REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION from the Florida Jewish News, pp. 16, 22.
Screams echo down the hall. Raised voices escalate in pitch. Enough already! Get this child to school!
But she won’t go.
You would think that two intelligent adults could figure out how to get an eight-year old to school without all that hysteria, wouldn’t you? Guess again.
If only life were that simple. The problem is that it’s not a matter of being more intelligent than your child because the problem has nothing whatsoever to do with intelligence. It’s about feelings. And unless you understand the heart of your child, you’ve lost the game. This article is about heart.
If a child won’t go to school, the reason is frequently called School Phobia, and its essence could be fear, fear of something going on at school. But that may not be the only reason a child resists going to school. It could also be fear of what is going on behind his back at home. Alternatively, it could have nothing whatsoever to do with fear, but rather with gaps in parenting. Let’s look at all of these possibilities, starting with true School Phobia:
Bullying has been a sleeper problem until recently. Thank God people are waking up to the severity and damage of this formerly hidden torture. Research indicates that it occurs worldwide with a higher prevalence in the schools than you would think: Between one child in twelve and one in fifteen report multiple acts of having been bullied in any given school term.
Violence, threats of violence, extortion, put-downs, other verbal abuse, and exclusion from cliques are all forms of bullying. Looking back at your own childhood, you probably can remember being bullied yourself and the intense pain that it wrought.
Victims are specifically selected because they lack the skills—physical, verbal, or social—to know how to combat the problem. That is, potential bullies watch their classmates handle themselves and they purposely pick the child with the poorest skills.
Knowing that they lack these skills leads to intense shame in the victim, which, in turn, can account for the victim not letting parents or teachers know about it right away. To be able to understand how a bullied child might feel, picture how adults would feel who are harassed at work or attacked by surprise on dates. Think of racial taunts or wife abuse. Think power imbalance.
Schools have wised up to the problem and have, here and there, begun to implement anti-bullying programs which include education, increased supervision, encouraging onlookers to report incidents and support victims, immediate and strong consequences for bullies, teaching pro-social skills to perpetrators and assertive skills to victims, and, of course, involving parents.
Do not underestimate the possibility that a child who does not want to go to school is being bullied there.
Insensitivity means not taking into account what may be going on inside the other person’s head or heart.
Teachers wanting to extract the best efforts from their students say and do surprisingly unhelpful things that boomerang. Here is a list of pedagogical mistakes that might be keeping your child from wanting to face that teacher:
- Writing a list of who failed on the board
- Writing a list of who passed on the board – when the list is fairly long, the ones not on the list are obvious
- Getting back at rowdy children by reminding them of their past failures
- Calling on students who are generally unprepared or just confused
- Lecturing children as to how bad they are, academically or behaviorally
- Yelling at children
If you think the above doesn’t happen, think again. When my daughter was in preschool, she was too busy drawing to respond to “clean up time.” The teacher took away her artwork as punishment, crumpled it up, and threw it away. She’s 26 now, a new attorney, and a happy wife and mother, but she never forgot that horrible incident.
If your child complains of stomach aches, don’t automatically assume it’s manipulative—it could be real.
Within the last year, there was an interesting news item in which a boy was suspended from school for talking on the phone during class time to his mother—who was stationed with the military in Iraq and who was only able to make one call to him per month. The school argument for their actions is that they asked him who he was talking to and he did not respond. Anybody who has ever talked on a cellphone can only imagine the scene: “Hello? Hello?” “Who is this??” etc. With that going on, the administrators are making more noise in the background asking who he is talking to. Oh, please. That’s an example of gross insensitivity.
Recently, I heard of a girl who was suspended from a school and was then reinstated. Before she was to return, the Principal spoke to the remaining girls telling them, “Don’t think you’re so wonderful. You’re no better than she is.” It’s quite possible the actual words used weren’t this rough, but whatever it was that was said amounted, in the girls’ minds, to the above statement.
