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“I Don’t Want to Go to School!” And What You Can Do about It

by James Lehman, MSW
“I Don’t Want to Go to School!” And What You Can Do about It

Nearly every morning before school, Josh, 9, will scream, cry and do anything possible to stay home. “He’ll whine on and on, ‘I don’t feel well. I hate my teacher. School is boring,” say his parents, Suzanne and Rob, who report that they have hit the wall with his behavior. “He used to like school,” said Suzanne. “I’m not sure what happened, but in the last few years it’s become a battle just to get him out the door.”

If you’re a parent, it’s almost inevitable that you’re going to be faced with your child not wanting to go to school at some point. The most important thing is that you identify the problem correctly. Is it workload, peer pressure, or your child’s individual way of coping? It’s vital for parents to look at your child’s situation closely: does he require more sleep or is there a social problem? Or is this a kid who lacks sufficient problem-solving skills to help him solve the problem of getting out of bed when he doesn’t want to? Sometimes kids are afraid of a bully, and actually, avoiding school is one of the first signs that your child is being bullied, so be sure to investigate that possibility.  And there are other kids who just don’t want to respond to structure and who have a hard time with authority. Not going to school becomes another avenue of acting out for them. In all of these cases, it’s important for you to understand that the kid’s refusal to go to school is his way of solving a problem that’s real to him. As we see over and over again with some children, the way they solve problems gets them into more trouble. That’s why it’s very important that you help your child develop problem-solving skills on his or her own, so that when problems arise on any level over anything, your child will be able to think of a way to figure it out successfully. [[callout1:right]]

Your child may also complain of being bored of school. Some research indicates that when some kids say they’re bored, that they’re actually mildly angry. And you know, kids do get angry with school, it is boring sometimes. But parents have to be able to tell their kids that it’s their responsibility to go to school. You need to say, “You have to go to school even when you’re bored. That’s your responsibility. It’s not about your mood, it’s your responsibility. If you want it to be less boring, find some more interesting things to do there to balance it out.”

It’s about Motivation and Consequences (Just like it is with Adults)

The truth is, millions of people get up and go to work every day. One way of seeing it is that these people have solved the problem of going to work successfully. The reason they’ve solved their problem is because they’ve developed a constellation of problem-solving skills that help them function successfully in the real world.

Related: Good behavior is a skill any child can learn.

When we look at adult problem-solving skills, two things stand out: motivation and consequences. The motivation is why they have to go to work. They have to feed their family, they have to feed themselves. They work harder to have a nicer car, nicer clothes, to go out at night. These are motivations. The consequences are if they don’t get up and go to work, they lose their job. Over time, they lose many jobs and they wind up in trouble socially and economically.

The same motivation and consequences apply to your child when he doesn’t want to go to school, and you need to teach that to him now. As the parent, you have a two-part goal: to get that kid go to school and to help or him identify and solve the problem associated with him not wanting to go to school.

Motivation is pretty easy because it’s easy to reward people. What I say to parents is to tell their kids something like this, “If you get up on time, you’ll be able to stay up until 9 p.m. You’ll be able to listen to your radio after bedtime to help you go to sleep, or if you get up on time, you can have an hour in your room to relax and you won’t have to have lights-out right at bedtime.” At all times, parents should connect getting up for school on time with good grades and good performance and give kids lots of approval for that. In fact, one thing a parent might say to a kid is, “I really like it that you get up well in the morning. Do you ever feel like not getting up? What do you tell yourself when you don’t feel like getting up?” You’ll learn how your child thinks and how he solves the problem. 

Giving consequences can be just as simple. The key is not getting into a power struggle with the child, and connecting the consequence to the situation. It’s also important to start using consequences at an early age when the child resists going to school.  Sometimes consequences involve withholding something, like not letting the child stay up later, and sometimes they involve enforcing something. “You haven’t gotten up on time all week, so for the next week, your bedtime is an hour earlier. And if you get up on time, we can talk about you going back to the schedule we had before, but right now you’re going to have to show me.” 

 If your child has a problem with getting up in the morning, certainly TV, video games and cell phone time should be taken away and consequences should be given by withholding them or limiting the time your child can have with these things.

