First grade school reluctance

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  February 16, 2010 06:00 AM

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Hi Barbara,

I am dealing with my first grader not wanting to go to school.  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 September, then it started in November 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 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 Monday; Monday 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 bored 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, Hopatcong, NJ

 

Hi Mike,

As mean as you may feel, you are doing the right thing by taking him to school, even if it means handing him over while he's crying. Otherwise, school reluctance can turn into school phobia and then you've got an even worse problem on your hands.

A little developmental grounding: First grade is the most common time for school reluctance because a new level of cognition kicks in which enables a child to make more accurate observations, including coming to conclusions about themselves: "I can write my name better than X, Y, Z but I can't run as fast as they can." Whether the conclusion is accurate, of course, isn't the point; the child's perception is.

Not that he's going to tell you what's bothering him. But it is helpful on a day when he didn't want to go to school to talk to him about it at the end of the day. "Do you remember when you didn't want to go to school this morning? Do you remember why you didn't want to go?" If he does, then hopefully he will give you some detail. If he doesn't remember, that doesn't mean he really doesn't remember, it just means he doesn't want to talk about it.

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


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5 comments so far...
  1. Find out why he does not want to go to school. Talk to him, talk and talk. My kid also went to Montessori, which he hated, and now he loves his new school, 1st grade. He finally told me, long after the fact -- that the teacher was yelling at him and other kids, she had no patience. The lack of structure in Montessori can make kids wild, and the teachers might get overwhelmed trying to control them, especially boys.
    Your son might be having the opposite. He is used to having less structured activities and routine as in Montessori, and he is getting bored/annoyed with the intense academic activities at the new school. What I tell my son is that school is not for playing anymore, it is for working, that everyone needs to work. However, I tell him that once he gets home he can play as much as he wants, or I take him to the park or other extra-curricular activities. But school is for learning. This expectation that school is for playing can be very frustrating.
    On the other hand, it could very well be that he is having problems with friends or the teacher. Do not let this pass by. Try to find out really what is going on with him. He is the only one who can tell you the real reason.
    patcat

    Posted by patcat August 23, 11 05:08 PM
  1. Hi! I am so sorry that you are having this problem, but I am so happy to see this thread! My son has just begun 1st grade - today is day 3. He too went to a montessori school for 3 yrs - 2 pre k and 1 kindergarten. We are in Florida. We allowed our son to choose his follow up school (after we filtered the list down to 3 and couldn't choose ourselves). He made the same choice I would have. There are not any follow up montessori or montessori like schools in our area, so he is in a structured classroom. He likes his school, is excited about the "big boy school" ( his words), and wakes up wanting to go to school. He likes his teacher. He has a friend from summercamp in his class. He is an outgoing boy who makes friends easily. He us new to this school, but not new to the concept of school. I never stayed in his class with him @ montessori except for the 1 st 2 days when he was 3 yrs old. He does not cry to stay home from school usually. He rarely, if ever cried @ drop off, and only when he 1st began pre k. All that said, he has cried hysterically for the past 3 mornings when I try to leave @ drop off. He is happy in the morning. He is his usual self walking to class. He smiles and hugs me when we get to his seat as if everything is fine. As soon as my hand touches the door to leave he says "dont leave" and begins crying very heavily. We have had to enlist the guidance councelor each day. He is fine about 20 minutes after I leave and for the rest of the day. He is all smiles when I pick him up. No complaints, and I have asked every imaginable question to find out if something in particular is bothering him in school.
    HELP!

    Posted by DENICE August 24, 11 01:05 PM
  1. My son is having these same issues. He is fine most mornings but cries at night about how he doesn't want to go to school and that school is hard. His teacher says he is fine during the day and seems happy and can do the work. I'm a teacher and I love him dearly and this is driving me crazy. I did contact his teacher and she didn't have much insight--except that 1st grade seems hard for many kids. I do think she is a good teacher....kind, warm, and effective. This stuff with my young son really scares and worries me.

    Posted by Max October 1, 12 11:49 PM
  1. Right now I am having such a similar problem with my 6 yr. old daughter. I am so frustrated and feel so bad because she is so emotional about it. First day she cried all the way from the house to the bus stop. She had a great first day after the initial break down. Then was fine. Second day she cried hen it was time to go to the bus stop, so I attributed it to the kids at the stop because they are not very friendly to my daughter. So, I thought okay I will just drive her to school. Nope still cries all the way to school and keeps saying Mommy my tummy hurts or I have a headache. Today is her fourth day and I even told her I would come eat lunch with her and bring her Sonic. She was happy about that but still cried when we were driving to school. Before she got out of the car she said Mommy if my tummy hurts after I eat lunch can I come home with you? I told her No she had to stay because she would be okay. I have to tell you she loves school. She has been to pre-k and Kindergarten. In Kindergarten she was bullied and even though it was finally stopped (to a point) she continued to want to go to see her friends and the teacher and made it through fine. Now a new class, she loves her teacher but she doesn't know her classmates as well as maybe she will after a few more weeks. So, I am praying it gets better. I have know idea what or why except she gets embarrassed easy and is anxious, so this could be the problem. I did call the teacher and let her know I was having the difficulty with her in the mornings and also, about the bullying issue last year. So, I feel I am doing just about all my options. I know the kids who were mean to her last yaer are NOT in her class this year. I mean there are always one or two people who my not like you for whatever reason, but if anyone has any other suggestions I'd greatly appreciate the help. It breaks my heart to see her in such a state. She doesn't like others to see her crying so she was even tardy yesterday because I couldn't get her to stop for quite sometime, so we sat in the car drying her tears. HELP ME!!!!!

