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By "Today" contributor
updated 3/31/2005 8:09:43 PM ET 2005-04-01T01:09:43

Today in "Weekend Parenting" we continue a series of excerpts from “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” the most recent book by “Today” show contributor Dr. Ruth Peters.

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Law #22:
Stand Up for School

You may be surprised at the real reasons behind your kid’s whines of “I don’t want to go to school.” Children can be miserable in school because of social, learning, or anxiety issues — and these don’t just go away. Once you understand what’s really going on, you can help him overcome these obstacles to education.

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OK — it’s Monday morning and you’re just getting started. Let’s see ... take the dog out, grab a shower, and wake up the kids to get ready for school. All goes as planned until your 9-year-old son hits you with, “I don’t wanna go to school” and rolls over on his top bunk. Now what? Most likely you’ve had to deal with this before, and you know that a combination of tickling and firm persuasion usually gets your kid up and moving.

Lots of children don’t want to get up and go to school, especially after having a weekend of fun. Hanging around the house and playing with friends sure beats having to pay attention in the classroom — so it’s not unusual for children to check to see if you’ll cave in and let them play hooky. It’s normal if your child tries this out occasionally, as long as he makes it to school without too much fuss. However, it’s a whole different ball game if the kid habitually balks at going to school or seems genuinely fearful or anxious about it. Kids, especially in the grade-school years, display school refusal behaviors for three main reasons.

  • They feel at risk socially — rejected, ostracized, or ignored by peers. The school environment may be perceived as lonely, uncomfortable, or threatening. It’s tough when you’re 7 years old and you feel unaccepted and different from the other kids.
  • Those who perceive themselves as academically inferior often feel picked on or teased by other children when they make errors in class, and many consider themselves to be dumb or stupid because of the teasing. (It’s humiliating to answer incorrectly in class with 20 kids watching your unsatisfactory performance.)
  • Children who are very active, perhaps even hyperactive, can become extremely uncomfortable when expected to sit for several hours in the classroom, even with breaks for recess, lunch, and PE. These kids seem to be constantly chastised by their teachers to stay in their seats, to focus on their work, or to keep their hands to themselves.

Children who display one or more of the above problems tend to have school refusal issues at some point in their academic careers. Feeling lonely, dumb, or unfocused would be uncomfortable for just about anyone. Consider the adult who feels rejected by her co-workers at the office — it’s no fun thinking that others are talking negatively about you or that they have little to say to you. Or, if you’re having trouble completing a project, and day after day your on-the-job frustration mounts, leaving work at 5 o’clock becomes a relief. Or ever feel antsy or edgy because you’re cooped up behind a desk pushing papers or answering phone calls while you yearn to be working outdoors?

Well, just as an adult who feels socially unaccepted, inferior to the task, or incompatible with the work environment would begin to be uncomfortable or unhappy with his job, so do kids with similar problems. It’s human nature to avoid an unpleasant situation by calling in sick to work or, for a child, by refusing to go to school. The child with school refusal issues is generally trying to avoid the unpleasantness he perceives waiting for him. So what can you do if this is your kid?

Understand the Reason
First, listen to your child and take her seriously. If there’s a pattern of complaints about others not liking her, check it out further. Also, ask the teacher about children your child seems to get along with. Does she have a special friend to sit with at lunch or is she alone? Does she hang around kids at recess? If not, your daughter is legitimately feeling lonely and sad. What can you do? In the grade-school years, it’s still possible to help create and cement social relationships for your children. Encourage the teacher to pair her with another child whom your kid would like to get to know better. You can also jumpstart friendships by inviting classmates home to play after school or on weekends. Get to know the other moms and dads — some are probably in the same boat, looking to help their kids establish relationships with their classmates. Also, check out organizations such as Cub Scouts and Brownies, sports teams, or chorus and band — kids with similar interests tend to get along well, and their mutual experience helps conversations flow easier.

If your child fits into the second category leading to school refusal — that of being weak in an academic area or two — assessment and remediation should do the trick. Consult with your child’s teacher or guidance counselor to get information on achievement testing. After you understand the nature and causes of the weak areas, check into tutorial situations, both at school as well as privately. If your child’s testing meets certain criteria, he should be eligible for special programs providing individualized instruction to bring his knowledge, grades, and skills up to par. The process may be lengthy, so try to get started as soon as you notice a deficit area developing.

