What to do when your child doesn’t want to go to school: 2023 guide

child doesn't want to go to school

Every morning at least one mum on the school run shares with me how their child doesn’t want to go to school. Whether they are howling their heads off as you try to usher them out the door and onto the school run, or are point blank refusing to go because they are crippled with anxiety, one thing for sure this is a problem that parents are having to deal with up and down the country on a daily basis.

When your child doesn’t want to go to school the problem can be immense. You don’t want to traumatise your child, but at the end of the day they NEED to go to school. They need to learn, you need to work. Maybe you’ve already tried every trick in the book and are running out of options, or you’ve found this because you have no idea where to start.

Whatever your situation help is at hand. We’ve felt your pain over at Motherhood: The Real Deal and taken your problem to the experts who have shared their wisdom and knowledge on how to overcome the exasperating and heart-wrenching situation you perhaps currently find yourself in.

First onto the hot sit is Dr. Jody Kussin – a clinical psychologist with 35 years’ experience working with parents, families, couples, children and teens and author of the recently released book, A Moment in Time: Finding Strength in a Pandemic, which includes a series of little chapters with tips and observations for riding out this time of roller coaster-ing life. 

What are some reasons a child might be anxious or refusing to go to school?

  1. We spent months and months telling our children there is an invisible virus that can and does kill people.  We told them we are in ‘lock down’ and no one can go outside.  Then, they lost loved ones (parents, grandparents, teachers, neighbours) to the virus.  And then, one day, we said, ‘ok, no worries, you can go out and about now just….wear a mask all day, make sure everything around you is sanitized, don’t sneeze or cough in public, and get tested for the virus very few weeks.  So – it would be weird if our kids were NOT nervous about being in school!!!
  2. We, their parents and grandparents and teachers, we are all nervous.  AND we feed our anxiety into our children.  So, for those who are not necessarily overly worried, we fill them up with our concerns, until they become as anxious as us grownups.
  3. Everyone is out of practice as to how to ‘do school.’  Social skills are rusty.  Study skills are rusty.  Test-taking skills are rusty.  Our children do not have that internalized sense of mastery they last had in December 2019.  It will come back, with time and exposure and practice to being with friends and studying not in a hoody on the bed and taking tests in real time with teachers in the classroom and hearing a friend chew gum while you’re trying to remember spelling words or algebra equations.

How in your view can we encourage our children to be strong as we move forward in this new norm? 


B: Be a role model.  Have optimism.  Speak words of optimism.  Think positive thoughts.  And choose daily mantras for yourself and your kids (We can handle this!  Each day is getting easier.  There’s lots of opportunity living life outside our four walls.  Life is bumpy so don’t be surprised when you come upon a bump.)

E: Encourage your children to express their feelings, and beyond simply ‘sad, mad, glad.’  Many of us are better at accessing ANGER, IRRITATION, IMPATIENCE and often, those are covering up for our sense of sadness, loss, worry and/or anxiety.

E: Encourage empathy.  Reminder – be kind and try to feel out it would feel to be in someone else’s shoes.

F: Five senses. Set up loose routines to include focus on meeting all five senses:

  1. Taste – comfort foods, snacks, healthy foods, and hydration
  2. Touch – take a bath, immerse in water, hug at home since it’s unlikely allowed at school
  3. Sight – be outdoors as much as possible and have photos on phone or tablet of the outdoors
  4. Listen – to music, to laughter, to singing (and bonus – add moving, dancing, to the music!)
  5. Smell – aroma therapy, lotions (doubles for smell and touch), incense, tea brewing, cookies baking

Dr. Kussin’s basic message is that children need to feel loved, and to experience mastery.  Do not rob them of either – love them, nurture them, let them know they are appreciated….AND….let them try things, practice things, fail at things, and support their efforts (process versus outcome.)  She says, ‘choose a mantra, I CAN HANDLE THIS, and repeat it many times a day, even aloud, because, parents, you CAN handle this!’

What steps should children take when parents are met with school refusal or anxiety? Here, Louise Hoffman-Brooks Family Advisor and Parent Coach at Parenting Success shares her tips and strategies.

How can parents help their children with school anxiety?

Now that we are ‘back to normal’ for many children, going back to school is giving rise to feelings of anxiety, fear and overwhelm. These feelings are often masked as oppositional behaviour, meltdowns and anger outbursts.

For us parents, this can be hard to manage and respond to – in part because we don’t always know what is causing our child’s anxiety.

– Is it sadness about being apart again?
Does my child have concerns about their place in the social hierarchy
at school?
– Is it a feeling of not ever feeling ‘good enough’ academically?
– Are we ourselves feeling anxious?

One of the hardest things to bear is our child’s distress. This makes us want to fix things – in the name of love. Yet, our wanting to fix things to make our child not feel anxious is often brought on by our anxiety about our child feeling this way.

It might be useful to remember, that one of the biggest things we can do for our child is to listen and to have faith in their ability to cope. Rather than setting aside our own wellbeing in order to be fully there for our child, it is vital that we tend to our own needs too and seek support for the feelings that we might find difficult to cope with.

There are a lot of things to be anxious about right now. Things feel more uncertain and news and the media perpetuate feelings of fear and drama that easily influence our own emotional state. Because, feelings are contagious.

child doesn't want to go to school

What should parents do when faced with school refusal?

