deficit that has been missed. Sadly, I need to mention that middle school is when I start monitoring for cutting. Cutting is generally one of the first symptoms of depression. It generally is not a suicidal gesture, but it should NEVER be chanced. Get any child who is engaging in self-harm of any kind to a behavioral health specialist, even if they say they will stop and don’t need or want to go. Ask your child’s pediatrician if you need a referral.
Adolescents are masters at hiding important information from adults and will often self-medicate with drugs and alcohol if they don’t want to go to school. The adjustment to high school often makes freshman year difficult. Anxiety is typical, especially before teens start school. Signs of depression to watch for in teens are: quitting activities or not trying at all when they usually would, joining a new friend group that parents never meet, spending the majority of the time isolating themselves, not joining family activities, drastic change in appearance and/or weight, and cutting or other forms of self-harm.
My son hated school, but loved basketball. Basketball motivated him to attend and get decent grades all the way through high school. When basketball was over senior year around spring break, senioritus was ferocious. It was very difficult to get him out of bed. The school finally followed through with natural consequences and gave him detention. I was happy he got detention because it held him accountable, and he finished. I usually count on seeing no less than five families a year in my office with the same problem with their senior. They want me to “fix” them or do something about it. Graduation is the only cure for senioritus and going away to college is usually the only way parents become smart again.
Regardless of age, parents’ behavior does make a difference. Both parents should be active in modeling positive attitudes toward school. Expectations about grades should take the whole kid into consideration. Intellectually, my son was capable of straight As. Realistically, that was never going to, and never did, happen. He may surprise me in college. As long as he is motivated to earn a living and he is happy, I have done my job as his parent. Once kids are adults, parents have to release themselves from the responsibility of how they turn out from that point on. I know, easier said than done. I didn’t say we still couldn’t put our two cents in.
One standard back to school suggestion is to start the routine of going to bed and getting up in the morning at the same time as kids do on school days. Good idea, but hard to implement for some of us. We were much more of a cramming kind of family, mainly because I’m a cramming kind of person. I couldn’t follow through with it myself, so it never happened. I’m not sure what my kids would have done at 7:00 a.m. had we implemented the idea of getting them up at the time they would get up for school. It seems like it would have been primetime for fighting.
I found that NOT talking about it worked best for us. If you have a kid who hates school, talking about school for 14 days before it happens only raises anxiety and makes him think about how much he hates school. Keeping busy and stretching out those last 14 days of summer with fun was best. Some may think this is teaching kids to be in denial. He was going to have to start school whether we talked about it or not. He was much happier not talking about it and then going on the designated day.
Another new way of making going back to school easier is to purchase all school supplies from the school. Everyone’s supplies look the same. While convenient, for my family this was also a terrible idea. I lived for getting school supplies. If your kids don’t care, then go for convenience. If they care, let them pick out their own school supplies. My son would have said he didn’t care, but it was amazing what a LeBron James notebook did for his morale when he went back to elementary school.
Lastly, do not let a school-hater know how much their loathing bothers you as a parent. Just because I understood why, didn’t make it easy. I didn’t want a shlump for a kid. I just acted as though I heard him, but didn’t budge. Every time he said he didn’t want to go to school, I listened to the reasons why. Then I listed the reasons why he had to go. The one I liked best was blaming the police. Truancy laws took a lot of the heat off, especially when he was young and still a rule follower.
He asked me to change schools almost everyday in 7th and 8th grades. He was more mature than most middle school kids and their immaturity was driving him crazy. My response was pretty standard, “I know that it’s hard and that they bug you, but you will always have people around that you don’t want to hang out with. You can’t run away from problems. You have to figure out how to handle it.” He made it, and built a lot of character in the meantime. I did really watch for depression and would have had it treated, if necessary.
I realize this advice is probably the opposite of what most psychologists would offer. They have autopilot kids who love school. I know standard advice works on autopilot kids, because it all worked on mine. School-haters need to be handled differently, in my opinion. I could have never made my son love school. Let them hate it, but still get them to go and require them to live up to realistic expectations. “I hear that you hate school, but that’s not going to change it,” became my mantra. Sometimes, it is necessary to make changes, but we never reached that point. So, when he said to me today, “I’m really getting excited to get to college,” I just smiled. I’m expecting it to go remarkably well or horribly wrong. For high-maintenance kids, it seems there is no middle ground. I’ll keep you posted.