Now that the school year is well underway, it can feel like the hard work of settling children into the classroom is all done. But, unfortunately, for many children, the behaviours of anxiety and demonstration of school avoidance can actually start a little later. From week 4 to 8 is where I have seen the highest levels of avoidance and anxiety for younger students, and this has been consistent on every year I have been a teacher.
For most children, this phase passes. But for some, it can stick around. So I have collated a bunch of strategies to help you along your way and get your children to school with lets angst and more positivity.
What’s the Problem?
It’s so important that you give your child the time and space to express what the problem is. It might be that your child is really articulate and clear about the problem which means you have a clear path to rectifying the issue. But for some, it’ not that easy. Some children don’t know exactly what the issue is or they aren’t confident communicators. There are many things you can try here:
- Draw the problem at school
- Draw what it feels like in their body
- Rate the different elements of a the day. Give each part of the school day a score out of 5 stars. Playtime = 5 stars, Maths= 5 stars, Art = 1 star etc
- Ask your child to “imaginer” their day. This means, get them to tell you or draw all the things they would absolutely love to have at their school and as part of their school day, and all the things they would get rid of if they could. While these requests are not always possible, this is just an exercise in communication- giving you the chance to see what it is that’s bothering them.
- Notice if there have been any big changes for your family and be aware that these big changes can manifest in our children in a variety of different ways.
There is more than one way to skin a cat (gross I know, but true!). Remember that your child is unique and their needs will differ from the next kid. If you can pin point the problem leading your child to school refusal, then hopefully it can create for a more direct resolution. But that’s not always the case. Here I share a range of ways that you can get your young child back into the classroom without the tears:
- Let the teacher know what’s happening and make sure you are working in partnership with them. It is so important that you present as a team and have clear expectations in place and a clear process for what the mornings look like.
- Have clear language at home that is assertive and expectant. “When you go to school tomorrow….” “At school ….” Never imply that school will be an option. Use words like ‘when’ not ‘if.’
- Remind your child that play and school is their work. It is what they need to be doing for themselves the same way you (the adult) works/takes care of X/does jobs etc etc. Assigning meaning to their attendance can help them understand their sense of responsibility
- Work with the teacher to set a morning job for your child. Perhaps donate a class fish or a plant. It can be your child’s job to tend to that animal or plant in the mornings.
- See if you can come into the classroom for 5 minutes before the bell goes to help settle your child in. Then leave once the other children arrive. Perhaps the chaos of the morning process is too much for your child and they need time to settle in while it is quiet and calm.
- Ask the teacher to set up a buddy for your child to ensure they have a mate to play with or retreat to the library with when they are overwhelmed
- Set up rewards for their bravery. But be weary of this one as school is a non negotiable. So I would be careful to reward the bravery/courage with going to school. Not the act of going to school alone. Language is key here!
- Bring a laminated photo of the family for your child to hold or have on their desk when they are missing mum or dad.
- Bring a toy or something to comfort them so they have something from home that brings them peace. Beware though… if this get’s lost it can cause even more stress. Enter at your own risk! Lol!
- Make a social story about going to school and read it every day
- Make a morning process (or daily process) with a schedule of the expectations of the day so your child has no surprises.
- Make a plan for the end of the day so they know who is coming to get them and what will happen
- Ask your child to pack their own lunch so they know what they are going to eat at school and they can even choose a special treat.
- Always talk about school in a positive way.
- Don’t label your child as ‘anxious,’ ‘scared,’ ‘difficult in the mornings.’ The more they hear it, the more concrete it becomes. Stick with phrases like “we’re working in building s more positive/confident/brave attitude towards school” or something to that affect. These are just behaviours- they do not define your child as a whole.
- Read books about going to school
- Enlist the help of a counsellor or psychologist. What a wonderful resource these people are to help our child navigate thoughts, feelings or behaviours that impact their wellbeing at school. Check in with your school wellbeing officer or visit your GP for more info.
I hope this list helps you to navigate the challenge of school avoidance. What we all want for our kids is for them to be happy, healthy and safe at school. While it comes easy for some, it doesn’t for others. Be sure to try a range of things and keep an open mind. You might think a particular strategy sounds silly, but it could be the one thing that helps your child. My other tip is to be consistent. Nothing will work miracles straight away, and the process might continue to be up and down along the way. Just stick at it- the change will come.
Go gently, parents. You’ve got this!