"I hate school"

How to help your child recover his love of learning

All kids love school — at least in the beginning. Visit any kindergarten class and you’ll see: The simplest question from the teacher inspires a forest of waving hands. Some children are so excited that they blurt out the answer. It’s obvious that for these young scholars, learning is fun.

When you see this excitement in your own young kids, it’s easy to take their love of school for granted. In fact, you tend not to think about it much, even when shifts in their behaviour should be cluing you in to the possibility that their enjoyment of school has changed. As a child psychologist with more than 35 years of experience, I’ve seen this happen over and over again. Sometimes the child’s clues are as blatant as shouting “I hate school!” or as subtle as finding excuses to delay leaving the house each morning. They might involve plummeting grades or physical complaints, such as tummy aches and headaches. It may take a while, but eventually the realization strikes: “Julian doesn’t like school.”

When it does, I urge parents to take action. Don’t be lulled into thinking that this is a phase your child will outgrow. And please, please don’t write it off as laziness. In my book, there is no such thing. All kids want to do well in school and if they grow to dislike it, there’s a reason. The key is to start looking for this cause as soon as possible.

Read on for some common reasons why kids fall out of love with school, and some first steps you can take as a family, in co-operation with your child’s school or a mental health professional, to solve the problem.

Social strife and teacher turbulence

Fights with friends, bullying and personality clashes with teachers are the most obvious reasons why children develop a dislike of school — though they might not be obvious to parents, who aren’t with their kids at school all day, every day. So while you might be alerted by a note or phone call from your child’s teacher, it’s more likely you’ll need to sit down with your child for a calm talk about the problem. This may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how many parents don’t do it. Instead, they push their children to just “work harder.” This misguided move is almost guaranteed to backfire. Instead of better grades, your child will respond with defensiveness, anger, tears or silence. Remember that she really does want to do well in school and simply hasn’t the social resources to solve these kinds of problems for herself. If your daughter’s best friend is giving her the silent treatment, she’ll need your help to either ride out or resolve the conflict before she’s able to pay full attention to her school work.

Sometimes kids aren’t able to articu-late what’s wrong or they find the problem too difficult to talk to their parents about. In those cases, I strongly recommend a visit to the teacher. The two of you, talking things out together, should be able to pinpoint the problem.

What if the problem is bullying? As parents, we need to follow the same advice we give our kids: Don’t confront a bully alone. Get help. The teacher and principal can be great allies, so treat them that way. I’ve seen parents storm into schools full of blame, firing off accusations like “I can’t believe you let this happen!” This is a mistake. For a variety of reasons, they may be reluctant to allow your child to change classes or deal with a bully — and your anger can make the situation much worse. It may take some time, but stay composed and persistent, and good things will happen.

“Colin has ants in his pants”

I was once asked to assess a boy in grade two (I’ll call him Colin) who just couldn’t seem to sit still and write out his spelling words, or pay attention while his teacher described the class’s next science unit. He was disruptive, sometimes talking to his classmates or fidgeting loudly at his desk. “Nothing I do seems to stop him from acting up,” reported Colin’s father. “He constantly has ants in his pants. Could it be ADD?”

Attention deficit disorder is a common problem, particularly among boys. It’s been documented since the early 1980s but, amazingly, is still misunderstood and misdiagnosed. Symptoms vary from an inability to concentrate for more than a few minutes to an almost complete inability to sit still, often to the point of classroom disobedience. This extreme form is called attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Both versions can take years to come to a head — usually not until grade three or four — by which time school is a daily struggle for these kids. Teachers can’t be expected to spot these kids, as they have large classes and only very basic training in dealing with ADD/ADHD, so it’s important to talk to an educational psychologist as soon as you suspect it (see Finding Professional Help).

After diagnosing Colin, I tried a trick that often works with kids who have ADD. Sitting at the back of the classroom, I kept an eye on him. When he seemed to start losing his focus, I’d suggest he do a chore. “Can you take this note to the school secretary?” I asked. His eyes lit up and he dashed out the door as soon as I handed over the missive. Later, I suggested he ask whether the teacher needed help erasing the blackboard. He was only too happy to do so. Breaking up Colin’s day with these little physical tasks made it much easier for him to concentrate when he was sitting still. For Colin, this was a very effective coping strategy. (An educational psychologist can suggest whether it might work with your child.)

Learning disabilities and anxiety

“We just can’t seem to get through to her.” That’s a frequent comment I hear from parents of kids who are struggling at school. If you’ve ruled out the possibility that a social issue is at the heart of the problem, then it’s time to consider that something is interfering with your child’s ability to learn. The most common cause is a learning disability. Learning disabilities, which were once all lumped under the heading of dyslexia, are rooted in the brain structure and can take many forms. Some are easy to spot, such as frequent reversal of letters, but other forms can take years to become obvious, including auditory processing problems or difficulties interpreting or manipulating numbers.

Learning disabilities usually show up early — in the first or second grade — but because the symptoms start out quite subtly, they’re often overlooked or misinterpreted by parents and teachers.

Another problem that’s become more common recently is anxiety attacks in young children. Unlike phobias, these attacks have no real trigger or cause — just a rush of extreme fear, to the point of panic. If they frequently happen at school, kids can become school-phobic, associating the place they occur with the horrible feelings of panic.

Very shy children can also experi-ence severe anxiety. Being called upon to answer in class, or even mix with other kids at recess, causes tremendous fear. Parents and teachers may try to help by pushing these kids to participate more, but that always backfires, making the kids even more afraid.

As with ADD/ADHD, these issues are complex, but with the help of a mental health professional, your child can learn to cope. See “Finding Professional Help,” above, for how to locate one. The sooner the better.

Finding professional help

If you suspect your child’s dislike of school comes from a problem that’s too big for you to handle, ask whether your school or school board offers help. If there are no school resources, or there’s a long waiting list, visit the Canadian Psychological Association website to find a an educational psychologist in your area: cpa.ca.