Help! My child doesn't want to go back to school

What should parents do if they suspect their child doesn't want to go back to school? Amy Johnson has some tips for getting to the nub of the problem and what to do if they say they aren’t fitting in

The countdown to the start of the school year

Every year, as the school holidays draw to a close, thoughts turn towards going back to school. For many teenagers, the prospect of returning this year after months of enforced isolation will be especially appealing.

But for some it won’t be. For them, lockdown was a relief, a break from the relentless pressures of school. For the anxious, the bullied or for children who simply feel that they don’t fit in the prospect of going back to school isn’t appealing at all, it’s frightening.

How to spot the signs your child is anxious and how to help

Most parents will recognise the signs that all isn’t well. As the first day of term approaches, your teenager may become withdrawn and more silent than usual.

Arguments over trivialities will escalate. They will become unreasonable, even aggressive. Once school starts, it becomes increasingly difficult to get them out of bed, to make them get ready on time and to get them out the door.

There may not be a problem if this kind of behaviour only lasts a short while. It may be a perfectly natural reaction to change, to the prospect of dealing with new teachers, new classmates or even the shock of a structured school day after the relative freedom of lockdown and the long summer break.

So my first piece of advice is – wait. Give your teen some space to sort their issues out for themselves. They may come to realise that their fears are exaggerated and their problems trivial. But if their negative attitude to school persists, what should parents do?

The key to discovering exactly what is troubling them is to approach your child like a detective not like a no-pain, no-gain fitness instructor. Hold off on the tough love and learn to ask open-ended questions, rather than those that can be answered with a dismissive yes or no. If you suspect that they have issues with a particular teacher or student, for instance, ask who they are looking forward to seeing again – and who they aren’t.

Look for signs of hesitation, or any fleeting anxiety. Be patient, and if your initial line of questioning doesn’t yield any answers, don’t press the issue, walk it back and try another route. Be alert for topics and people they seem particularly reluctant to discuss. As parents know, it’s often what teenagers don’t talk about as much as what they that can help you identify the nub of the problem.

Once you think you have got to the bottom of the issue and it is definitely school-related, be supportive and don’t over-react. It’s natural to want to be on their side, but most teenagers won’t thank you if you go into school all guns blazing – that will only compound their distress and embarrassment. Book an appointment and discuss any issues calmly.

If fellow students are the issue don’t be dismissive. Adults often forget how overwhelming peer pressure can be. For teenagers the approval or disapproval of their peers is the ultimate authority – it’s a far greater deal in their minds than the sanction of teachers or parents. Again, be patient but if they are being bullied or picked on for being different, remind them that the problem lies with their tormentors and not with them and that you’re proud of them for being who they are.

What to do if your child doesn't settle

If your teenager isn’t any happier three or four weeks after the start of term, contact the school and ask to speak to their form teacher. Go without your child and compare notes. Have their teachers noticed the same pattern of behaviour in class as you do at home, is there anyone they go to great efforts to avoid and so on?

Try to stay calm – getting angry and aggressive won’t help. Most teachers will only be too happy to discuss your child’s problems.

Ultimately, if your child really doesn't want to go back to school and if you think the school isn’t taking the issue seriously or isn’t putting in place measures to support your child, then perhaps it’s time to consider an alternative. That could be in the form of an alternative school nearby, or an online school.

Amy Johnson is the Chief Academic Officer of online private high school, Valenture Institute.
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