In grade four, Rebecca Lee’s daughter Devan* hated going to school and complained of a lot of stomach aches. Devan’s father often let her stay home when she was at his place (Devan’s parents are divorced), and this inconsistency made it even more difficult for Lee. Devan was too big for her to drag out of bed, so the Toronto mom was often at a loss for how to actually get her child to school.
Reluctance to go to school is common in kids ages five and six, as they’re adjusting to kindergarten and grade one. But it can also kick in again around age 10 or 11, when there’s a big jump in academic expectations coupled with an increase in abstract thinking ability, all of which can make kids more anxious about grades and social dynamics.
To get out of going, your kid might say she’s sick—headaches and stomach aches are common manifestations of anxiety, though these ailments might disappear by mid-morning. Or she might throw a tantrum or even become physically aggressive.
“It’s really distressing for the whole family,” says Michele Kambolis, a child and family therapist in Vancouver and author of the book Generation Stressed. “Not only are parents deeply concerned about their child, but it makes it very difficult to cope with the day-to-day functioning. Parents might have to take time off work, and other siblings might be late for school or not make it there at all.”
Even though you’re frustrated, keep calm and make sure empathy is your first response, says Marjory Phillips, a clinical psychologist at the Child Development Institute in Toronto. “Don’t say, ‘Here we go, I’m going to be late for work again,’” because that just locks you into a power struggle with your kid. “Instead, say, ‘It looks like you’re having a hard time this morning. Are you worried about something at school?’”
Make sure your kid isn’t overtired. It’s tricky to budget enough time for sleep in a busy week, but kids between ages six and 12 need nine to 12 hours a night.
If your child is sleeping well but the battles persist, try to sleuth out the core issue. “It could be that academic expectations are hard. Or your kid might be having difficulty with a friend or is feeling bullied,” says Phillips.
Kids can have a tough time articulating what’s going on, so ask the teacher if she’s noticed anything. Maybe she can give your kid a fun, useful task he enjoys (like taking the attendance list down to the office) or arrange for a teacher he likes to meet him at the door each morning. Suggest things your kid can look forward to, such as a friend he might see, a favourite food at lunch or a fun game to play at recess.
If your kid’s anxiety is related to something short term—say, an upcoming test or a challenging math unit—he might just need some coaxing, extra support and help making a game plan to get through the rough patch.
For bigger issues, like bullying or academic difficulties, seek support within the school. “Reassure your child that you’re going to help solve that problem,” says Kambolis. The earlier you intervene, the faster you can help your child get back to learning.
Kerri Hayes wishes she had acted sooner when her son, Aidan, was refusing to go to school at age six. Hayes thought he was just having trouble adjusting to grade one, so she did plenty of empathizing and talked to him about things to look forward to after school and on weekends. But he still struggled, often not making it to class until after recess or not going back after he came home for lunch. Weeks stretched into months. Eventually, Aidan told her his teacher often yelled in the classroom, which bothered him. Even though discussing this with the teacher felt awkward, Hayes arranged a conversation to address the issue. After that, Aidan felt more comfortable in class, which helped him get through the year.
Don’t hesitate to talk to your family doctor about your child’s well-being, and ask about a referral for a mental health assessment, which could rule out separation anxiety disorder or depression. Phillips suggests consulting a children’s mental health agency when you first notice a serious problem. You may also consider a psycho-educational assessment, which could identify a learning disability, says Kambolis. “Sometimes very bright children can have gaps in their learning that lead to anxiety and school avoidance.”
Devan, now in grade six, still digs in her heels and often doesn’t make it to class at all. Lee is working with the school to address Devan’s learning disabilities, anxiety and oppositional defiant disorder.
Is it OK to let your child take a “mental health day” every once in a while? It depends, says Phillips. “You know your kid. If you think it’s in her best interest, then that’s reasonable.” But don’t let staying home become a persistent avoidance tactic.
* Name has been changed.