Q: My 11-year-old son has been telling us that he doesn’t want to go to school next week, and is angry every day when we talk to him about it. He doesn’t explain why he feels this way, but says that switching classes or schools wouldn’t make a difference. He just changes the subject whenever we try to understand his feelings. My husband and I don’t know what to do to help him, and we’re very worried about his attitude.
A: On a practical level, one needs to first rule out obvious possible problems such as learning disabilities. If the past school year was not academically successful, one must ascertain whether that less-than-positive experience is making the student apprehensive about the coming year. Sometimes it helps to reassure the child by suggesting extra help — tutoring, or having a parent work closely with the teacher. A child may not verbalize fears of being academically inadequate, but a perceptive parent will work proactively to prevent such fears from being destructive to a child. The transition from summer to school is not necessarily easy for any student, as life without 9–5 classes followed by homework is much less stress-producing on a day-to-day basis. However, part of becoming a young adult is learning to make the transition between leisure time and disciplined time in a smooth manner. If a child is having particular difficulty with this transition, parents need to explore various possibilities in order to assist their child.
Another concrete way to tackle a difficult subject is problem-solving with your child: take apart the problem and look for solutions together. An example of this might be in the area of test-taking. First ask the child to suggest possible solutions to improving test scores. This can start with the note-taking process itself. What can be done to improve this area of schoolwork? A parent can introduce the idea of writing down the “main concept” of a teacher’s discussion, and explain how that can be done. Another child may feel more comfortable working with a classmate’s notes. How can that be achieved? A child should feel that his or her parents believe in his or her abilities, and together they can be flexible in finding creative solutions to school challenges.
If a child has problems concentrating (and necessary educational evaluations have been done), a parent can contact the teacher and suggest ideas for positive reinforcement. Make sure not to lose contact after the winter PTA meeting! Not all teachers are open to parents’ suggestions, but if a parent shoulders most of the responsibility of the project (i.e., asking the teacher for a simple behavioral evaluation once a week to allow the parent to follow through with rewards), such an endeavor can have a positive outcome.
Interaction with peers may be another difficult aspect of the school day. A child may be having problems with classmates; this is most painful to a parent. To elicit a response from a child with limited communication skills, it might be helpful to describe how a parent behaved in similar circumstances. The parent can explain how s/he handled a problem; which approaches were successful and which were not. Even if a child does not verbally respond to this, it helps him or her feel less alone by hearing that even an older person experienced similar feelings.
The best solutions are those created by the children themselves. Rebbeim, teachers, or paras who monitor the children during recess can be asked to observe social interactions and get a sense of what the child might be doing that is socially inappropriate. Such behaviors might include showing off, making up stories to impress peers, or exhibiting boundary issues. Though parents might observe similar behavioral issues in their child’s interactions with neighbors or cousins, having an objective third person view this may reinforce the parents’ observations and provide realistic solutions in a classroom situation.
If a child is fearful of leaving his or her family, other issues need to be explored. Both parents need to be united in their approach to help solidify a child’s sense of both parents believing in his or her emerging potential. If the problem needs outside intervention, professional help should be sought.
In general, a parent needs to acknowledge a child’s fears but exhibit confidence that s/he will overcome them. Receiving too much compassion and not enough problem-solving techniques can create self-pity in a child’s mind, and a sense of great vulnerability in relation to the world. It is the tenuous balance of support and challenge offered by a caring parent that ultimately will determine success.