A first grader who hates school

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  September 14, 2009 06:00 AM

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Question: How do I get my first-grade son onto the school bus every day? He claims he hates school. I have to literally push him on every day with the help of the school bus driver.

From: Mary, Worcester

Hi Mary,

This is a very common problem, especially among first graders and it's called, "school reluctance." For the record, though, it can happen to any child, any year, including a child who has never exhibited the problem before.

This needs quick attention and, sorry to say, literally pushing him onto the bus isn't it.

But let's start with this little-known fact: While parents tend to be more anxious about the start of kindergarten, kids are more nervous at the start of first grade. For them, first grade is "real school." Not only do they believe (rightly so) that more is expected of them but they also typically have a new developmental level of cognition that enables them to begin to make comparisons: "I can't read yet and Joe reads chapter books." "I can write my name but it's sloppy. Mary can write and it's neat." Here are some of the conclusions a child can draw from this: "Joe is smart. I'm not." "The teacher likes Mary better than me."

Don't wait until the morning to see if this day is going to be different. Have a conversation when he comes home from school. "Tell me about your day. You look like you're happy/grumpy.... You didn't want to go to school today. Do you remember why?"

The typical reason for a first grader to have school reluctance is that something caused him to be anxious, afraid, or embarrassed. It could be something as ordinary as the perfume the teacher wears, a smell in the bathroom, or where he sits. Someone teased him because his zipper was open. The teacher expects him to be able to do something he can't do and he's ashamed or embarrassed. The older kids on the bus frighten him. The list is long. Be prepared for anything and let him know that no reason is silly or stupid. If he can't give you a reason, it's safe to assume it falls into the anxious, afraid or embarrassed realm. Unless:

There's something dramatic and new going on at home, like a sick parent; new baby; parent with a new job or without any job. These things can cause worry in a child and distract and derail him, especially if he thinks you need him at home with you.

No matter what you learn, here's something to say: (By the way, I'm quoting from my own book, "Put Yourself in Their Shoes, Understanding How Your Children See the World," page 136, chapter on "School Days."):

"I know some days things happen at school that make you wish you didn't have to go. But you do have to go. Tonight we can talk about how the day was for you." Also: "What can I do to make it easier for you/to help you go to school today?" Talk ahead of time about what will happen when the school bus arrives. Does he have someone to sit with? Perhaps he'd like to sit behind the driver until he makes friends.

If you learn there is a specific problem, offer support and help to solve it but be clear that still isn't a reason not to go. At this age, it is appropriate to go to the teacher whether you can pinpoint a problem or not. A teacher needs to know that a first grader does not want to go to school. Don't wait for the conference in October! Not only that, you also should expect the teacher to be willing and able to work with you to figure this out.

The only reason to keep him home is if you are sure he is sick, or if you think he is unsafe, for instance, a bully's beating him up on the bus.

The bottom line is this: school reluctance is something educators and psychologists take very seriously. Don't take a wait-and-see-tomorrow-may-be-better attitude.

I hope we hear from some first-grade teachers on this!


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10 comments so far...
  1. I'd just like to chime in that although I am not having this specific problem with my first grader (he says he loves it), getting any information out of him about school is like trying to squeeze blood from a stone.

    I ask him VERY specific questions that should be easy enough to answer, such as: Tell me something good that happened/something unpleasant that happened (even if it was to someone else, as I think this sometimes causes the kids to worry that "it could happen to them," what did you do in the computer lab, do you have enough time to finish your papers or are you done early? But the limited scope of his answers are driving me nutty!

    Posted by RH September 14, 09 07:07 AM
  1. My kid is in 3rd grade, hates school with a passion, and has since preschool. At this point, I have made it clear that he is free to hate school all he wants, but we have had all the discussions about this we are ever going to have. The more I give him an audience for his "I hate school" litany, the more items he adds to the list. This year, the "I hate school" whining was replaced by resignation within the first week, when I made it clear that a)I loved him dearly b)I hope he has a good year but c)nothing we discuss is going to change the fact that you have to go to school.

    I have told his teachers his point of view (school is an imposition on his free time), so they are informed. But this problem is his to deal with, not mine. He has to learn to suck it up and find something to like about it, and I can't do that for him.

    Posted by BMS September 14, 09 12:38 PM
  1. One trick (game) I've found works with my kids is to play, "Two truths and a lie (or a pretend)". They say 2 things that really happened, and make up one that didn't, and you have to guess which one didn't. It's a great way to get them playfully talking with you about what happened with their day.