Set New Limits and Let the Child Face Natural Consequences

Not going to school is the symptom of a bigger problem sometimes. The kid is not meeting his responsibilities overall in school and at home. Several things need to be noted here: it’s important how parents communicate to kids about responsibilities. It has a lot to do with how seriously they take their responsibilities today. Parents of kids who resist and fight going to school should be looking at a whole new way of communicating with their kids and a whole new approach to responsibility in the home. Ask yourself: “Does my child resist me on most things I ask him to do? Does he meet assigned responsibilities in the home? Does he have fairly unlimited access to things like video games and computer games?” If the answer is yes, it’s probably time to set limits on these things so that you can use them as a consequence or a reward for getting up and going to school. Believe it or not, it can be done. It’s easier than parents think to restructure how to do things with their kids.

A few quick tips: Don’t try to have a serious discussion in the morning about the getting up problem with a child who won’t get up. That’s not the time they can learn new problem-solving skills. They’re too busy justifying their excuses and fighting with you. That problem-solving discussion should take place later. Second, if getting up becomes a chronic problem, parents have to accept that there are consequences imposed by the school and society, not just by the family. You should let the child be late and not give an excuse. Write a note saying: “He wouldn’t get out of bed, please hold him accountable for his lateness.” If that means a detention, that’s great. You should not protect your kids from consequences. Older kids who miss class are going to fail, and that’s a consequence in itself.

Related: Give your teen consequences that really work.

So this week, if your child won’t get out of bed or throws a fit again about going to school, think about these three things. First, it’s important to correctly identify the problem. Problem-solving skills require problem-identifying skills. Parents who are not equipped to do this should seek cognitive-behavioral oriented help. Secondly, parents need to decide what motivational tools they can use to reward kids who get out of bed on time consistently, which to me says that they solved the problem of getting out of bed successfully. And third, don’t be afraid to use and enforce consequences and limits. There are consequences to not meeting responsibilities in the world, and that should start when you’re a child. And the difference between punishment and consequences needs to be understood by parents in order for them both to be used effectively. 

Where Does Accountability Ultimately Lie?

I want to focus on two things here: With younger children chronically refusing to get out of bed, parents should try to involve the school system or community- based in home intervention resources to give them support in dealing with this problem. With older children and teenagers, the same supports should be sought; however, often teenagers will resist even higher levels of intervention if they have a pattern of oppositionality and defiance. While parents should confront this with all the resources at their command, they must also work on accepting that teens and young adults in our society feel empowered by both the media and their own youth culture. Parents may actually be disempowered when it comes to getting their kids to meet certain functions or go to school. In this case, you should seek a stronger type of intervention for your home, and also accept that as children become teenagers they develop the power to resist parental efforts and sometimes they actually choose to fail. I have known many young people who have gone back to school to get GEDs, night school diplomas, trade school certificates and college degrees after failing out of school. Parents should work on accepting that as children become teenagers and young adults, the responsibility, the accountability and the social consequences fall more to your kids than to you. As a parent, do the very best you can, and then accept what you have no control over.

Parents may often feel alone in dealing with these types of power struggle behaviors in the home. Frankly, in many cases, they are alone. The youth culture—and the professionals who have bought into the youth culture—promotes the concept that kids should not be held accountable for not meeting their responsibilities. It’s irrational to think that kids are going to do the hard work it takes to learn the skills they need to survive as adults without some clear motivation/consequence system in their lives. As a society, and certainly as an educational culture, we have accepted the myth that kids don’t benefit from being held sternly accountable. The acceptance of this myth is part of the theory base that is producing and accepting so much mediocrity in our teenagers and young adults. Easy for us, too bad for them.


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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."

READER'S COMMENTS

Thank you. You are the FIRST professional I have heard who has acknowledged that sometimes parents are indeed alone. It seems most in the media and sad to say many in the field of psychology have bought into the mentality of the youth culture, which grossly overlooks the accountability factor (of one's behavior) because it is so frantically focusing on the cause of the behavior. Of course, the cause of behavior is certainly important as you state, and worthy of exploration. But, whatever the cause, reality exists and we must deal with a world that is not so interested in only the why; it is interested in accountability. We must prepare our children for that reality. I have ordered the Total Transformations program and only wish I did it 10 years ago.

Comment By : i.roberts

These are some good ideas. I'm going to give this to my son who hascustody of his 4 children after a nasty divorce, now the kids are being nasty to him.

Comment By : Diane

This excellent article was very timely for our home. We homeschool and don't have outside motivators like being late for the school bus or seeing friends at school before class to get them get moving and start "school". Natural consequences become tough to identify. It only leaves us with a reward system. That has problems when they tend to expect something in return for just doing what they are responsible for doing.