When you know that teacher insensitivity is a problem, the worst part of that problem is that it generally means there is insensitivity at administrative levels. This is because teachers tend to absorb the values of the school culture in which they work; that is true of anyone on any job. Were the administration different, parent complaints—or even complaints from the child—would have sent up red flags for the administration previously and the problem would not exist now. This means that you must have skill to determine what’s going on. You may need to have more than one meeting with the teacher, principal, counselor, or other administrative individuals to feel your way into the culture and values of that school. Mind you, I am not talking about religious values. Two schools with identical religious values can have vastly different learning environments. The difference comes from how the children are treated.
Academic Embarrassment & Social Awkwardness
A child who fails either socially or academically may also be afraid to go to school. You might be perplexed by this possibility because you know your child has friends. However, children who enjoy their social relationships generally put up with the annoyance of school so as to be with their friends. The end of summer vacation is a good example of healthy attitudes toward school: Children usually look forward to it, both academically and socially. Therefore, the child who, somewhere in the middle of the school year, seems in rebellion is clueing you in to look deeper. It may be that what your child refers to as “friends” are people he wishes were his friends and, in fact, are not. Moving to a new location could bring about the same social awkwardness. In any case, if bullying and administrative insensitivity were ruled out, a closer look at academic accomplishment and social savoire-faire would be in order.
On the subject of academic success, I’d like to point out that I’ve met with a considerable number of kids who you and I would think of as “good students,” but, unfortunately, with so much pressure on kids to achieve, “good” may not be good enough in the child’s eyes. I can still remember a friend of mine in high school who was slated to be salutatorian—in a field of a thousand students in a graduating class, being #2 is no mean accomplishment—but she was ridden with anxiety and pain over not being #1.
Another, absolutely gorgeous girl came to me miserable because she didn’t think she was pretty at all. She actually partially hid her face behind one hand so as not to be fully seen.
If there is an academic problem, whether real or merely perceived by the child, tutoring is a great option to bring up grades—and calm anxiety.
Therefore, the idea to take out of this discussion is that success, both socially and academically, is relative. The only way to know if your child is suffering from feeling low on the totem pole is to ask.
These four issues, bullying, teacher insensitivity, social awkwardness, or academic embarrassment, then, constitute some possibilities in the area of true School Phobia, a fear of going to school. The flip side of the fear coin can be fear of something happening at home while the child is gone. The next two topics cover that possibility and they might go in the category of “school refusal” rather than school phobia as the school itself is really not the problem.
If someone was seriously ill at home, this could be a reason for not wanting to go to school. You might be thinking, “Why should the child’s staying home make a difference? She knows she can’t do anything about an illness anyway.” Of course, that’s true, but remember, to find our answers, we must look at the heart, not at logic.
Control is a natural, human goal. We’re more comfortable when we have the illusion that we can control events (even though we know that we can’t). We feel as though we are more in control when we notice behavior patterns: To the degree that things that happened yesterday are likely to happen today, we experience a pleasant sense of control over events. That is, when we can’t control events, we like to at least know them. That’s why we’re glued to the TV or computer when a hurricane is approaching. We want the minute-by-minute update even though this information only gives us the illusion of control and not real control.
So too, with children. If there was sickness recently, it has some probability of recurring, and the child—who knows he has absolutely no control over events—at least wants to know what’s going on. Knowing is somewhat calming, and the further away from a source of information, the more unsettling it feels.
In the case where the recently ill person is elderly or has a fatal disease, the child’s fear goes beyond wanting information: The child is afraid of loss. When loss is imminent or likely, the child would be devastated to lose a minute with that precious adult. The loss would be huge and goes beyond the death of that one person to include the loss of stability in that child’s life. Previously, life did have a more or less predictable pattern; now, it doesn’t. Anything could happen. Stability is crucial for children’s well-being.
Verbal reassurance may or may not be enough to get the child back on track. Always try to use the least dramatic means first, so begin by trying to be casual. “Mommy’s been sick, but I’m absolutely fine now and you needn’t worry,” may be enough to help her or him be willing to stop worrying. If that doesn’t work, you might want to have a talk in which you encourage your child to air her worst fears. However, it’s important not to plant ideas in your child’s head, so you must choose your words carefully to ask open-ended questions, such as, “What’s on your mind?” or “It seems like something’s bothering you. Is that right?” If you think more has been left unsaid, continue with, “Is that the whole thing?”
