What's causing this second grader to be unhappy?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  November 5, 2009 06:00 AM

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My son is 7 1/2 and is in second grade. His first month of school went very well, but then something changed. He dreads going to school now. I have contacted the teacher and the after-school program. There is no apparent reason for his unhappiness. He is doing well with the work, but gets easily frustrated. He has crumpled up papers and said they are too messy. Little things going wrong make him sit down and cry. Being told to put on his jacket to go outside can bring him to tears.

What else can I do to help him? I can't be with him during the day, but I want him to enjoy school.

From: Worried Mom, N. Attleboro

Hi Worried Mom,

Arm-chair diagnoses are always dangerous, of course, but here goes:

On the one hand, it sounds like you might have a budding perfectionist on your hands, that is, a child who has in his mind a certain idea of the way something should happen or what something should look like and he is not satisfied with anything less. The example that comes to mind is of a first grader who has homework to look through a magazine and bring in pictures that show the color red. As the mom and child flip through a magazine together, the child passes by first one, then two, red items.

"What about that one?" asks the mom. "That's red."

"Yes, but it's not a red hat," the child says.

So that's one possible cause of his unhappiness.

There's also the possibility that something is going on that neither you nor the teacher can identify, especially since you can pinpoint a time at which things began to change. (And by the way, don't assume it's something in school. What's going on at home? Have you lost or changed your job? Is there a new baby? Is someone sick?)

Hopefully, with teachers and AS teachers alert to the problem, they might notice something. Of course, that something could be anything from being afraid of a child who intimidated him to thinking the teacher doesn't like him. What I'm getting at is that whatever is causing his dread doesn't need to be logical, at least not in the way we think of logic. Children's perceptions are very real to them, even when they are inaccurate.

The best thing to do to help him is to ask him directly, "What is it about going to school that you don't like? At the beginning, you liked school and then something changed and you stopped liking it. Do you remember when you stopped liking school? Do you remember why you stopped liking it?" If you don't get any information the first time, try again another day with different words.

The next most important thing to do is be sure to send him to school, no matter what. That may sound harsh, but here's the issue: (I'm quoting from my blog, from 2007).

"By keeping home a child who is nervous or anxious about something -- who may indeed be overwhelmed enough by it to have a very real stomach ache -- the message you send is this: "Yep, everything you're fearful of is true, and then some. I'll keep you home because that's where you're safe. What's going on in school is more than you can handle."

If you're lucky, your child is verbalizing her worry: "My teacher hates me!" Be a respectful, reflective listener ("Boy, that's a terrible feeling, to think a teacher doesn't like you."). Let her sit with your feelings of support and sympathy for a while, hours, maybe even a day. Too often we are too quick to jump in with advice or to try to reassure by dismissing the concern: "Of course she likes you, you're a wonderful boy!" Guess what? The message your child takes from that is, "Mom just doesn't get it." By letting him sit with your support for a bit, he feels that you are an ally. That can make all the difference in the world when, some time later, you try brainstorm with him in a way that enables him to come up with a coping strategy. ("What do you think you can do about this?" )

Whatever you do, don't keep her home, even for just one day and especially not at this tender time of the new school year. It makes it that much harder to return to school the next day, and then you can be well on your way to one of the most difficult issues of childhood, school refusal.

There are three levels of what professionals call school refusal, when kids don't want to go to school: the normal separation issues of a preschooler; the mild school reluctance of a school-age child who now and then says he doesn't want to go to school but, in the end, goes off without too much difficulty; and anxiety that is so intense, it's accompanied by physical illness. That's school phobia, and professionals take it very seriously. Which is why you want to get help from the teacher and/or school as soon as you think you have a problem.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with
some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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4 comments so far...
  1. Does the child ride a school bus? That can be extremely scary for a little guy.

    I'm sorry for what he's going through. Heartbreaking. Best of luck!

    Posted by just_cos November 5, 09 10:05 AM
  1. Have you considered homeschooling? This is a great option in general, and especially when school causes little ones such discomfort. Just a thought...

    Posted by cambridgemom November 5, 09 02:58 PM
  1. I think it's a little premature to suggest homeschooling. Mom needs to figure out what the problem is and work with her son on resolving his issues. Pulling a kid out of school the minute they have a problem will not help him deal with conflict later in life. All it will teach him is to walk away from something he doesn't like and leave him ill-prepared to deal with challenges. Life is full of challenging people and circumstances and we need to teach our kids to deal with them - it will make them stronger, happier adults. (Yes, I am a mom.)

    Posted by Strong Mom November 9, 09 03:32 PM
  1. HELP!!!! I have a 7yr. old boy who is in second grade. He has been going to school for a 1 1/2 weeks and cries and throws fits about going to school. It's one thing for him to throw these tantrums in the privacy of our home but another to do it at school in front of everyone at school. I have had to pull him into the school and the principle or secretary has had to take him from me. I have asked him about his teacher, friends and he has said all that is fine he just wants me(his mom). I have bribbed him (shame one me), told him I would come eat lunch with him if he went to school 2 days without the tears, that did not work. he cried this morning with his dad taking him because my heart needed a break. He has spent the past 2 days in his room after school til dinner time and we still have the problem. He is involved in sports, loves doing those just has a problem with being away from mom. He will not go to friends houses for a play date or stay all night at anyones house. Thanks so much for any suggestions!!!

    worried mom

    Posted by lovemykids August 25, 10 09:40 AM
 
4 comments so far...
  1. Does the child ride a school bus? That can be extremely scary for a little guy.

    I'm sorry for what he's going through. Heartbreaking. Best of luck!

    Posted by just_cos November 5, 09 10:05 AM
  1. Have you considered homeschooling? This is a great option in general, and especially when school causes little ones such discomfort. Just a thought...

    Posted by cambridgemom November 5, 09 02:58 PM
  1. I think it's a little premature to suggest homeschooling. Mom needs to figure out what the problem is and work with her son on resolving his issues. Pulling a kid out of school the minute they have a problem will not help him deal with conflict later in life. All it will teach him is to walk away from something he doesn't like and leave him ill-prepared to deal with challenges. Life is full of challenging people and circumstances and we need to teach our kids to deal with them - it will make them stronger, happier adults. (Yes, I am a mom.)

    Posted by Strong Mom November 9, 09 03:32 PM
  1. HELP!!!! I have a 7yr. old boy who is in second grade. He has been going to school for a 1 1/2 weeks and cries and throws fits about going to school. It's one thing for him to throw these tantrums in the privacy of our home but another to do it at school in front of everyone at school. I have had to pull him into the school and the principle or secretary has had to take him from me. I have asked him about his teacher, friends and he has said all that is fine he just wants me(his mom). I have bribbed him (shame one me), told him I would come eat lunch with him if he went to school 2 days without the tears, that did not work. he cried this morning with his dad taking him because my heart needed a break. He has spent the past 2 days in his room after school til dinner time and we still have the problem. He is involved in sports, loves doing those just has a problem with being away from mom. He will not go to friends houses for a play date or stay all night at anyones house. Thanks so much for any suggestions!!!

    worried mom

    Posted by lovemykids August 25, 10 09:40 AM
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About the author

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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