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Class, Dismissed: When Kids Hate School

child outside of school

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Debi Engstrom's son, John, loved going to preschool, so she assumed he'd love elementary school. And he did -- at first. But by second grade, when coloring and show-and-tell gave way to frequent tests and homework, John had enough. "At the same time that kids are moving from play-based learning into more independent learning, their academics and friendships are also becoming increasingly complex," says Rebecca Branstetter, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who works in San Francisco-area public schools. We'll help you tackle the most common classroom complaints.

Spot Trouble
Suppose your daughter gets off the bus and complains, "School is dumb! I don't want to go anymore!" Your first instinct is probably to ask "Why?" At this age, however, she may not be able to identify the cause or put it into words, and she might need your help to figure it out. Dr. Branstetter suggests asking "what" questions such as, "What is your least favorite part about your school? What don't you like?" or "What do you think about the other kids in your class?" in order to tease out the underlying issue. Keep in mind, however, that a major interrogation rarely pays off, says Christopher Kearney, Ph.D., director of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Child School Refusal and Anxiety Disorders Clinic.

Ask your child if her teacher or a classmate is making her unhappy, but don't focus solely on bullies. Friends can cause classroom friction too. If the day-to-day drama of shifting BFFs has left your child alone at recess, that could be enough to change her whole attitude about the classroom. If she is getting picked on, embarrassment may keep her from opening up to you. Or perhaps her teacher is a strict disciplinarian and she's having a tough time dealing with this style of authority.

If none of these possibilities ring true, zero in on academics. There's less unstructured time in second and third grade, and your kid could be bummed that with all the work she doesn't have many opportunities to goof around with her classmates. Or a learning issue could be to blame. Kids who are used to having academics come easily may feel frustrated by reading thick chapter books and by harder math concepts such as multiplication and elapsed time.

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Fix it Fast
Once you've figured out why your kid is reluctant to go to school, you can move on to finding a solution. If it's a friendship issue, empathize with his feelings, and share one of your own elementary-school experiences. But don't be judgmental, and resist calling the friend's parents. "Sometimes it just helps for children to confide in someone," says Dr. Kearney. If bullies are to blame, insist that your child alert his teacher, and follow up with the teacher or the principal to let her know what's going on.

You should also involve the teacher if you suspect that academics are dampening your child's enthusiasm. A learning delay -- an inability to grasp certain subjects quite as quickly as other kids do -- may be to blame for many academic problems at this age. Kids pick up reading and math at different speeds, and tutoring or remedial work can often close the gap, says Dr. Branstetter.

In a situation where you feel the teacher is part of the problem, mention your child's feelings about school. But explain that you're not being critical; you just want to make sure things are okay, suggests Rachel Klein, Ph.D., director of the Anita Saltz Institute for Anxiety and Mood Disorders at New York University's Child Study Center. Dr. Klein also recommends talking to classmates' parents to see whether other children have similar issues. If talking with the teacher doesn't produce results, involve the principal.

Call the Pros
If you've ruled out social, academic, and classroom concerns but your child still resists going, talk to a counselor. Plenty of kids come down with "school stinks" syndrome, Dr. Kearney says, "but if it lasts more than two weeks or starts to seriously disrupt your day-to-day life, that's when you know you need help." A school counselor or another mental-health professional (your child's school or pediatrician can often direct you to one) can determine if anxiety or depression could be a factor.

Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Parents magazine.

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