Whether it’s every day, once a week, month or year most children will have moments when they do not want to go to school. Whatever the reason this experience can leave parents feeling exasperated and concerned.
If this is a regular occurrence in your house the battle can become quite exhausting and relentless leaving you feeling guilty and wondering if you are missing something.
Below are a few tips to help manage this very common situation for one-off or momentary school refusals.
Please note that if school refusal has become a long term and unmanageable experience please reach out to your child's school and request a meeting with the school SENCO or pastoral lead. Unfortunately we cannot guarantee the support will be what it should be with current systems and policies in place however they may be able to direct you to further support. Do not tackle this alone. If you have tried this and it has not worked please get in touch for a 15 minute free check in or email us and we can help search for experts in your local area who you may be able to contact for support.
Acknowledge and validate
It is likely that the problems your child is experiencing will seem really small to you however it's really important that we treat them as seriously as we would our own problems. Repeating their problems/feelings back to them can help to show that you have understood what they are communicating. For example “I see, so when Hannah doesn’t sit next to you during lunch break it makes you feel sad, I understand that, that must be difficult”. This way they know they are being heard. By taking the time to listen and respond thoughtfully you are validating their thoughts and feelings.
Find a suitable time to really listen
Trying to talk it through in the morning when you are on the way out of the door is not ideal, so choosing an allocated time for you to connect and catch up with your child can be really beneficial. Find a time to sit down and talk to your child and attempt to dissect what they are feeling and why this might be. You may want to make notes with your child and include conversation about how you all intend to work on each problem. Read here for more tips on listening to children.
Leave enough time
Running late is sometimes inevitable but try to be as organised as you can, leaving plenty of extra time in the morning to manage any reluctance or refusal that arises. Leaving this extra time can help you to respond mindfully with more patience and understanding. Shouting and rushing will only leave you all feeling stressed and negative about the day ahead. Undoubtedly this will happen sometimes, try not to beat yourself up about it - we are human and it is important children know that. If you do lose your patience just sit down later and talk to your child about it. Apologise and explain how you felt about the situation.
Encourage your child to take small steps in the morning leading up to school time. Ask them to focus on what you need them to do in that present moment. For example when you wake up you are not asking them to go to school but asking them to sit down and eat their breakfast. The next thing they need to focus on is brushing their teeth, then getting dressed, then shoes on etc. These tasks can still be completed in the order of your usual routine but getting them to concentrate on each small task can remove any overwhelming feelings about the day ahead.
Explore your child's sleep patterns. Lack of good quality sleep can cause negative and reactive behaviours in all of us. Ask yourself the following questions: Are they getting enough sleep? Are they getting good quality sleep? Are they having a bedtime story which can help to draw a line between day and night and relax them before they shut their eyes? Are they avoiding screen time at least an hour before bed? You can read more about sleep in our article - Sleep. From birth to teen.
Check in on your child's homework status. Anxiety regarding homework being too difficult or not being handed in on time can cause children to dread going into school. Ensure you chat to your child about how they can achieve getting their homework done at a time that causes the least amount of stress and fuss. Including them in this conversation avoids any nagging and/or fussing. If they refuse to do it then gently remind them that they will have to deal with the consequences at school and avoid arguing about it, this will only cause further anxiety.
Play games on the journey to school
Make the journey to school enjoyable. Games like eye spy, spotting different coloured cars or talking games like Call my Bluff (invite your children to tell you 3 things about themselves and you have to work out which one is a lie). Games can diffuse many tense situations. Playing the same games each morning can help some children feel safer as routine means they know what to expect.
Speak to your child’s teacher
Engage your child's teacher in the conversation. They might have noticed something small that may be the reason for your child's reluctance to attend. Consistency and continuity between teacher and parents can help to discover and manage whatever is going on for your child and when your child can see you both working together it can help them to feel safe.
Involve them in the conversation
An important part of your conversation with your child is asking them how they would like you to respond to their problem. Sometimes they just want you to listen and at other times they need you to be proactive. Tell them that you have to send them to school but you do want to help them. Ask them how they would like you to do this.
Routines and visual timetables
Visual timetables and routines can really help a child to know what is coming next in the days, weeks and months ahead - it helps them to feel safe and secure. Time is an abstract concept for children and so visually splitting the morning routine into smaller tasks can help your child anticipate the next task and know when school time is coming. See our examples of routines and visual timetables in our play section.
Be clear and consistent
Listen, be kind, understanding, consistent and clear. Telling your child that they do have to go to school but you are here to support them is a balanced response and one that enables them to see that there is no negotiating but feel that they are being heard and supported in managing their anxieties.