Help, my child doesn’t want to go back to school

Posted: 21st August 2023

Start by reinstating their usual sleep schedule and get everything ready to go the night before the big day, advises Lynn Enright

Schools don’t reopen for a couple of weeks but if you have a child who’s anxious about starting or recommencing full-time education, it’s a good idea to start preparing for it now. So if you’ve been spending your summer on a more relaxed schedule, it’s time to embrace early starts again.

Parents can help their child get ready for September by re-establishing familiar routines, explains Martha Pelaez, a professor of developmental psychology at Florida International University, who has conducted extensive research on child and adolescent development.

If your child hasn’t been going to bed and waking up at a regular time throughout July and August, reinstate that now, she advises. She also recommends doing some reading, drawing or even homework during the day, reminding your child of the timetables they adhere to at school.

“Talking to the child about the school routines — arrival, lunch time, classes, teachers, friends, pick-up time — will prepare them for school more efficiently, too,” she tells me.

Catherine Hallissey, a Cork-based child psychologist, has similar advice. “The number one piece of advice I would give to parents as they support their children to return to school is to do as much preparation in advance as possible,” she says.

In the weeks leading up to the return to school, begin to talk about school again, she advises. You can get your child involved in the preparation in simple ways, such as picking out school supplies or brainstorming lunch ideas.

Step the preparation up as the big day approaches; the night before school starts should be dedicated to making arrangements. Have uniforms and shoes ready and laid out, make sure bags are packed and lunch is prepared. “Even ensuring the car keys are in the right place, means that things will run much more smoothly in the morning,” Hallissey says.

Being organised will mean less stress for everyone, she adds, “which means you can focus on being emotionally available for your children so that you can support them through the excitement and nerves of going back to school”.

Think about what has made school mornings stressful in the past, she advises, and do what you can to reduce or eliminate these stressors. A calm parent who models flexibility and compassion can reassure children who might be nervous about the upcoming change. It’s not helpful to dismiss your child’s nerves completely, so it’s best if you can acknowledge and i

In 2020 Pelaez and her colleague Gary Novak carried out research to put together a comprehensive guide for parents whose children were returning to school after the first lockdown. Much of their advice still holds.

At the school gate or classroom door, they recommend announcing your departure in a straightforward way. Say something like “I’ll be back for you later. I love you.” Younger children attending childcare settings might need a little more time — but generally keep explanations short and clear. Don’t enter into negotiations and don’t respond to protests with a more detailed explanation.

Depart without hesitation and don’t turn back if you hear them protesting. This will confuse children and might make it harder in the long run.

Behave consistently and establish a routine that you follow daily, even when your child protests. Inconsistent experiences are likely to produce more emotional upset and could reinforce undesired behaviours, explain Pelaez and Novak.

Some children will be more nervous than others. “If your child struggles to separate from you for school, please remember that some kids separate with ease and for others separation always includes tears,” Hallissey says.

Anxiety might manifest physically, with children complaining of tummy pains or headaches. They might struggle to control their behaviour or become tearful when the subject of school arises.

This usually happens for one of two reasons, Hallissey says: anxiety due to being separated from family or anxiety related to something to do with school, such as academic difficulties, social difficulties, bullying or issues with a teacher or the physical environment.

Watch out for how distressed your child is. A certain amount of back-to-school nervousness is normal but if your child is very upset or withdrawn over a longer period of time, they might be experiencing school-related anxiety. Early intervention is desirable in these cases, Hallissey says, and parents should work with their child’s school and teacher to put together an intervention plan. Speak to your child’s doctor to determine if the situation demands therapeutic intervention.

Even in these cases, start by “going back to basics” Hallissey advises: “Prioritise diet, sleep and exercise along with anxiety-management strategies such as breathing and working through fears.”

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