    Posted by PJ September 15, 09 11:06 AM
  1. Couple things:

    In my experience, a little empathy goes a lot further and goes down a lot easier than the "suck it up" approach. Telling a child that you understand that they don't want to go and that there are a lot of days when we don't want to do things but we have to do them anyway, can make the child feel less alienated on top of their other emotions.

    Also, first grade can be the first time any physical challenges (e.g. hearing or vision) and or learning disabilities become noticeable to the child. Your local school system is required, by law, to do a free assessment to rule out the existence of any such issues or, if there's a problem, provide you with services. Put your request in writing, dated and keep a copy.

    Posted by wg September 15, 09 02:56 PM
  1. I can see taking more time for a first grader. But by third grade, I have found, through my own observations, that with my particular kid, the more credence I give to his concerns, the more he focuses on them. If I act all worried and uptight because OMIGOD! He hates school! He is doomed to failure!!! then that reinforces his feeling that school is something to be dreaded. I am trying to go for the view of "Look, you are capable, you know what you have to do, school is no big deal." I can empathize, but the problem is still his to solve, not mine.

    Posted by BMS September 15, 09 09:06 PM
  1. I completely understand BMS's larger point. At some point, children of 7-10 yrs should be taught that their attitude affects outcome and how we react (fuel to fire?) is something to note. This is a big struggle for my 8-year-old 2nd grader who comes off the bus "ready for a fight" nearly every day. When I ask him about his day he is seriously grouchy and rarely, if ever, has anything good to say about anything. He tends to bully/disrespect his friends at the bus stop. I then nag to try to control the situation. His disposition is just awful during the school year. He has Asperger's and we're on top of learning differences. But, jeeze, every day (since Kindergarten) of the negativity would wear any mother down! Not to mention my 1st grade typically developing son sees his brother's behavior as a "normal" reaction to school. How do I manage these: grouchies & sibling? Thank you so much for any suggested dialogue, quotes, or anything that might help me manage better.

    Posted by TAO September 17, 09 04:00 AM
  1. I am dealing with my first grader hating school as well. We moved in Nov. and he started in a new school 2 months into the school year. He is a momma's boy and would prefer to be home with me and his little brother. I myself am learning to give him more freedom and independence.
    He is extremely shy and timid of adults but makes friends with his peers quite quickly. I just had a meeting with his teacher and was hit with a barrage of issues, one being that he is very quiet and it's hard to engage him in the various classroom activities (unless it's choice time!). One of the decisions I've made is to become more involved with the school. I'm hoping that if he sees me there on occasion, he'll think it's kind of cool, and maybe help improve his opinion of school.
    At any rate, I do feel that being new and making new friends is enough to ask of a 6 year old, let alone, expect him to be ambitious about school activities.

    Posted by Sabrina January 21, 10 09:11 AM
  1. I am also dealing with my first grader not wanting to go to school. After reviewing I want to add the note that He went to Montessori school for Pre-k and k. Now he is in Private school, but it is traditional classroom and teaching.
    It's always"my belly hurts", and if that doesn't work it moves up to his throat, or "I miss you",and the list grows as the new excuse doesn't work. He was fine in Sept, then it started in Nov and we found that he didn't want to go to after care. So, I got my parents to pick him up on those days and it got better. But now it started again about almost 2 weeks ago. He is not admitting to any reason at school.
    This week I had to take him right to the classroom and give his bag to the teacher, while he was crying and saying "NO, I want to go home". The next day they had to physically hold him while I left. Then they said as soon as I was gone he was fine. I'm afraid this can make it worse, I feel like I'm abandoning him.
    He is one of the smartest if not THE smartest kid in the class. He always finishes his work early, and out of 2 weeks worth of work, including tests, if there are 5 mistakes it's a lot. He gets his spelling words for the week on Mon, Mon evening he can pass the test. He says all they do is work all day. He likes the subjects that have new material often.
    I'm afraid that he is getting board and is not being challenged enough. Can this cause school reluctance?
    I want to take care of this ASAP before it causes teasing at school. Now the other kids are seeing his reluctance in the morning and trying to reassure him, but it doesn't seem to help much. He is very popular but I'm afraid that won't last if this continues.
    Any help or suggestions are appreciated. Thanks,
    MIKE

    Posted by MIKE February 12, 10 12:47 PM
  1. Mike...We are having basically the same problems as you. I am anxious to see if anyone has any good suggestions for this. I am grandma, but my grandson and my daughter live with me, so I have to watch the drama unfold each morning....