Once your child feels more comfortable with the work, he’ll feel smarter and more confident. The I-hate-school problem will tone down as he begins to look forward to answering questions in class and is no longer nervous about participating in front of his peers.

The third group of kids, those antsy, fidgety Phils, present a challenge for even the most seasoned teachers. It’s difficult to remain diplomatic when a kid is constantly getting out of his seat, wiggling around, dropping pencils, or talking to his neighbor. Teachers often resort to reminding, nagging, and disciplining fidgety, overactive kids much more than their quiet, self-controlled counterparts. Often this makes children feel singled out and picked on by the teacher, leading to anxiety about coming to class the next day.

There are three ways to keep your antsy, unfocused child on task: use a reward system for completing work in the classroom, provide academic remediation for knowledge gaps in weak areas, and consider medication for kids who are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. These techniques generally help children to focus on their work rather than on the contents of their neighbor’s pencil box, and keep their bodies in their seats.

It’s amazing what a reward system will accomplish if the consequences for completing class work, staying in their seat, and not making car noises during math class are important and consistently delivered! Once your child realizes self-control and success via one or more of these methods, he’ll feel on top of the work in the classroom and less worried about being “picked on” by the teacher or others.

What to Expect as Your Child Moves to Middle and High School
School refusal generally decreases dramatically as children grow older. Although social rejection still can play a major role in adolescence, the sheer size of most middle and high schools lends itself to kids finding a buddy or two. Also, many academic problems have been worked out by then — either through direct remediation, compensation, or inclusion in a special program at school. In addition, the fidgety second grader usually becomes calmer by middle school and no longer is constantly chided by teachers to sit still. He may still be displaying inattention, but generally this does not lead to behavior-based referrals or classroom embarrassment.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel — the Monday morning chorus of, “I hate school, do I hafta go?” decreases as your child gets older. The trick is to decipher what’s motivating the school refusal behavior and to take the appropriate steps toward remediation.

Living the Law
Worried about your child’s school performance, attitude, or academic self-confidence? Check out the following suggestions.

Have a heart-to-heart chat with your kid. Is he refusing to go to school because he feels socially outcast or academically inferior, or could it be that he’s uncomfortable because he just can’t sit still? Often your child will know and can talk about what is really going on at school, especially if you’ve already worked on Law #16, The Law of Communication .

If your child is clueless, check with the teacher. Often a savvy teacher has a hunch about what’s really cooking with your kid. But, if she’s unsure as to the basis of the problems, it may be wise to seek professional help for specific recommendations.

Contact your school counselor to set up a complete psychoeducational evaluation. This will help to determine your child’s strengths and weaknesses in order to begin a program of remediation. It may be beneficial to set him up in a special class or program to meet his unique needs, or after-school tutoring or remediation just may do the trick.

Set up a study skills program. If you see that your child is disorganized in school or during homework time and the psychoeducational evaluation shows no deficits, then it’s a matter of teaching him good study skills. Use a daily assignment sheet that the child fills in and each teacher signs to validate that the homework and test dates are accurate. The child uses this guide to determine what books and folders need to be taken home each day.

Next, make sure that homework is completed in a timely fashion. Quiz the kid to make sure that he’s comprehending what he’s reading, and review what he doesn’t seem to know. Teach him to pack his organizer and book bag at night, so that in the morning he’s ready to go. You may find that Law #6, The Law of Structure , is beneficial in motivating your child to learn and employ good study skills.

If your child is socially anxious, let him know that he’s not alone. Many children go through a period of feeling alone, invisible, or “out-of-it.” Help to begin or cement new friendships by contacting some classmates’ parents to set up playdates. All your child may need is one good friend to sit with at lunch or to play with at recess to feel on top of the world. She’ll gain confidence and social skills as her relationships progress. It’s not only OK but at times necessary for parents to jumpstart friendships and to promote pro-social behavior in their children.

NEXT WEEK: The importance of keeping your cool

Rodale Books

From “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” by Dr. Ruth Peters. Copyright ©2002 by Dr. Ruth Peters. Excerpted by permission of Rodale. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Dr. Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” For more information you can visit her Web site at www.ruthpeters.com. Copyright ©2005 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.

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