Ask Dr. Bronwyn: What to Do When Your Child Hates School
Q: We’re only a few months into the school year, and I have a fourth grader who claims to hate school. Every morning is a battle, and I have no idea what’s going on. He doesn’t want to do his homework, says his teacher hates him and has asked to be homeschooled, which is not an option. Help!
—Middle School Drop-Out's Mama
Dear Middle School Drop-Out's Mama,
On the walk to school two days into the year, my son very seriously said, “I don’t think third grade is for me.” A week later he was fine: His idea for a class name was chosen, and he got to create a 3D sculpture in art class. Though he seemed back in the game, I’m keeping my eyes on him.
It’s fairly common for children to seem fearful or anxious about going back to school. If this is the case for your child, put on your detective hat and investigate. Listen to him, speak to his teacher, ask permission to observe a class, pay attention to how he manages homework and look closely at his weekly schedule. In doing so, you’ll hopefully begin to understand the culprit, which is usually one of the following issues: temperament, social disconnect or boredom.
Here are some strategies to tackle each one.
The classroom isn’t always a good fit for high-energy kids, who can become uncomfortable when expected to sit still at a desk or on a rug — even with scheduled breaks for recess, lunch and psychical education. These children usually get the brunt of their teachers’ negative attention. This can be a bit of a double-whammy because highly active kids don’t often have the skills to carry out classroom requirements such as self-control. This often leads them to feel singled out by teachers who are simply reminding them to focus on their work, keep their hands to themselves or stay in their seats. Here are some tactics for dealing with temperament issues.
Talk to his teacher. Let your child’s teacher in on his learning style and energy level at the beginning of the year. The more information the teacher has about your child, the more likely she will be to stop blaming him for his outbursts, and start helping to strengthen the skills he needs to cope and succeed in a classroom, such as giving him the choice of sitting or standing at his desk.
Encourage brain breaks. Many children aren’t able to sit for long periods of time, and building in breaks after short intervals of work is helpful. Let your child take a 10-minute break to do what he wants after 20 minutes of work. (Note: Screen time is hard to come back from.) Set a timer and do jumping jacks, play freeze dance or tell funny jokes — whatever it takes to give your child’s brain a break.
Practice active learning. Toss a tennis ball back and forth while calling out vocabulary words, or make up games that require movement while he studies (e.g., for every word correctly spelled, he can shoot a ball into a net hung in his room). Ask his teacher if he can take on more active class jobs like task runner.
Come up with creative ways to stay focused. Let your child sit on a balance ball while he’s reading instead of a desk chair. Put a rock in each of your son’s pockets for him to hold when he’s tempted to touch another child in circle time. A secret signal with his teacher when he really needs a break can also be helpful.
Break it down. Help your child set goals to finish smaller portions of his homework at a time. Reward him with breaks after each one is completed. Give him a timer so he can be in control of the alerts and breaks. Speak with your child’s teacher about the possibility of “move-your-body breaks” during the school day, which can benefit everyone. Your child will do better with preventative breaks rather than intervention ones after he’s already goofed off.
I still cringe remembering my parents’ repeated dismissals of all social activities during my middle school years. (“You go to school to learn, not to socialize.”) Today we know that children’s peer experiences are intricately related to their academic outcomes. Feeling disconnected, rejected or ignored by peers makes school a lonely and unwelcoming place. Some children aren’t great at making friends or joining groups; others, for one reason or another, are ostracized or bullied in their classrooms. It’s important to figure out the root and to take peer isolation seriously. Here are some tactics for dealing with social disconnect.
Listen to your child. Everyone feels left out and ignored sometimes, but if your child regularly complains about others not liking him, not having any friends or being picked on, pay attention.
Investigate. Speak to the teacher about your child’s experiences with other kids at school. Does he have a friend to sit with at lunch? Does he have a group or even one other child to hang around with at recess? How do his peers interact with him in class? Do they seem to like him? Ask the teacher to pair your child with another child who could be a good partner, or assign collaborative group projects where kids work together.
Jumpstart friendships. Before the middle school years, you’re still an important player when it comes to creating relationships for your child. Invite classmates over to play after school or on weekends. Your child might just need one good friend to sit with at lunch or to play with at recess to feel more secure at school.
Practice peer interactions. If you feel like your child just isn’t so good at making friends or joining groups, roleplay common peer scenarios (e.g., asking to join a group or playing four-square). Read books about friendship and discuss them. Invite younger children over so your child can experience less stressful peer interactions.
Make family mealtime a priority. Research has shown that shared family meals are a predictor of achievement outcomes and behavioral compliance in the classroom. Even sitting together at breakfast – if that’s all you can manage – is beneficial and easy to control.
The same reason you wouldn’t get much out of a child CPR class before becoming a parent helps explain why so many kids are disinterested in fractions or history: They don’t have opportunities to apply the material to their lives. Loss of interest in the classroom can also be due to academic confidence. Some children don’t feel challenged, while others feel insecure. Whatever the reason, here are some tactics for dealing with boredom.
Make learning meaningful. Connect school topics with your child’s interests and experiences —percentages are a lot more interesting when applied to figure out your child’s Little League batting average. Look for ways to connect the subjects she is studying with your family history, experiences and interests.
Talk about current events. Use a topic that is happening in the news to open discussion and connect it to topics your child is studying.
Read for pleasure. The motivation to read comes from being able to read topics of interest, whether it's comic books, cereal boxes, joke books or Minecraft manuals. If the only experience your child has with reading is vocabulary tests and assigned chapters, then it’s no wonder that reading has become a chore.
One final note: It might be tempting, but don’t offer rewards for being positive about school, finishing homework or completing any other school-related activities. Although chocolate might motivate your child in the short-term, rewarding outcomes in the long-run diminishes internal motivation to learn. That’s why it’s key to help your child realize the real-world benefits of the skills in his assignments.
I know this list might seem exhausting — daunting even — but these are important problems to solve. Thankfully, there are many things parents can do early on to help kids feel more connected, motivated and engaged in learning at school.
Bronwyn Becker Charlton, Ph.D. received her doctorate in Developmental Psychology from Columbia University and is currently on the faculty at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in the Department of Pediatrics. She is also the co-founder of seedlingsgroup.