Depending on where this conversation goes, a frank talk about life and death may very well be in order. It might go something like this: “You know, honey, death is really not something any of us has full control over; only God does. Sure, we must take care of ourselves, take medicine if we’re sick, and so on, but ultimately, the best policy to stop worrying is to truly believe that God has our best interests at stake even when it’s awfully hard to understand why He does certain things.”
Speaking of stability, divorce is a common cause of what looks like School Phobia. The child whose parents have either recently divorced or are contemplating divorce cannot help worrying that the remaining parent will somehow be gone when he returns home from school. While we as adults know that this, too, is illogical, it makes sense from the child’s point of view. The child’s thinking is, “Those close to me leave me.” Illness and divorce, then, are other reasons for a child not wanting to go to school. They have nothing to do with School Phobia but the unpleasant result is the same.
Finally, the last two reasons for a child creating a scene about going to school have nothing to do with fears at school or fears at home but everything to do with the parent-child relationship.
Don’t rush to say, “My child is not neglected,” before you answer the following question: What is the most pressing concern on your child’s mind right now?” Do you know? If you think you know, write it down. Then check with your child.
In a world in which two-parent incomes are necessary just to pay the bills and parents have their own sources of stress, it’s quite easy to trivialize children’s emotional needs. Interviews with adolescents have shown again and again that what they want most in life is not to be cool, not to be tight with their peers, but—ready for this?— to get more time and attention from their parents.
The question then becomes: How much attention is needed before the lack thereof becomes neglect? I would suggest each person answer that by adding several additional questions to the one that opened this section:
If someone privately asked your child: “Do your parents know what’s on your mind? Do your parents know what’s bothering you?” what would he really answer? If you think he would answer that you do know what’s on his mind and what’s bothering him, check. You may be surprised at his response. Parents whose hearts are filled with love for their children, bring them to me, worried, and then I hear from the children, and it’s not necessarily pretty. Frequently, the children do not feel loved or known by their parents. How is it possible that parents who do love their children somehow are not transmitting that love? I suggest start by asking the questions in this section, being open to whatever answers you hear without getting defensive, and then putting yourself out to make more time in your life for your child.
It behooves parents to be sure that they’re not inadvertently guilty of child neglect. Neglected children have found that ordinary things won’t work in trying to get attention from their parents, so they will do anything to get that attention—and their efforts won’t stop with balking at going to school. Eventually, they will discover the nurturing and validation they missed at home in school cliques or gangs, drinking or drugs. It’s never too late to start talking to your child.
Failure to Discipline
On the other side of child neglect is an equally destructive form of child abuse in which the child seems to have been given all the control in the family. Parents do not know how to say, “No.” This gives way too much power to a child and ultimately makes him insecure. Does that surprise you?
Parents who can’t say, “No” were frequently abused as children and their soft hearts find it difficult to see the child in pain. I appreciate that, but look at what the lack of “No” sounds like to that child. If he could put into words what is going on, he’d be saying to himself: “I’m only eight and I’m calling all the shots in my house. If I’m the most powerful person here, who can I turn to when I don’t know what to do? Who can I lean on when I’m tired of playing the game?”
When he has everything he thinks he wants, what he doesn’t have is the benefit of adult wisdom and experience, and that makes for big-time insecurity. Now, you may argue, if that is the case, then why does he persist in clamoring for attention he doesn’t really need? The answer is: Simply because he can. Children will always test to see where the limits are, so it is up to parents to be sure to set them. Otherwise, the child will keep pushing. That is human nature.
The unfortunate part about this is that children don’t really, in their hearts, want that much power. It is a game, but games should only be played under controlled conditions—with the parents controlling those conditions. Otherwise, the child learns that he cannot turn to his parents for help and wisdom when he needs it. He learns that his parents are weak.
Parents begin surrendering control of their child to their child out of kindness because it hurts to say, “No,” but, ironically, when a child has her parents wrapped around her finger, the child is not happy, and does not feel secure or loved.
If your child doesn’t want to go to school, it’s easy to brush off the possible complexities of the situation and say, “Just get to school.” A wiser approach is to first find out why. Then you can say, “Just go to school” –or not.