Comment By : Sue

This article is right on with my 12 year old daughter. We try to balance her boredom with extra curricular activities.

Comment By : Bobbo

Often kids are bored at school because they are used to being entertained (by TV, game systems or computers). Reading takes effort, as does learning the unfamiliar. One way to reduce boredom at school is to reduce the stimulation outside of school. Children need to be content to play alone without a screen and without peers. They need to learn to enjoy a good book. If they are overstimulated at home, then school will most certainly seem boring. Schools which ask parents to shut off the screens during the school week are finding the kids are much more interested in the subject matter in the classroom.

Comment By : Linda M

My pre-kindergardener is complaining about going to school (she is there only 3 1/2 days per week). She says the worksheets are too hard, or that her teacher is mean. I know that they complete the worksheets together as a class, no one is left to do them on their own. And, the teacher she has is very structured and fairly distributes discipline. However, my daughter has had this teacher for more than 2 1/2 years now. As my child's class moved, so did the teacher. Could she simply be "bored" with the teacher? There are 2 teachers in this classroom -- I never hear anything bad about teacher #2.

Comment By : Cara C

I faced this same problem 3 out of 5 days a week. My 9 year old son, says he hates school, he has no friends, no one likes him, he hates library, he hates art etc. I contacted the school and had the guidance counselor and the principal involve him more in the extra things they do like have lunch with the children, (lunch bunch) During lunch the principal will take about 6 children into the conference room to have lunch and they will play a game (UNO)while they eat. He mediates and plays along with them, the children LOVE it. Making my son a classroom helper also gets him more involved in school as well. Today was a little easier to get him out the door. They have bad days like all of us do. I've listened to the audio CD three times, the third time I've written all the steps down and refer to them when a situation arises that may need a combination of steps to help get through the situation.

Comment By : GiJane

My son gets up great but does not see why he needs to go to school. He feels it's a violation of his rights! He is 10 and very bright but says that he feels pressure. He's in the "challenge class" for supposedly gifted students but frankly, he doesn't seem overworked to me. How should we respond to his ideas of what life should be like that aren't reality. We've talked about life, jobs, income, etc.

Comment By : Phogan

James, After reading your articles the answers seem so easy and practical that I am ashamed that I could not formulate them for my children. Your guidance and structure should be taught to every new parent. Floyd

Comment By : Floyd

this article is right on point. however i have three sons and the two eldest are the ones who are the hardest to get up in the morning. at night i have all of them to get together their clothes for school the next day. this cuts out time for looking around in the morning and gives them extra minutes to sleep in. this does not help either. it is something about going to bed at night that just won't let them settle in. they want to watch television, play video games or watch movies. i explain to them that the weekends are the days for these things. they won't listen. i have taken the computer and ipod away from my eldest son and this just makes us tug -of- war to the facts of who is running what and who is getting away with whatever. i have tried to see things their way but it doesn't work.i have scolded , grounded, and even stopped their friends from calling but the fight continues.where do i go from here?

Comment By : egypt

I too have a gifted son who hates school and is not challanged by his gifted program. He has already skipped a grade ans is in advanced classes as part of his giep. He doesn't fight about going to school because he really loves learning. He just chronically complains that his classmates are "stupid" and just don't want to learn.

Comment By : mcamom

Dear Sue--I also homeschool a son who argues about almost every assignment! His friends who go to traditional school cannot go out to play until school is over, so neither can he. Some days he just says "I don't care" and refuses anyway, but it sure hurt the day a whole bunch of friends came to the door and he couldn't go out to play until school work for the day was done. Another consequence he gets is that I give less and less assistance the longer he puts off the work. It's not my job to be "on call" for him any time of day or night when he finally decides to do his work. I'm not going to stop making dinner because he suddenly decides I have to help him with fractions "right now!"

Comment By : Jan

My kid is board. He does very good in school. Since we moved here, he has commented time and time again how things are too easy. He says, "Why should I have to go and be taught somehting I already know about? I do my homework in 2 minutes; then my teacher tells me to read. Mom I read two or three books a day! Why are things so easy here? Everything used to be harder and more interesting. I never had to worry about being board." I have to agree. The teachers should be responsible for making sure these kids don't get board. There list of activities should be more exploritory and consist of activities condusive to a four grader's learning.