    Posted by julie g. August 16, 10 01:00 PM
  1. One question to everyone that posted, do most of you have only one child? I am dealing with the same exact thing with my soon to be 7 yr old 1st grader, but this started with kindegarten. It seems to be related to being made to do what they do not want to do. There is also a common trait of all these kids including mine of being extremely intelligent, yet they refuse to help themselves. Cognatively they are only able to think about themselves at this time, anything they know about selflessness is what has been taught to them. That being said I have tried to make mine realize that he is only hurting himself. I have had a pleothra of excuses of why he does not want to go, anything from cramping legs from a hard karate workout to making himself throw up so we think he is sick. My wife, his mother died last year form CO poisoning and i thought with the increase of school reluctance it was from the lose of his mama. Yet when asked is usual answer is he doesnt remember why he hates school...baffling. I was raised in the manner of "spar the rod, spoil the child", my wife and i decided to raise him in a different manner leaving corporal punishment as a last resort. His mother had such gentle way with him that he would listen too and respond too. I have tried to replicate her process' but its not the same and it does not work or I get frustrated trying. I can only repeat myself so many times before it becomes a game of cat and mouse. Like everyone else I am at a lose but very, very concerned about this issue. Has anyone had their child accessed by the phyco educational accessment testing? If so how did that turn out..help or not?

    Posted by Jason February 13, 13 01:16 PM
 
10 comments so far...
  1. I'd just like to chime in that although I am not having this specific problem with my first grader (he says he loves it), getting any information out of him about school is like trying to squeeze blood from a stone.

    I ask him VERY specific questions that should be easy enough to answer, such as: Tell me something good that happened/something unpleasant that happened (even if it was to someone else, as I think this sometimes causes the kids to worry that "it could happen to them," what did you do in the computer lab, do you have enough time to finish your papers or are you done early? But the limited scope of his answers are driving me nutty!

    Posted by RH September 14, 09 07:07 AM
  1. My kid is in 3rd grade, hates school with a passion, and has since preschool. At this point, I have made it clear that he is free to hate school all he wants, but we have had all the discussions about this we are ever going to have. The more I give him an audience for his "I hate school" litany, the more items he adds to the list. This year, the "I hate school" whining was replaced by resignation within the first week, when I made it clear that a)I loved him dearly b)I hope he has a good year but c)nothing we discuss is going to change the fact that you have to go to school.

    I have told his teachers his point of view (school is an imposition on his free time), so they are informed. But this problem is his to deal with, not mine. He has to learn to suck it up and find something to like about it, and I can't do that for him.

    Posted by BMS September 14, 09 12:38 PM
  1. One trick (game) I've found works with my kids is to play, "Two truths and a lie (or a pretend)". They say 2 things that really happened, and make up one that didn't, and you have to guess which one didn't. It's a great way to get them playfully talking with you about what happened with their day.

    Posted by PJ September 15, 09 11:06 AM
  1. Couple things:

    In my experience, a little empathy goes a lot further and goes down a lot easier than the "suck it up" approach. Telling a child that you understand that they don't want to go and that there are a lot of days when we don't want to do things but we have to do them anyway, can make the child feel less alienated on top of their other emotions.

    Also, first grade can be the first time any physical challenges (e.g. hearing or vision) and or learning disabilities become noticeable to the child. Your local school system is required, by law, to do a free assessment to rule out the existence of any such issues or, if there's a problem, provide you with services. Put your request in writing, dated and keep a copy.

    Posted by wg September 15, 09 02:56 PM
  1. I can see taking more time for a first grader. But by third grade, I have found, through my own observations, that with my particular kid, the more credence I give to his concerns, the more he focuses on them. If I act all worried and uptight because OMIGOD! He hates school! He is doomed to failure!!! then that reinforces his feeling that school is something to be dreaded. I am trying to go for the view of "Look, you are capable, you know what you have to do, school is no big deal." I can empathize, but the problem is still his to solve, not mine.