Our first instinct is often to go against. It can feel threatening to our day and our own agenda to have a child who refuses to go to school. Therefore, we often end up further cementing our child’s no by wanting to change it to a yes through:

1. Immediately telling them “Well you have to”
2. Convincing (it’ll be really nice.. you always love it there when you
are there)
3. Lecturing / moralising (“everyone has to do something that they don’t like” or “learning is important”)
4. Threats or bribes (if you don’t stop this right now … or … If
you do this today – I promise I will pick you up with a treat).

The idea of leaving space for our child’s no can feel counter intuitive and as if we are inviting more opposition. Yet, the fact is, that it is far more likely that we success at getting through to our child when we instead go with – rather than against. This might look like:

1. Stop: Take a breath and acknowledge. Rather than immediately going against and reacting to my child’s feelings – instead: validate his perspective. “I know.. you’d rather stay at home” / ‘You really don’t like the idea of school at the moment”

2: Get curious – not furious. Often we have a good idea why our child refuses to go school and perhaps you think you know why but you are mistaken. When we feel triggered and under pressure the first thing we lose is our willingness to be curious. There might be a practical reason for our child’ refusal to go to School. Perhaps he is often teased about his swimming trunks on Tuesdays. Or the teacher made a hurtful remark the day before.

Unless we ask or suggest what might be going on for our child – he won’t feel listened to and taken seriously “I’d like to know why” or “Is it because…. “

3. Get clear. The act of acknowledging our child’s feelings and getting curious does not detract from the fact that we are ultimately in charge and solely in control of what is going to happen.

When we are clear on our agenda and trust ourselves to stick to it – we will feel more inclined to listening to our child. EVEN if it means that we can’t grant our child their wish of staying home in that moment.

For many of us, setting a boundary – and following through on something that isn’t going to please the other, can feel really difficult. It can make us doubt our decisions and make us confused. Ways we seek to lessen this discomfort is by trying to get our child around to our way of thinking – or changing our child’s attitude through the use of anger, threats or bribes.

Yet, often this only exacerbates the situation. The thing to remember is that boundaries are most likely going to cause disappointment – and the fact that they do is not always a sign that they were not right. It can be right – AND hard at the same time.

What matters more to a child than getting their own way – is to feel that they are welcome to have the thoughts and feelings about it and are safe enough to share themselves with us.

Many of us imagine that validating our child in this way need take hours. Time that we often don’t have in the morning with the clock ticking and our own anxiety around being late for school and work. However, validating our child and insisting on school can happen at the same time and while still honouring your own agenda:

“I feel like that some days too..” – while getting the bags ready
“You really don’t want to go today.. and now you’re sad” – while carrying or escorting them out in the car
“I wish I had more time to comfort you..Come here – let me give you a big hug before I go” – while you let a teacher take over.

And finally, we have insights from Ryan Lockett, director of studies at online tutoring company TLC LIVE and a former head of year 11 to share his tips from a teacher/educational perspective.

child doesn't want to go to school

Create a dialogue with the school

The most important thing, when dealing with a child who doesn’t want to go to school, is good dialogue with said school. Don’t wait until parents’ evening. Ask for the email addresses of your child’s form tutor or head of year and update them with anything of significance that might be impacting attendance or anything that a teacher can use to increase engagement or spark a conversation with a pupil.

Email is great because teachers are naturally busy during the day and this gives them the opportunity to digest your updates and come back with follow-up questions if appropriate.

This dialogue is particularly important if your child is a school refuser – you’ll need to work with teaching staff on a phased return plan and pass on feedback regards teachers your child feels most comfortable with and the classes they feel most confident in.

Also consider that a perceived unwillingness to go to school may be down to a lack of confidence and motivation with subject matter. Schools will have a clear idea of the subjects students are really struggling with, so checking in each term to ascertain whether additional external support is required, might help increase confidence.

Ultimately, try to be firm where possible – school is the best place for them.

When to seek help

Louise Hoffman-Brooks says it’s important to note that all children can have periods of time where they are not thriving, are being more resistant and more apprehensive than usual. In general, when we raise the bar, – move up a year – change our child’s set up and there are increased expectations on our child – it is normal for a child to regress somewhat. For some children, and dependent on their age this can look like:

– Wetting themselves
– Bed wetting – seeking more connection at night
– Nightmares
– Fears, sensitivities and preferences that you don’t normally see
– Meltdowns and mood swings

Being allowed to regress – and take a step back – is often what is needed for our child to be able to take a brave step forward. The more we can make space for this apprehension and read our child’s behaviours and worries in the context of what is going on in their lives, the less likely it is that our child gets stuck there.

If you find that nothing shifts and that your child’s anxiety persists it can be a good idea to give your child the space to talk about it with a professional. I always advice caution when it comes to sending our children to mental health professionals as the first port of call – not because it is not beneficial for them, but because it likely affects the way they see themselves and view their own struggles. As wrong. Or too much.

It might be a good idea to first see a parenting coach or a family therapist to empower you to have more tools in the toolbox to respond to your child’s difficult feelings. This has the benefit of increasing your connection and is likely to make you feel more confident having hard conversations with your child and knowing how your child’s emotions affect your own state. I offer 1:1 parenting coaching sessions via Zoom.

If your child doesn’t want to go to school I really hope the above insights and advice help. Remember, this too shall pass so take a big breath and know that this is just temporary.

Picture credit: School photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com, Background photo created by master1305 – www.freepik.com

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