Babble is partnering with PACER Center to help parents better understand and navigate the needs of children with mental health and behavior issues. This month, we’re talking about behavioral challenges in school-age children, and what to do if your child doesn’t want to go to school.
Hannah breathed a sigh of relief as she watched her daughter skip happily into school. It was 5-year-old Isabelle’s first day of kindergarten, and like any parent, Hannah was worried she might have trouble with the transition. But to her surprise, her little girl ran into the classroom without looking back and quickly settled into her seat to chat with her new classmates. “That was easier than I expected,” Hannah thought.
During the first three months of school, Isabelle seemed to be settling into her new routine. She was making new friends and liked her teacher. Then one Sunday evening, as Hannah tucked her into bed, the girl burst into tears and said she didn’t want to go to school in the morning. “But you love school,” Hannah said, trying to comfort her daughter. “No! I don’t want to go!” Isabelle yelled as she pulled the comforter over her head. Hannah was shocked by Isabelle’s drastic change in behavior, but figured she was just having a tough night.
Over the next several weeks, however, things got worse. Isabelle refused to get out of bed in the morning and cried all the way to school. Her teacher emailed Hannah several times with concerns that Isabelle wasn’t paying attention in class and had trouble sitting still. From stomachaches to headaches, Isabelle always had a reason to stay home from school or come home early.
Of course it’s normal for kids to have some anxiety during a big transition, but to Hannah, this felt like more than just a phase.
So what can you do if your child is struggling with the school routine? Here are some tips for parents:
1. Talk to your child
All behavior is a form of communication. When your child is crying, clinging to you, or complaining that she doesn’t feel well, it may take a little digging to uncover what she is really trying to tell you. Engage your child in a fun hands-on activity and ask her open-ended questions such as “What was your favorite part of school today?” or “What book did you read during circle time?”
2. Track your child’s behavior
Until you know when, where, and why your child’s behavior is occurring, you won’t be able to help her. Keep track of his or her behaviors and note any emails or calls you receive from the school or daycare. This will help you see patterns and anticipate difficult situations, plus you can easily share the information with others who interact with your child.
3. Create a plan
Partner with your child’s teacher to create an action plan, and check in regularly to see how your child is doing. Sometimes there is a simple solution to the situation and a child’s resistance to school can be overcome by moving her to a different location in the classroom for example, or giving her a little extra time with a task. If these adjustments don’t improve your child’s behavior, don’t give up! Ask your child what works and what doesn’t and write it down. Then, share this information with the teacher and ask if there are other people who can assist. You may need to explore additional options for support such as an evaluation for a Section 504 Plan or special education. If there are bullying concerns, find out if your school has a written policy and educate yourself on bullying prevention.
4. Call your pediatrician
If your child is frequently complaining of stomachaches or headaches, it’s important to see your pediatrician so you can rule out any serious health problems. Your child’s doctor can also provide a diagnostic screening and refer you to other professionals who may be able to help.
5. Listen to your instincts
If you’ve tried everything and your child’s behavior isn’t getting better, consider whether your child might need more support at school for challenges meeting academic demands or managing social interactions. Sometimes a child’s ongoing struggles may be related to bullying, an unidentified learning need, or an underlying mental health or medical concern.
Hannah did take Isabelle to see her pediatrician. He screened the child for possible attention concerns and recommended she see a specialist for further evaluation. The specialist diagnosed Isabelle with ADHD. Hannah is now working with the school to develop a Section 504 Plan which will provide for accommodations in the classroom, and she’ll be paying close attention to Isabelle’s behavior in the weeks ahead.
Is your child struggling with the same issues as Isabelle? Do you have a friend who is dealing with similar issues? Please share your stories and offer ideas to help other parents.