Comment By : very concerned parent

* For parents whose gifted children may be bored of school: Check out these websites--good information about gifted children and how to nurture them: The National Association of Gifted Children: http://www.nagc.org/ The National Foundation for Gifted and Creative Children: http://www.nfgcc.org/ Some good tips on how to keep gifted children interested in learning!

Comment By : Elisabeth Wilkins, Editor

Glad I found this article. Had a horrible morning and not looking forward to repeating it. This along with the 800# for support have given me hope.

Comment By : finally hopeful

I am a step-mother of a child who is six years old. And she never eats her food in time to go to school. Also, every time my husband, even her own mother or me try to show the right thing to do she seems she doesn’t care. For example, it was very nice outside this weekend and I told her to clean her room, eat her dinner and breakfast she would go with me, my husband, and her step-grandfather to the park to play. She did not clean her room nor did she not eat her food. It seems like she does not care and that she should be able to do whatever she wants whenever she wants to do it. Another example, there was a parade at a near by town that we where going to attend and I told her you better hurrying and eat your breakfast so we can go to the parade. But she told me that she was going because she wants too, and we almost missed the parade because it took a five year old 30 minutes just to eat one bowl of cereal. I am afraid that she really does not want to the right thing due to she just doesn’t care. And I am feeling that I am losing her and myself. I am so tired of the fighting and the screaming. I just want to play and go shopping with her. I am at my last straw. Ps. I have been raising her since the age of four. Also, I have known her since she was three years old.

Comment By : missy

My 10 year old, 5th grade son has been refusing to go to school since pre-k. He would get up, we would drive there, then at the school door he would fold his arms and say, "No". We found that his immune system is constantly weak and he is always sick. Some symptoms showed-up later (ear infection, etc.). Don't under estimate the power of sleep. Believe it or not, my 10 year old need 12 hours every day! Part of our "Total Transformation" is that my son get enough sleep to make the techniques work like magic!

Comment By : Barb

I have a very defiant 13-year-old son who out of the last 9 days, had refused to go to school 8 of them. I read this article hoping for some insight and got just that. Thank you for taking the time to help us parents who love are children but just don't know how to help them see what they need to do. I hope that when I finally get the Total Transformation system, I will be more equipped to help him deal with his insecurities, low self-esteem, and inability to cope with his responsibilities without outbursts.

Comment By : Mom in crisis

I can relate, but on a different level. My daughter is 9 and failing Third Grade. She was in a private religious school for K-2nd, and we had to fight every year to get her to do enough to pass. She was going to be retained in 1st beacause of math. I bought the same exact program they used and started teaching her myself in the afternoons for about an hour or longer if she was interested. Within two weeks I had her getting A's and B's in math, and she was allowed to move onto 2nd Grade. The teacher was great, and communication was excellent. Grades were better this year, but still the struggle again in math. Again I purchased the same math program for the new school year and taught her myself. She again, pulled her math up and was passed to the next grade. We had some personal issues with the school and among other things it was decided that she go to public school. She started out fine, atleast she wasn't failing math! After a few weeks went by and they started to learn the new curiculum she got lost quick. This time it wasn't just math it was everything. We do the parent/teacher conference and they tell us that she is capable of doing the work, she just refused to put in any effort. You get her to try and she is one of the smartest in the class. This year they have two teachers and they both tell me,when she doesn't want to do it, she just doesn't do it. It's not that she can't- she just won't. We have no problems with her getting the homework done, no problems getting up in the morning of going to bed at night. She even says that she likes school most of the time. We've tried reasoning-you have to go it's your job, we've tried taking all privilages from her - she doesn't care! How can I convince her that if she doesn't make an effort and pass that she will never get anywhere in life. I want to stop it before we get to Jr High and it's too late! Any real advice anyone?

