“I don’t want to go to school!”
It’s a common cry from children in households all over Australia at one time or another but it is the last thing you want to hear from your little one as they head off to school for the first time.
The first few weeks of school present both parents and child with many challenges. For the child there’s settling into the morning routine, getting used to the structured learning environment, as well as negotiating friendships and playground etiquette. For the parents it can be a stressful time balancing stepping back from their child’s life, with concerns of how well they are coping.
For a few though, settling in can be a long process and many parents will be faced with having to deal with a child who is distressed and anxious about going to school.
Denyse Whelan, a former primary school principal of over 15 years, says the best thing parents can do in the first few days is to take a ‘wait and see approach’.
“A child in the first weeks of school, having started in an Australian summer, will be worn out physically and emotionally due to all of the HUGE changes in their young lives and this will affect their general attitude and can come across as ‘I don’t like school,’” Denyse says. She advises that parents should remain calm and understanding try not to panic - at least intially. It can take two weeks or more for children to settle in to school life.
A dislike for school is a common problem and has many causes from the more serious issues of bullying or learning difficulties to something as simple as they prefer home over school. According to Sydney based Psychological Therapist and Counsellor Annie Gurton it can simply be a case of them saying okay, 'I’ve been there, thank you very much but I prefer to stay at home'.
“A preference for home over school is the most common reason for refusal to go to school”, says Annie. “And in many cases it is not so much a dislike of school but rather seeing home as more secure, enjoyable and likeable.”
Deborah, mum to a now seven year old daughter agrees. “When Isabelle started school at first she loved it, then after a couple of weeks she went through a period where she was impossible to get out the door”, she says. “It wasn’t so much issues at school but just that she missed being at home.”
But what if you find your child is really not settling in after the first few weeks and it is more than just a case of preferring home over school?
In a small number of cases ‘school phobia’ can be a real condition not to be underestimated and it can strike at any time, for a number of reasons.
Annie suggests firstly speaking to your child about their feelings which may take some considerable intuition and guesswork on behalf of the parent. “Although many children may come up with a reason right away, most will either avoid stating it or don’t understand it themselves.”
The next step is to involve the school. Your child’s teacher is experienced in dealing with children who don’t want to go to school. “Speaking with the teacher will alert them to the issue and they may be able to take steps within the classroom to cure the cause”, says Annie. Speaking to your child’s school is also a key factor in ruling out any major issues such as bullying or learning or health issues.
It is also important to keep in mind that it is quite possible that there is more going on than just a blatant dislike for school. “Refusal to go to school often comes as part of a package of changed behaviours. It rarely comes out of the blue,” says Annie, advising to look out for things such as bed-wetting, tantrums, sulking and other untypical events.
In the majority of cases a combined effort from parents and teachers will alleviate the fear and eventually help the child to settle into the school routine but if you feel it is not a passing fad you should take it seriously.
”If ignored, chronic school phobias can result in the deterioration of academic performance, peer relationships, work quality, and possibly lead to adult anxiety, panic attacks, or psychiatric disorders. Therefore, if the school phobia is extreme, a therapist or psychiatrist's assistance may be necessary” advises Annie.
So how do you make the transition from home to school as smooth as possible?
- Talk to your child about how life is going to change and what new routines will need to be in place.
- Make sure your child is as prepared as possible including knowing how to ask to go to the toilet and give them tips on how to socialise with others.
- Make a list of everything that needs to be bought and involve the child all aspects from the list making right through to purchasing and labelling.
- Be calm yourself and don’t hype up the event too much. It should be presented as a perfectly normal stage that many other children have gone through.
- Make friends with other parents and get involved as much as you can. Include your child in the conversation.
- It’s a big change, so be ready with plenty of cuddles, love and reassurance.
Jodi is a freelance writer, blogger and aspiring author. www.jfgibson.com.au