Compulsory schooling in almost every state goes until age 16. That means that for 12 years it’s expected a child will show up and get an education. But no one said they had to be happy about it. The hard truth is that there are days when school might feel like a drag. But what should you do when your kid says they hate school?
There’s no one answer. Each child’s school experience is different and each child will have their own reactions to the classroom, says practicing psychologist Mary Karapetian Alvord, Ph.D., especially given the current climate.
“We’ve had a year and a half of constant uncertainty, constant changes, that’s why we’ve seen anxiety rates and depression rates go up,” Dr. Alvord says. And the reasoning behind why a child is saying they hate school could be myriad.
Reasons Why A Child Might Say They Hate School
Dr. Alvord says that if you hear a child say they hate school you need to recognize that any number of things could be going on.
“There are legitimate worries that kids have, especially now if they're going to a new school. There's just so many changes and always new schools have been sort of difficult to adjust to,” says Dr. Robin Gurwich, a faculty member in the Duke University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the Center for Child and Family Health. Even if a child is at the same school they attended the year prior, returning from a distance learning situation or even hybrid model might rattle a student regardless of what grade they’re in.
“If they're not sure what to do during recess or they're having a lot of trouble with transitions in high school, it's very stressful. Sometimes I hear middle schoolers say ‘What if I can't get into my locker in time and I'm going to miss class?’” Gurwitch says.
Fears of attending school can be as simple as a forgotten locker combination and as large as a reaction to racial injustice, lack of school diversity, and bullying.
How to Navigate School Anxiety
The way parents address “hatred of school” will vary by age. Therefore a parent’s reaction should adjust accordingly.
For little children, a hatred of school might come from a year spent at home. “They've been at home with Mommy, Daddy, Grandma, whoever their caregiver is, and so it may not be so much they hate school as it is ‘I really don't want to leave you,’” says Dr. Gurwitch. “For those children, it may be a feeling of ‘this is where I'm comfortable in our safe little nest.’”
“It's not necessarily ‘I hate school.’ It's ‘I don't want to be away from you,’” adds Dr. Gurwitch.
Elementary School Children
Elementary school children could be having similar feelings of separation anxiety as well. And if they have strong verbal skills, Alvord says parents might hear something she calls catastrophic thinking or “catastrophizing.” This is where children (and let’s be honest, sometimes adults) manufacture the worst possible scenarios in their minds until the situation feels unbearable.
For instance, a child might think “I hate school because what if I can’t find the bathroom in time and I wet my pants and you forget to pack me a change of clothes and I have to sit in my wet clothes and you can’t leave work so I have to wait all day” etc, etc.
At the same time, Alvord has seen anxiety manifest from undiagnosed learning issues. “That makes school hard,” says Dr. Alvord, who had a patient who was considered lazy in school until she discovered that he actually couldn’t see the board and just needed glasses.
Middle School Children
Middle school is a time, Dr. Alvord says, when worries associated with school generally become peer related. “Kids may feel like they're not that liked or they don't have enough friends or maybe they don't have a really close buddy,” says Dr. Alvord. Worry about how other kids might act or concerns about bullying can play a role too.
High School Children
In high school, the stressors grow. Alvord says parents should explore with their teen worries about workload, friendships, peer pressure, and concerns about the future.
What Signs to Look for
If a child says “I hate school” that can actually be helpful, says Dr. Alvord because it opens the door for a conversation with a parent, counselor, or adult. But not all children will speak up, and that’s why Gurwitch and Alvord encourage parents, family members, and guardians to keep an eye on children’s behaviors.
“Significant signs of distress, stress, or worry,” are what to look for in a child, says Dr. Gurwitch. These can manifest in a variety of ways like a sudden disinterest in school-related activities, attaching worry to other things, like a fear of a monster under the bed, or big changes in behavior and sleep.
How to Talk to Your Child about School
The good news for parents is that both Dr. Alvord and Dr. Gurwitch say talking to your child is the first step to overcome their “I hate school” mindset.
“It’s listening, it’s being warm, and then it’s problem solving,” says Dr. Gurwitch. Normalizing feelings is important here too.
“Anger is fine. It's not fine to, like, throw the chairs over. But feeling of anger often give us a sense that something is dangerous or not going well,” says Dr. Alvord. She says that helping children understand that having emotions is OK can be a motivator to start a discussion on stress or worry. Explaining to a child that “Anxiety can help motivate us to study and do things. But too much anxiety is paralyzing,” can help them understand they need ways to manage stress.
From there, a parent can move the conversation to the matter at hand, remembering always, as Dr. Gurwitch says, that “our job as parents is to enable independence.”
That means helping a child find ways to overcome their hatred of school. For instance, “When you're exploring with kids, find out what they like about school,” says Dr. Gurwitch. “I have kids who come in and they say, ‘I hate school. I don't like anything about it.’ I'm like, well, what about lunch? Now, some of them don't like it because if they don't have a friend and it can be very painful. So you say well, what are their options? Maybe the school has something called a lunch bunch where different kids are sat together at lunch to make new friends. Maybe they can try that.”
The idea is to help children see the forest for the trees and gather some perspective about their situation. Finding positive solutions and directing the conversation to things a child can admit they do enjoy about school will help them focus on the positive.
What Gurwitch cautions parents against is giving in to a child’s demands to not attend school. That can lead to avoidance and withdrawal, she says. “Parents need to remember that they are there for the greater good of their child,” Dr. Gurwitch explains. “A child has to understand that avoiding the situation or avoiding the problems doesn't make them go away.”
For younger children, sometimes anxiety manifests from lack of structure. Talking about what’s going to happen before, during, and after school each day can be reassuring. For instance, Gurwitch says a parent can say, “We’re going to drop you off at school this morning, then you’ll have reading and math in class and then recess. Won’t that be fun on the playground? After school I’ll be there to pick you up and we’ll go home and let you choose a snack, then rest, then we’ll go outside and play.”
For middle school and high school students, however, support will look different. “For teens and even the middle schoolers, ask ‘What clubs do you like? What clubs are possibilities? So maybe school isn't so great, but you can look forward to theater or chess club or sport or extracurricular activity,’ because not everyone is geared to be an academic and that’s OK,” says Dr. Alvord.
Helping older students find their place where they fit in can make a huge difference in their feelings about school. Rather than only reflecting on what makes school bad, redirect the conversation to fun opportunities they can take advantage of.
How to Support Your Child
The “I hate school” conversation is not a fun one, but Dr. Alvord and Dr. Gurwitch agree that it’s essential to have. And if your child doesn’t feel comfortable opening up to you or a partner, give them the tools to find someone else to speak to.
“Counselors are just incredible resources,” says Dr. Alvord. But they’re not the only people who can help a child overcome school anxiety. “You might find a teacher that they could relate to or a coach or some adult maybe outside the family. And I'm not even talking professionally. Sometimes it's someone at church or a synagogue or something, maybe a youth leader.” That said, Alvord adds that if your child is showing really significant distress you need to talk to your pediatrician and maybe get a mental health consultation.
Dr. Robin Gurwitch, psychologist and faculty member in the Duke University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the Center for Child and Family Health
Dr. Mary Karapetian Alvord, Ph.D., practicing psychologist, Adj. Assoc. Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, and author of Resilience Builder Program for Children and Adolescents (Research Press); adn Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens: A Workbook to Break the Nine Thought Habits That Are Holding You Back (New Harbinger)