Plenty of little kids start off loving school in the early elementary years but eventually morph into grumbling older kids who’d rather be anywhere else, doing anything else than sitting at their desk all day. It’s understandable—the older our kids get, the more pressure they may feel academically. The work gets harder and the expectations get higher. They may discover they clash with a teacher or become the target of a bully.
There are all kinds of reasons why a child may suddenly hate school, but there are some things we can do to help ease their frustration or anxiety.
Listen and empathize
The first time your previously school-loving child proclaims that, actually, they hate school now, your first instinct might be to push back on the claim. However, responding with “Oh, you don’t mean that,” “You don’t hate school, you just had a bad day,” or “But all your friends are there,” doesn’t serve anyone.
Think of it this way: If you had a bad day at work and went home to vent to your partner (“I can’t stand my boss; I hate this job”) and your partner said, “Come on, that’s not true,” you wouldn’t exactly feel heard and validated. You’d more likely feel dismissed—and kids feel the same way when we try to convince them that they don’t really feel the way they say they do.
Instead, validate their feelings and get them to open up by paraphrasing back what you’re hearing them say, empathize and actively listen. Saying things like, “It sounds like you had a tough day—do you want to talk about it?” or “That must have been very frustrating; what happened next?” can encourage them to talk about their experiences.
Even though you’re validating their feelings, though, you should be careful not to add any fuel to the fire with emotional responses like, “You’re right—your principal can be a real jerk sometimes; I’m sick of the way he treats you.” That’s not productive and, as Sue Browder writes for Reader’s Digest, we can actually make certain situations worse by how we respond, particularly if they’re already anxious:
Unfortunately, parents can feed a child’s anxieties by the way they respond. With younger kids, watch how you say good-bye those first few days of school. A firm “Have a great day, and I’ll pick you up at 2:30!” is more confidence-inspiring than “Don’t worry, I can be there in ten minutes if you need me.”
Listen and be empathetic—but resist spiraling emotionally yourself about what they’re experiencing.
Try the “magic wand technique”
If the problem is minor enough, a magic wand (of sorts) may be all you need to improve their experience. This idea comes from Alana Pace at Parenting From the Heart:
After you have listened to your child express his concerns, anger and fears. First, empathize. Then, ask him, if he had a magic wand to make going to and being at school better, what would he do? He may choose to fix friendships, have a better relationship with his teacher, or it could be something simple that makes him feel empowered.
When my son started crying when it was time to go to school, we used this technique. His magic wand request was that I woke up with him (I usually stayed in bed from when he woke at 6:30 until just after 7:00 a.m.). He also asked that my husband or I pack his backpack. Just these differences alone stopped months’ worth of crying.
And even if the problem is bigger than some adjustments to their morning routine, this can be a good way to get at the heart of the issue so you can start to…
Brainstorm solutions together
If your child hates school simply because it’s boring, well, you can empathize with that, but there are probably few options by way of making it more entertaining for them. But there are plenty of other reasons for their misery that you actually can do something about.
Sometimes kids hate school because they don’t have any friends. If that’s the case, you can work on helping them develop their social skills, such as by role-playing at home so they can practice introducing themselves to other kids or ask other kids to play at recess. Or you can sign them up for an after-school activity that will enable them to meet other kids with common interests.
If they hate school because they’re having trouble keeping up with the work, try to determine why. They might need eyeglasses or tutoring—or there could even be an undiagnosed learning disability at play. Talk with the teacher about what they’ve been noticing in the classroom. If they’re clashing with a teacher or another student to a disruptive degree, it may be time to speak with the teacher or get the principal involved to more effectively address the problem.