    Posted by BMS September 15, 09 09:06 PM
  1. I completely understand BMS's larger point. At some point, children of 7-10 yrs should be taught that their attitude affects outcome and how we react (fuel to fire?) is something to note. This is a big struggle for my 8-year-old 2nd grader who comes off the bus "ready for a fight" nearly every day. When I ask him about his day he is seriously grouchy and rarely, if ever, has anything good to say about anything. He tends to bully/disrespect his friends at the bus stop. I then nag to try to control the situation. His disposition is just awful during the school year. He has Asperger's and we're on top of learning differences. But, jeeze, every day (since Kindergarten) of the negativity would wear any mother down! Not to mention my 1st grade typically developing son sees his brother's behavior as a "normal" reaction to school. How do I manage these: grouchies & sibling? Thank you so much for any suggested dialogue, quotes, or anything that might help me manage better.

    Posted by TAO September 17, 09 04:00 AM
  1. I am dealing with my first grader hating school as well. We moved in Nov. and he started in a new school 2 months into the school year. He is a momma's boy and would prefer to be home with me and his little brother. I myself am learning to give him more freedom and independence.
    He is extremely shy and timid of adults but makes friends with his peers quite quickly. I just had a meeting with his teacher and was hit with a barrage of issues, one being that he is very quiet and it's hard to engage him in the various classroom activities (unless it's choice time!). One of the decisions I've made is to become more involved with the school. I'm hoping that if he sees me there on occasion, he'll think it's kind of cool, and maybe help improve his opinion of school.
    At any rate, I do feel that being new and making new friends is enough to ask of a 6 year old, let alone, expect him to be ambitious about school activities.

    Posted by Sabrina January 21, 10 09:11 AM
  1. I am also dealing with my first grader not wanting to go to school. After reviewing I want to add the note that He went to Montessori school for Pre-k and k. Now he is in Private school, but it is traditional classroom and teaching.
    It's always"my belly hurts", and if that doesn't work it moves up to his throat, or "I miss you",and the list grows as the new excuse doesn't work. He was fine in Sept, then it started in Nov and we found that he didn't want to go to after care. So, I got my parents to pick him up on those days and it got better. But now it started again about almost 2 weeks ago. He is not admitting to any reason at school.
    This week I had to take him right to the classroom and give his bag to the teacher, while he was crying and saying "NO, I want to go home". The next day they had to physically hold him while I left. Then they said as soon as I was gone he was fine. I'm afraid this can make it worse, I feel like I'm abandoning him.
    He is one of the smartest if not THE smartest kid in the class. He always finishes his work early, and out of 2 weeks worth of work, including tests, if there are 5 mistakes it's a lot. He gets his spelling words for the week on Mon, Mon evening he can pass the test. He says all they do is work all day. He likes the subjects that have new material often.
    I'm afraid that he is getting board and is not being challenged enough. Can this cause school reluctance?
    I want to take care of this ASAP before it causes teasing at school. Now the other kids are seeing his reluctance in the morning and trying to reassure him, but it doesn't seem to help much. He is very popular but I'm afraid that won't last if this continues.
    Any help or suggestions are appreciated. Thanks,
    MIKE

    Posted by MIKE February 12, 10 12:47 PM
  1. Mike...We are having basically the same problems as you. I am anxious to see if anyone has any good suggestions for this. I am grandma, but my grandson and my daughter live with me, so I have to watch the drama unfold each morning....

    Posted by julie g. August 16, 10 01:00 PM
  1. One question to everyone that posted, do most of you have only one child? I am dealing with the same exact thing with my soon to be 7 yr old 1st grader, but this started with kindegarten. It seems to be related to being made to do what they do not want to do. There is also a common trait of all these kids including mine of being extremely intelligent, yet they refuse to help themselves. Cognatively they are only able to think about themselves at this time, anything they know about selflessness is what has been taught to them. That being said I have tried to make mine realize that he is only hurting himself. I have had a pleothra of excuses of why he does not want to go, anything from cramping legs from a hard karate workout to making himself throw up so we think he is sick. My wife, his mother died last year form CO poisoning and i thought with the increase of school reluctance it was from the lose of his mama. Yet when asked is usual answer is he doesnt remember why he hates school...baffling. I was raised in the manner of "spar the rod, spoil the child", my wife and i decided to raise him in a different manner leaving corporal punishment as a last resort. His mother had such gentle way with him that he would listen too and respond too. I have tried to replicate her process' but its not the same and it does not work or I get frustrated trying. I can only repeat myself so many times before it becomes a game of cat and mouse. Like everyone else I am at a lose but very, very concerned about this issue. Has anyone had their child accessed by the phyco educational accessment testing? If so how did that turn out..help or not?

    Posted by Jason February 13, 13 01:16 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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