Refusing to go to school

Messages from Chinuch Research Center

We are happy to share an informative article written by Eliav J. Friedman, MSW, which discusses the common problem of children refusing to go to school. The article offers valuable advice on how to identify the root causes behind this behavior and provides practical tips to help parents handle the situation effectively. Discover what actions you should take and what you should avoid.

how to view dealing with refusing to go to school

Sometimes it’s covert: “I’m not feeling well.” “Um, my stomach hurts.” “There’s no point in going today. We’re not really going to learn anything.” A groan followed by incoherent mumbling about being exhausted. 

Sometimes it’s explicit. “I don’t want to go to school.” “I can’t go to school today.” “Please, don’t make me go. Please.” 

The kids saying each of these things share the same goal: avoid going to school for some reason other than what’s being said. Some of them will avoid going at all costs. How do we know when they’re really not feeling well? Should we make them go even if they don’t want to? What happens when they refuse to go, despite all the pressure, coercion, or bribery? 

Many children don’t particularly love school, and for good reason. That being said, most kids offer minimal resistance to going to school. There are kids whose parents have to use a forklift to get them out of bed on daily basis. I’m not talking about the kids who are deep sleepers. I’m talking about the kids who clearly dislike (dare I say hate?) school with such a passion that every morning is a nightmare. 

And then there are the select few who simply won’t go. No amount of yelling, threatening, punishing, bribing, or sweet-talking gets them out the door. Sometimes, they stonewall their parents and don’t respond. Often, they are an emotional wreck, crying and repeatedly exclaiming that they simply can’t go. 

An exhaustive treatment of the most extreme cases is beyond the scope of this article. I attempt here to give a basic understanding of the issue that will help parents navigate these challenges. As always, think for yourself. As always, if you feel you’re in over your head, please reach out to a professional for guidance and/or further help.

First, Find Out What’s Going On

As intimated earlier, the child’s stated reason for not going to school is rarely the real explanation. Of course, there are times when children aren’t feeling well. Usually, an involved parent will recognize that before the child even opens their mouth. Short of actual illness we need to get to the bottom of the situation: what’s the true reason that our child doesn’t want to go to school?

While it’s important for our children to go to school (for reasons that are far more critical to their development than just receiving an education), we cannot fairly force them to go if we don’t understand what it is that they are facing there. A child may have very legitimate reasons not to go to school and it’s important for us to appreciate the real reasons they don’t want to go before we insist that they do.

Probably the most common reasons that kids don’t want to go to school are because they have homework they didn’t do or a test they’re not quite prepared for. Often, kids had a fight with a friend the day before or are being bullied. Sometimes there’s a particular teacher or class (gym perhaps?) that they’d like to avoid. 

For some kids, school is incredibly boring – either because they’re so far ahead of the class, or because they’re so far behind. Would you like to sit in a classroom for five, six, or nine hours a day with nothing to do? The common denominator is that the child is anxious or fearful of something waiting for him at school. 

In the most extreme situations, it is almost always the case that anxiety is holding the child back (unless we’re dealing with a kid who’s simply pushing limits – in which case their behavior will be out of line in other ways as well). At times, it is a sign of a more severe anxiety issue that needs to be dealt with. Other times, there is something far more sinister going on, and the child has an excellent reason to avoid school. Discerning which is critical and may demand the help of a professional. 

How to Find Out What’s Going On

Parents who generally share good communication with their children will have a much easier time discovering what’s happening. When kids feel safe sharing their feelings with their parents, they will (more) likely do so. In such situations, parents can simply sit down with their child (even if there’s no time for that, make the time) and ask what’s really going on. 

[Sidebar?: Children open up when they’re given the space to do so. Kids are usually closed because they learn that it’s emotionally safer for them to be so. You need to listen if you want your kids to talk to you. That means really hearing what they’re saying, not planning your response while you (im)patiently wait for them to finish speaking. And it means not being judgmental of whatever they’re saying – no matter what. 

Two quick suggestions: commit to not responding to them until you’ve thought about what they said for a couple of minutes. This allows you to really listen to them without being pressured to come up with an immediate response. And before you respond, repeat back what you’ve heard. It strengthens the feeling that you’re listening and gives them an opportunity to correct whatever misimpressions or misunderstandings there may be.]

If communication in your home needs work, the morning rush is not the most opportune time to start. But it is critical for our children to feel that we want to understand them and help them in whatever way we can. One suggestion: remind your children that you’d like to help them but can only do so if you understand what the problem is. One can hardly solve a problem that he doesn’t understand. 

If this is an ongoing issue, then some detective work might be necessary. Speaking to your child is still very much in order, but sometimes speaking to teachers and principals can also be helpful. Sometimes siblings can lend insight, or perhaps parents of classmates can share what they’ve learned about the school/class environment from their children. 

In such situations, discovering what’s irking your child has to become a priority. It will take time and might demand some perseverance. You’ll have to create opportunities to discuss it with your child when things are calm, and you can give him/her your full attention for an extended period of time.

What (Not) To Do

When our kids give us a hard time about going to school, whether it be by not leaving the house, not getting on the bus, or refusing to let us leave them as we drop them off at school, the pressure often gets very high very quickly. Most parents are in a rush to get their day started and really don’t have time to (waste, um) spend on getting their kids off in the morning. It is for that reason that the number one mistake made in such situations is that we lose our cool. 

If our child was anxious beforehand (and that’s almost certainly the case), then we’ve just upped the ante. Instead of being the source of safety and stability that will help him/her ride the wave of this challenge and overcome it, we’ve exacerbated the problem. Even if we say all the right things, if we’re upset, our child will feel it and will not get the support he/she needs. Staying calm is an absolute must. 

Unless it’s clear that it is in our child’s best interest to be staying home that day (because they really are sick or the school environment is so noxious as to be unhealthy for them), we must be firm and make it clear that they are going to school. As mentioned above, we should make every effort to impress upon our children our desire to help them and how only by communicating to us what’s bothering them can we meaningfully help them.

If our child does explain why they don’t want to go, it is critical to validate his/her feelings. (If you had an important report due for work and it wasn’t ready, you wouldn’t be in any rush either.) Help them find creative solutions to their dilemma. Don’t bail them out if they are repeatedly not doing their work, but continue to support them as they face the daunting task of paying the piper. 

We can’t ignore the fact that it is normal and healthy for kids to try to get away with trouble every now and again. But it is unhealthy for children to decide when they will or won’t go to school. And when parents decide that they should go, then it must be clear that they must go, whether they like it or not. 

At times, despite all of the above, kids still refuse to go to school. The appropriate response to such situations depends on many variables and may demand professional intervention. Always keep in mind that if a child is doing something that is clearly abnormal behavior (at the end of the day, most kids do go to school), there must be a reason, and it’s rarely sinister intent on the part of the child. Find that reason and address it, and then everyone can have a (relatively) smooth morning as they make their way to school and work. 

When children are allowed to make decisions that they are not yet capable of making responsibly, they feel unsafe. Parents are responsible for the safety and well-being of their children. While healthy children will test boundaries, healthy parents set clear and firm boundaries, creating a sense of safety and stability for their families. 

Good parenting aims to set clear and firm boundaries lovingly. With open communication, we should be able to understand what our children are really telling us as they try to beg off a day from school. We’ll then appreciate our children’s challenges, help them overcome them, and send them off happily for another day of learning and growth.