Child Caring

This First Grader Doesn't Want to Go to School

My daughter just started first grade and is having a very difficult time adjusting to her new schedule. She started on a Tuesday. Had a dental appointment on Wednesday (this didn't go well.) On Thursday, she turned 6 years old, and had a party on Saturday. Whew... that's a lot. We are now on her 6th day of school and she is crying every morning, crying every evening in anticipation of having to go back. I am not sure how to help her. It is frustrating for me and also upsetting. I am a stay-at-home mom and she wants to stay home with me or go back to kindergarten. Any tips or advice you have will be greatly appreciated.

Thank you,

From: Liz,Toney, AL

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Dear Liz,

Most parents think starting kindergarten is the hardest transition, but kids tend to have a tougher time starting first grade. They are cognitively aware enough to begin to compare themselves to classmates: "I can't read yet and Sue can." "What if I can't do what the teacher asks?" "What if the teacher isn't nice?"

The bottom line is: don't let her stay home no matter how much she protests. That's a slippery slope you don't want to be on.

Here's another bottom line: Your job is to listen, gather information, and ask, "What do you think you can do about this?" Even a first grader will have ideas.

Don't be afraid to ask her, point blank, "What is it about first grade that is making you unhappy?" She may surprise you and have something specific: "The teacher never calls on me." On the other hand, don't pepper her with questions; she may not want to talk about it or simply may not be able to verbalize. Just let her know you are available to listen: "Talking about a problem can sometimes help. I might not be able fix it, but I certainly can listen." That last bit is important; some kids worry that parents will rush in to fix things and embarrass them in the process.

If you're lucky enough to get something specific, acknowledge concerns, don't dismiss or pooh-pooh them no matter how little or silly they may seem, and validate her feelings. "It sounds like you're worried the teacher doesn't like you. I can see why you're upset."

Grant her her wish in fantasy: "It would be nice to go back to kindergarten, wouldn't it, and pretend you aren't a first grader? What would you like most about going back?" It's OK to let her wallow in this, she knows it's not real. It might also give you a clue to what it is about first grade she doesn't like.

Don't rush in with answers, brainstorm with her so she owns an idea. "What ideas to you have?" If she doesn't have any, "Let's both think on it." Then come back at it: "Do you have any ideas?" If she doesn't, try this: "Let's make a list of all the reasons a teacher might not call on someone." (Putting it in the third person makes it less threatening.) "1. Maybe the student doesn't raise it high enough; 2. Maybe the student saves it too wildly..." The list helps her see she has options. This process is part of what helps develop coping skills and gives her a sense of control. It also is setting up a foundation for her for future problem-solving.

Role play solutions. This doesn't work with every child but when it works, it is really helpful. "You be the teacher and I'll be the student. Let's pretend I'm being slow to clean up. What would you say?"

Promote competence at home wherever you can. Give her a task you know she can do well -- putting plates on the table for dinner, making a centerpiece with a drawing -- and encourage her to do it routinely. Praise her when she does something -- anything -- new but keep the praise within reason.

Lavish undivided attention on her. Children blossom from our time alone with them and from feeling they are important enough that we give them our time. This is true at all ages, but even more so at 5 and 6. Create a weekly activity for the two of you and make the time inviolate.

Provide an opportunity for her to be creative at home. Drawing, painting, dictating stories -- these are ways for a young child to get her issues out on the table without realizing it.

By the time you're reading this, if trouble hasn't subsided, it's time to talk to the teacher.
Be direct, but diplomatic, concerned but not critical (especially if you think he/she's part of the problem). Be clear you want to approach this as a team. "Mary is crying every morning that she doesn't want to go to school. Do you have any ideas about what might be going on? What can we do to help her?"