“I Hate School!” What Can I Do When My Child Refuses to Go to School?

I Hate School! What Can I Do When My Child Refuses to Go to School?

“I hate school! I’m not going.”

If you’re like most parents, you probably take the responsibility of getting  your kids to school very seriously and get angry and frustrated when they refuse  to go. This can easily turn into a power struggle if you feel this is a “battle”  you  have to “win.” It’s all too easy to react to your own anxiety and emotions  about  the situation rather than acting in a well-planned, effective way that  will get  you (and your child) where they want to be.

When  your child chronically refuses to go to school, you can start to feel like a  hamster in a wheel—putting in a heck of a lot of work, effort, sweat and tears,  but not really getting anywhere.


I’ve  seen and sympathized with frustrated parents who resort to physically  putting  their younger child (still in pajamas) into the car and driving them to  school,  then carrying them kicking and screaming into the building before being  left  with a staff member. Parents are at their wits’ end with this problem and  I get  it. The key is not to get drawn into a power struggle with your child  over  school, but to address the underlying problem. Your child will not learn  the  appropriate coping skills to change their behavior if you keep  engaging in  this fight with them. Instead, it will only add to the negativity that of  the situation.

Related: Child refusing to go to school and not  listening to you?

I’ve  also met parents of defiant teens who respond to their child’s refusal  to  attend school by yelling, screaming, and taking everything away. These  parents  are trying to hold their kids accountable, but they’re setting up a  dynamic of “I’ve  got nothing to lose” in their child’s mind. Their kid actually  becomes  motivated to refuse school even more because it’s one of the  few things he can control. Instead, these parents need  to get to the root of  the problem and coach their child out of it.

Other  parents get worn down by their child and simply give up; they let  their child  become truant or drop out of school because they’ve had it.

Why Kids Refuse to Go to School

In  my experience, most kids who refuse to go to school fall into one or more  of these  four categories:

  • Kids who are being bullied or those who are  having trouble getting along with  peers, either for the short term or the  long term
  • Kids who are struggling academically and for  whom school has become a very negative experience
  • Kids who have problems with authority and  following the rules
  • Kids who are experiencing some  anxiety—separation anxiety, (usually in younger kids), or worry about tests,  what’s happening at home, or whether or not they’ll be picked up that day,  etc.

Note: If you suspect your child is  struggling with anxiety or  depression, it’s important to consult a medical or  mental health professional  for support and direction.

Parents  of kids who hate school end up frustrated, exhausted, and grasping  at straws.  The key is to meet the problem head-on and focus on solutions that  will resolve  the issue in the long term, which includes teaching your child how  to be a  better problem-solver with a healthier outlook on their  responsibilities.

Also  remember that when kids are having trouble socially or academically,  there is  always something that can be done to make the situation better. The  goal is to  empower your child to be a confident and creative problem-solver who  believes he  can have some control over what happens to him.

Related: How to stay calm even when your child is making  you crazy.

How to Respond Effectively

When  parents get stuck a power struggle with their child over school—and in  that constant  negative cycle of fighting, yelling and nagging—school becomes a  very negative  thing for everyone involved. You will end up feeling like a  hamster in a  wheel—putting in a heck of a lot of work, effort, sweat and tears,  but really  not getting anywhere. Rather than reacting out of emotion, try to  step back,  put your feelings of panic and anger aside, and focus on  responsibility and  solutions. Ask yourself, “Who is really responsible? What  steps can each  responsible party (including my child) try in order to change  the situation?”

How to Turn Things Around

1)  Get to the heart of the issue. Sometimes it is actually  a  child’s lack of problem solving skills that are the root of the issue. For   example, your child might be falling behind in class, but doesn’t know how to   approach her teacher and ask for help. Spend some time talking with your child   to really dig deep into the problem. Ask open ended questions—these usually   start with “what,” “when,” or “how.” You might ask, “When do you have the   toughest time in school?” or “What goes on for you when the teacher assigns   something that seems really difficult?” You might also get input from the   teacher and support staff at your child’s school as well—they often see things   you don’t see, and report things your child won’t report to you.

