You see your child after school and greet him with your usual question: "How was your day?" He blurts out a dreaded answer: "I hate school!"
Most students dislike school every so often, whether it's because of classmates making fun of them during lunch or a particularly difficult science project, or simply because it's taking away from their playtime. But it's an entirely different matter when a child makes a marked and sudden blanket statement about hating school.
It's possible that the problem will resolve itself on its own in a few days. But you might need to take some extra steps to resolve the underlying issue.
Of course, you can't take your child away from school entirely. But you can figure out what the problem is and find ways to address it.
Experts have observed some common reasons for children to express a hatred of school.
Cynthia Tobias, author of seven books including I Hate School!, says many kids who dislike the classroom aren't being taught in a way that matches how they learn. A lot of children experience school as a place where they are forced to sit in uncomfortable chairs, learn material based on the fact that it's included in standardized tests, and are told what they need to do better instead of what they are good at.
"They don't hate the learning part. They don't hate their teachers," Tobias says. "No kid wants to be told that his brain is broken."
School can be a difficult place for kids who learn by speaking aloud but are constantly told to be quiet in class, or restless children who are forced to sit in desks for much of the day. For these children, the real culprit is a mismatch between how they learn and how their teachers teach.
Heather Wittenberg, a psychologist who specializes in young children, says kindergarteners often say they hate school about a month after starting class. "After the first few weeks, the novelty wears off," she explains.
What started out as a fun diversion – a chance to ride the school bus and spend the day with other kids – can begin to feel like drudgery once a kindergartener realizes she has to go to school every day. Until children hit first or second grade, Wittenberg says, they are more suited to the cozy, protective environment of home than the classroom's pressure to succeed academically.
Fortunately, kindergarteners who are simply having trouble adjusting to school often settle in by Thanksgiving, she says.
If the problem occurs later in the school year, though, Wittenberg says other forces are probably at work. Perhaps your child is having difficulty learning – some young children aren't yet ready to handle academics. There might also be tension between your child and his teacher or a classmate. "There's something in that classroom that's not right," Wittenberg says.
Or, if your family is going through a big life event like a divorce or bringing home a new baby, your child might be saying she hates school because she feels like she has to be at home.
What to Do
The simplest way to learn why your child doesn't like school is to ask. Pose open-ended questions.
"Ask them, 'What would you do to make it better? What would make you like school?' " Tobias says. The answer will likely point you toward the real problem.
She also suggests observing your child's personality and how he learns. With your help, he can begin to take charge of his own success by finding a way to tackle his homework in a way that matches his learning style.
A child who learns by talking would benefit from having a study buddy who can help him talk through his assignments, Tobias says. A child who learns through movement should be encouraged to wiggle or tap her feet.
Tobias notes that helping your child adapt to his classroom is an important lesson in itself, because he will spend the rest of his life with people who function differently than he does.
In any case, if your child spends more than two or three weeks saying she hates school, set up an appointment with her teacher. Ask for the teacher's observations. Tobias suggests one question to ask: "What can I do?"
Wittenberg says a young child who is having trouble adjusting to the classroom might benefit from an occasional day at home or a switch from a full-day to a half-day kindergarten class – not much of an adjustment if it is made just a few weeks into the year. Or you can make your child feel better with small reminders of home, like a note from you in his lunch box.
Eventually, the clear solution to your child's dislike of school might be to switch her to a new classroom or teacher. But chances are that step won't be necessary. If you and the teacher work together, and if you continue you to communicate with your child throughout the process, school can turn into a place where your child will be happy, and thrive.