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
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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