2)  Work on solutions at home and at school. Think of the  people  who work at your child’s school as your teammates. While they often  bring a  different perspective to the table, I can tell you that most all of  them have  the same goal—they care about your child and they want to help your  child learn  and grow, academically and personally. It takes commitment from the  staff as  well as commitment from you in order to help your child through a  challenging  time—just because the problem is taking place at school does not  mean that you  get to sit back and let the teachers handle it. And believe me, I  know that  most of you are thinking, “Well yeah!  We know that!” But  trust me—there are some parents that don’t think that way.  So talk to the  teachers and work as a team to come up with a plan for home and  school. When  you are feeling lost about what to do, teachers often have great,  effective  ideas that you can try—don’t be afraid to ask for some guidance.  Teachers might  also refer you to the school counselor for additional support  and ideas.

Related: Help for parents of ODD kids and  teens.

3)  Meet your child where he’s at and coach him forward.  Change  is not an overnight process.  Your child  will most likely  not make a complete turnaround and start liking—or even  tolerating—school in  the blink of an eye. Start where your child is right now  and gradually increase  your expectations over time until you’ve achieved your  goal. Be patient and  check in with the school often. Talk with your child often  as well to see if  things are getting better, and come up with new ideas to try  if needed.   Continue to draw upon your  support system for ideas and possible  solutions. Children with peer challenges  might need some assertiveness  training—a lot of kids don’t know how to speak up  respectfully when another  student offends them. I teach my students to use XYZ  statements: “In  situation x, when you  do y, I feel z.” I then have  them follow up the XYZ statement with a request to  tell the other student what  they want such as a simple “Please stop.”  Role-playing the situation with them  is an important part of the process that  will give them some practice and build  their confidence so they are ready for  the real deal.

4) Be supportive and use positive incentives. Recognize your  child’s progress, even “baby steps.” Let your child know you can see she is  trying, or let her know you noticed that she cried a bit less (or fought a bit  less!)  this morning and she’s on the right track. Frame your accountability  system in a positive way: “For each day that you do _______, you get an extra 15  minutes of computer time.” Or “Once you do _____, you earn your _________ for  the day.” Notice I am not saying never to use  consequences. I suggest offering extra incentives first and if that doesn’t  work, make a current privilege dependent upon your child going to school each  day. Every time you offer an incentive there is a built-in consequence—they  don’t earn the incentive. No school today, no _______ tonight and they can try  again tomorrow. If they don’t go to school at least 4 days out of 5, they don’t  get to ________ over the weekend. So while it’s framed positively in the first  two examples above, there is a consequence, and this can be used with ODD kids  as well. Kids who are dealing with anxiety-based issues especially benefit from  positive incentives such as earning something special on the weekend once they  go to school each day.

5) Be empowered. If you’re seeing some seriously defiant  behavior and your child does not respond to these strategies after a week or  two, then it’s definitely time to reach out for some support—locate a therapist  or counselor who can help you get your child’s defiance under control and  educate yourself about your state’s truancy laws. The way truancy is defined and  handled can vary from locality to locality. Many parents are fearful that they  will have to pay hefty fines for their child’s truancy, but that is not always  the case—there are still counties that focus on holding the children  responsible. Don’t assume that you know what might happen. Instead, speak with  the person who handles attendance issues at your school or call the juvenile  justice division at your local courthouse. Once you have knowledge of the system  in your area, you can make informed decisions. They might also be able to refer  you to appropriate local supports.

Also, keep a record for yourself. In the event that you do have to explain  your situation to anyone for any reason, a log of your child’s absences, absence  reasons, and your response will help you to explain your situation and identify  patterns. Contacting the school each time your child is absent is another wise  move—let them know when your child is sick as well as when he is straight up  refusing to go (and don’t lie to cover for your child!). Keep in mind, while  these ideas will show that you are an active parent who is making an effort and  who is honest and well-meaning, they won’t necessarily keep you out of legal  trouble.

Related: How to get your child to  listen.

A lot of this is what James Lehman referred to as “selective attention”—you  get more of what you pay attention to. So teach your child how to cope, set up a  system to motivate them, and make a big deal out of positive behaviors, ignoring  the unwanted behaviors.

I’ve worked with so many kids who struggled for the first few weeks of school  and improved so much over the course of the year. Were there setbacks? Yes, of  course!  But kids are resilient and they can learn and adjust with some coaching  and support from you. Also, don’t forget about your school counselor, social  worker, or psychologist as they can be valuable supports for you along the way,  and can provide information on helpful community resources, too. Working  together with your teammates at your child’s school you can achieve so much more  than trying to go it alone. Speak up, reach out, and ask for help. It might be  just what your child needs.


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