School Blues

Dear Parentworks,

I have a 1st grader who hates going to school! She loved Kindergarten, really liked her teachers and friends at the beginning of the year but almost everyday it's a battle to get her in the classroom. I've talked with her teachers and they assure me they aren't aware of any particular "trauma" that may have happened to her at school, she has friends and once she finally gets into the classroom, gets settled in and I leave (while she's sobbing) her teachers say she's fine for the rest of the day. What's the deal?

- Struggling with School (literally!)

Dear Struggling,

It's crucial as our relationships with our children grow over the years, that we demonstrate to them that we care enough to really listen to them and their concerns. Let her know you will work with her to help her through this situation. Trying to talk your daughter out of her resistance to being at school alone is a technique many parents attempt and which typically doesn't help at all. Suggestions like "Stop crying" (she would if she could), criticism such as "Don't be such a baby" (everyone needs to cry sometimes), or even bribery "I'll take you to your favorite fast food restaurant after school if you stop crying now" (after school is a long time away, won't solve the problem and can lead to a negative pattern of food as a solution to one's daily upsets) - these might even seem to work in the short run but don't have a place in your long term loving relationship with her. No, these strategies generally tend to make anyone who hears them feel as though no one "gets it" and your daughter may feel she needs to protest to you even more loudly to ensure you know that she is upset.

One possibility of why this is suddenly popping up now could stem from an impending developmental growth spurt. Many children, when approaching an emotional or developmental leap ahead, can exhibit "regressive" or younger behaviors. It helps them to feel safe to go back to a way of acting that they have been familiar before abandoning them for their new skills and challenges. Fears and clingy behavior are often seen during these times and frequently occur soon before or after a birthday. Reassurance that she's ok and that you understand she's upset, combined with extra hugs, can - in some instances - help until she's ready to make that leap.

For some children, making a transition from the summer time to school beginning can be difficult, shifting from the weekend patterns to the demands of the school week are stressful and for some the transition from being with their cozy and familiar family to the larger social world leads to anxiety and meltdown. Since she has enjoyed positive school experiences in the past and she has shown this year that she is able to relax and settle down once you're gone it's quite likely she may just be just experiencing a temporary bout of separation anxiety. I'm very glad to know that you and your child's teachers have explored the topic of your child's safety at school and have ruled that out as a possible cause. Ask your daughter if she has any worries about school to see if she is able to come up with something on her own. Though she may not really know how to express what's wrong - especially if you ask "Why" or "What's wrong". Often, especially at this age, that's just too general of a question to narrow down - but asking about "worries" can sometimes help get at the source.

If either of these also prove fruitless, consider examining your family's activities and schedule. A recent report sited in the November 2004 issue of "Better Homes and Gardens" noted that more visits to the school nurse occur on Monday mornings than any other time of the week. If your weekend doesn't include some time for the family to enjoy some relaxing down time before the whole new school week starts again, that might be a possible source of stress for your daughter. Setting aside Sunday evening to begin the winding down process and being together or ensuring that Monday morning is not a hectic whirlwind of activity where everyone is running late and rushing to get away. For a child who doesn't like change or needs their own pace to feel comfortable - scurrying around can make them just want to put on the brakes.

But the first step is to ensure that she knows you really understand that she's upset and that you want to help her. See if she can come up with anything specific herself, think about her general style of relating to the world and if she's someone who strongly doesn't like transitions, helping her learn techniques to deal with that stress will help her throughout her life. And finally, do a quick lifestyle examination, maybe ensuring more Mom time instead of going or doing something else, planning with her what will happen when she goes to school the next day, showing her you have confidence in her will help you both during this trying time.