    Posted by Christine Cordell August 29, 13 09:50 AM
  1. Hi Christine, Barbara Meltz here,
    I agree, you're on target with your options. Follow the advice in my original answer: Continue to be supportive, don't pooh-pooh her complaints, stay in touch with the teacher, and don't keep her home unless she's really sick. Try to arrange a playdate over the weekend with someone in the classroom (ask the teacher who she'd suggest) and try not to show your own anxiety. If things don't improve, consult with the teacher and the school psychologist, but give it a little time.

    Posted by Barbara Meltz August 29, 13 02:36 PM
 
5 comments so far...
  1. Find out why he does not want to go to school. Talk to him, talk and talk. My kid also went to Montessori, which he hated, and now he loves his new school, 1st grade. He finally told me, long after the fact -- that the teacher was yelling at him and other kids, she had no patience. The lack of structure in Montessori can make kids wild, and the teachers might get overwhelmed trying to control them, especially boys.
    Your son might be having the opposite. He is used to having less structured activities and routine as in Montessori, and he is getting bored/annoyed with the intense academic activities at the new school. What I tell my son is that school is not for playing anymore, it is for working, that everyone needs to work. However, I tell him that once he gets home he can play as much as he wants, or I take him to the park or other extra-curricular activities. But school is for learning. This expectation that school is for playing can be very frustrating.
    On the other hand, it could very well be that he is having problems with friends or the teacher. Do not let this pass by. Try to find out really what is going on with him. He is the only one who can tell you the real reason.
    patcat

    Posted by patcat August 23, 11 05:08 PM
  1. Hi! I am so sorry that you are having this problem, but I am so happy to see this thread! My son has just begun 1st grade - today is day 3. He too went to a montessori school for 3 yrs - 2 pre k and 1 kindergarten. We are in Florida. We allowed our son to choose his follow up school (after we filtered the list down to 3 and couldn't choose ourselves). He made the same choice I would have. There are not any follow up montessori or montessori like schools in our area, so he is in a structured classroom. He likes his school, is excited about the "big boy school" ( his words), and wakes up wanting to go to school. He likes his teacher. He has a friend from summercamp in his class. He is an outgoing boy who makes friends easily. He us new to this school, but not new to the concept of school. I never stayed in his class with him @ montessori except for the 1 st 2 days when he was 3 yrs old. He does not cry to stay home from school usually. He rarely, if ever cried @ drop off, and only when he 1st began pre k. All that said, he has cried hysterically for the past 3 mornings when I try to leave @ drop off. He is happy in the morning. He is his usual self walking to class. He smiles and hugs me when we get to his seat as if everything is fine. As soon as my hand touches the door to leave he says "dont leave" and begins crying very heavily. We have had to enlist the guidance councelor each day. He is fine about 20 minutes after I leave and for the rest of the day. He is all smiles when I pick him up. No complaints, and I have asked every imaginable question to find out if something in particular is bothering him in school.
    HELP!

    Posted by DENICE August 24, 11 01:05 PM
  1. My son is having these same issues. He is fine most mornings but cries at night about how he doesn't want to go to school and that school is hard. His teacher says he is fine during the day and seems happy and can do the work. I'm a teacher and I love him dearly and this is driving me crazy. I did contact his teacher and she didn't have much insight--except that 1st grade seems hard for many kids. I do think she is a good teacher....kind, warm, and effective. This stuff with my young son really scares and worries me.

    Posted by Max October 1, 12 11:49 PM
  1. Right now I am having such a similar problem with my 6 yr. old daughter. I am so frustrated and feel so bad because she is so emotional about it. First day she cried all the way from the house to the bus stop. She had a great first day after the initial break down. Then was fine. Second day she cried hen it was time to go to the bus stop, so I attributed it to the kids at the stop because they are not very friendly to my daughter. So, I thought okay I will just drive her to school. Nope still cries all the way to school and keeps saying Mommy my tummy hurts or I have a headache. Today is her fourth day and I even told her I would come eat lunch with her and bring her Sonic. She was happy about that but still cried when we were driving to school. Before she got out of the car she said Mommy if my tummy hurts after I eat lunch can I come home with you? I told her No she had to stay because she would be okay. I have to tell you she loves school. She has been to pre-k and Kindergarten. In Kindergarten she was bullied and even though it was finally stopped (to a point) she continued to want to go to see her friends and the teacher and made it through fine. Now a new class, she loves her teacher but she doesn't know her classmates as well as maybe she will after a few more weeks. So, I am praying it gets better. I have know idea what or why except she gets embarrassed easy and is anxious, so this could be the problem. I did call the teacher and let her know I was having the difficulty with her in the mornings and also, about the bullying issue last year. So, I feel I am doing just about all my options. I know the kids who were mean to her last yaer are NOT in her class this year. I mean there are always one or two people who my not like you for whatever reason, but if anyone has any other suggestions I'd greatly appreciate the help. It breaks my heart to see her in such a state. She doesn't like others to see her crying so she was even tardy yesterday because I couldn't get her to stop for quite sometime, so we sat in the car drying her tears. HELP ME!!!!!

    Posted by Christine Cordell August 29, 13 09:50 AM
  1. Hi Christine, Barbara Meltz here,
    I agree, you're on target with your options. Follow the advice in my original answer: Continue to be supportive, don't pooh-pooh her complaints, stay in touch with the teacher, and don't keep her home unless she's really sick. Try to arrange a playdate over the weekend with someone in the classroom (ask the teacher who she'd suggest) and try not to show your own anxiety. If things don't improve, consult with the teacher and the school psychologist, but give it a little time.

    Posted by Barbara Meltz August 29, 13 02:36 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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