Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari
When Going to School is Not a Pleasure Part 1
Identifying the Reasons Children Dislike Going to School, and Three Mistakes Parents Make.
When it comes to school drop off, we want to be sending our child in with a smile on their face. We want that bittersweet moment of seeing them skip into the classroom without looking back, too excited for the day to come to remember to be anxious about saying goodbye to Mummy or Daddy. A quick, happy separation at the school gates gives us comfort that, whilst we might miss them throughout the day, they are safe and happy and thriving without us.
It doesn’t happen as tidily as this for many of us. A difficult and exhausting school drop-off is common, and can happen for so many reasons.
Below, I outline some of these reasons, as well as three common mistakes parents make that exacerbate a difficult morning separation. After this, I invite you to break the habits that reinforce a stressful and anxious morning routine, with a series of practical tips that will help you to support your child with the transition into the school day.
Why is Going to School Not a Pleasure?
First, it’s important to identify the reason for your child’s resistance to going to school.
Struggles at School
It might be that the problem is at school itself – of course, it’s not uncommon for children to face friendship or academic issues that affect self-esteem. In this case, difficulty with gate separation is a symptom rather than the root cause of the issue. As well as making changes to your morning routine, you’ll need to communicate with the school to resolve deeper problems.
Emotions from Elsewhere
There might also be emotional issues at play that have nothing to do with school – a new sibling, a move – that manifest in school separation anxiety. Some children simply have more difficulty with emotional regulation during transitions, even when life at school and home are a pleasure.
Resistance to going to school might also just be habit. Think about your morning routine: is there a script that you and your family follow? An argument about teeth-brushing or tying shoelaces that you both know so well you can recite it by heart? These scripts build habits that are powerful, and hard to break out of.
Figuring out your child’s particular problem with school separation will come from a combination of communication and observation. If the child’s age allows, have conversations with them about how they feel about school, outside the context of drop-off. When they come out of school or nursery at the end of the day, are they happy and excited – no trace of the anxiety of the morning? How do they speak about their teachers and classmates? It’s important to note that at pick-up you might find your child exhausted, clingy or in tantrum.
For young children, the long day at nursery can be very overwhelming. They bring their best self and self-control to the class, and allow themselves to fall apart in the presence of a parent. It might be a sign of exhaustion more than dissatisfaction with the day at school.
Three Mistakes Parents Make:
Working with parents for many years, I have noticed parents repeating three fundamental mistakes that make the separation in the morning more challenging for the child. Here I will outline these mistakes, and replace them with ways to untangle the morning struggle.
1. A Stressful Morning Script
Take a look at your morning routine. Do you find yourself stressed, constantly ‘nagging’ the child to be ready? Always running late to school, or only just making it on time? Do you feel the fight against time, doing things for your child that they should be doing themselves (e.g. dressing them, or tying their laces)? What is the quality of your journey to school? Is it rushed or joyful? Are you arriving to school just in time, or slightly late on most mornings?
A morning characterised by calmness and intentionality – one that centres around working together as a family, rather than in conflict with one another – will set you up for a smoother goodbye.
2. Talking Down Teachers
We might find ourselves talking with other parents, friends or our partner about the school and the teachers. We naturally express our dissatisfaction, or worry about a specific teacher. Yet, what we might not take into consideration is that when we’re critical of the teacher in front of our child, we’re teaching them that there’s nobody to trust at school. Children are smart – they pick up on our reservations, and they learn from them. And if we do not trust the teacher, how can the child feel safe in their company? This is a fast track to feeling anxious about going to school.
If you need to speak with the teacher, by all means do that. It is important that the teacher knows about the child’s struggles in the morning, so they can better support them at handover. But avoid expressing your doubts in the presence of your little one.
Children will be free to settle in more easily when they receive the message, directly or indirectly, that when you take them to school, you are passing them on to someone capable, whom you trust. It’s equally important to show that you trust your child to be able to manage this transition.
3. A Lengthy Goodbye
It’s hard to leave a crying child behind. We stick around and extend the goodbye, sometimes out of guilt, and sometimes out of a misguided belief that staying for longer will make things easier. In fact, it’s likely to make things worse. The longer the parent stays, more often than not, the more stressed the child becomes. Giving your child to their caretakers, alongside doing the groundwork before you reach the school gate, will make this transition smoother for your child and yourself.
Bringing it Together
Okay, let's take a breather here. You've taken the first steps towards understanding your child's reasons for not wanting to go to school. You've learned the story about school that they're telling themselves. Is it that they worry they'll be lonely and miss you throughout the school day, or that they'll get picked on by their teacher?
You've also done some self-reflection. What actions are you taking, or not taking, that unintentionally make your child's transition into the school day more difficult?
In Part 2 of this blog, we'll synthesize this information, and bring you constructive advice on how to change your script. Read on for 2 steps for a smoother morning routine, and my top magical tips to make going to school a pleasure.
Written by Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari, a senior parenting and relationship expert with 20 years of experience empowering parents throughout their parenting journey. She is also psychologist, speaker and author, who is passionate about giving families access to trustworthy advice. She runs a private clinic in Hampstead, London, and in addition to running parenting workshops, she is the author of Small Steps to Great Parenting, The Essential Guide for Busy Families, and is the chairperson of Imago UK, an internationally-recognised approach to relationship therapy.
Dr Ben-Ari’s expertise are regularly been featured by the BBC, Stylist, Metro, Evening Standard and Refinery29 and has been a guest on podcasts like Cosmopolitan UK and The Parent Hood.