Comment By : Lisa

Lisa It's just an idea, but my son was similar to what you explained in your comment above regarding your daughter. He's in 6th grade now. However, in the earlier grades, he did just fine doing his school work at home, but the teachers reported he was last one finished, slow, refused to do the work, or was doing something other than the work assigned, etc. It ended up he had sensory integration issues (room too loud, too much light, too many people, pulsating florescent lights bothered him, uniform too restrictive / itchy, etc.) His little body was on such overload and working so hard to keep it together at school, it was difficult for him to use cognitive functioning for anything higher such as learning. I don't know if that helps. There's a wonderful book entitled The Out-of-Sync Child that gave me insight into this problem. You can probably get it from your local library. An occupational therapist diagnosed him in second grade. We also filled out a sensory questionnaire. When filling that out, it was the first time I could clearly see he must be on overload and then recognized all the little odd things he did (or didn't do) were signs that he was just trying to cope. What helped me tremendously was knowing there was such a thing as sensory integration dysfunction. I realized I had the same "problem" when I was in school... not finishing my work, not starting my work, being the last one finished, taking comfort when I was younger in hiding out under a desk or behind the coats on the coat rack, hiding out in the bathroom to read a book instead of being in class, always sick with some "ailment" and at the nurses office where I'd get to sit in a chair or lie down in the dark which was comforting, always identified by the school as the "gifted child" and "not working up to my potential," and always in trouble with my mom who said I didn't "apply myself" when in fact I felt I was doing all I could. I didn't know I had had a problem until I read that questionnaire and then book and saw, "Look, that was ME and that is my son." To others it just seemed like weird behavior. Occupational therapy helped somewhat, but just understanding what the problem was for us was a huge help for me in having empathy for my son. I talked with the school to ask for their support. Many of the teachers were great. Some, not so. The OT person was wonderful. Some schools even have a "clean" room with full spectrum lighting, couches (my boy complained "the seats are too hard, that's why I didn't write my assignment" and you hear that and think, "Oh, come on!" but it was really true!) air purification systems, no harsh chemicals used on the tables / floor, and quiet! (The whine of the computers drove me nuts as a kid sometimes, and my boy complains that the refrigerator is too loud and he can't do his homework!) So, just thought I'd share that with you in case you weren't aware of sensory integration. By the way, my son was invited to take some special test with Johns Hopkins (like a PSAT) last year and did very very well. This year he won a national science competition. I went on to get my MBA with an excellent GPA, and have had a very successful career with a financial institution as a VP. We are doing ok. We're all, including the rest of our family, happy and healthy. Best of everything to you. Hope this has helped.

Comment By : Tess

My child, who has always loved school, is afraid to go to school now after serving a very harsh detention. (sitting in chair, facing wall, not able to move, speak, touch anything, do schoolwork, or nap -- must sit up) for 1 hour. (for playing around in line) He is a very enthusiastic and energetic 8 year old boy, and schools don't seem to like that very much.

Comment By : Jannette

This Article is VERY WEAK in the sense that it CONTINUOUSLY HARPS on WAKING UP late as the main issue in kids refusing school. It does not address any complexities or different causes that might be contributing to this refusal .. My child is a very very bright, sharp, ahead of his class [by couple of grades] in reading and [at least one grade] in math, early to bed early to rise, responsible, little 4 1/2 plus y.o. He has pretty regular teachers and seems fond of them, he has not given me any particular reason for why he does not want to attend school .. he just tells me that he'd like to take off once in a while .. he wants a lot of breaks from school .. he is happiest if school was only on for 4 hours or if he had to attend every alternate day .. that is his dream school he says .. and one in which they could play outside for several hours daily .. He wakes up between 5:45 - 6:15 am DAILY and has done so always, he eats a healthy breakfast, has ample time to play and bicycle before school time .. we are never late for school or ever rushing .. He dresses himself .. sometimes even does his school work .. all in the morning prior to school. Now you see why the above article was so flat for me and I came away with nothing helpful :-(( Anyway just thought there might be others who might have felt that way too.

Comment By : Bosuji

I have a child that is 10 years old and is in 5th grade. He does have some learning disabilities (dyslexia), reads at beginning 3rd grade level, cannot spell, diagnosed with ADHD, and he is absolutely defiant. He is in special classes at school, and he literally expects everyone to do everything for him. He does not do his homework, he will "lose" his assignment notebook on purpose, thinking that he won't have to do homework, he loses the sheet the teacher gives him that has the assignments. Even if he does by chance do his homework, he will not turn in it and it is lost. He says he hates school, we can't make him do his homework. He is getting in trouble because he sneaks things from home all of the time (toys & pokemon) and he generally does not care about anything. We have taken away things, they don't get TV time and video games on school nights, we have tried rewarding him for good behavior, we have tried the earn special things, and it doesn't work with him at all. We have worked with the school, we have the IEP, we have tried literally everything and it seems like we are fighting a losing battle.

Comment By : CarlyK82

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school related problems, consequences, motivation, unmotivated child, oppositional defiant disorder, teaching responsibility, motivating teenager, Child behavior problems, The Total Transformation, James Lehman

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