Ask the Expert: What to Do If Your Child “Hates” School

Promptly identify the cause and nip it in the bud
By Susan Cowan Morse

It is autumn in New England, where we enjoy the happy return of crisp morning air, the honks of departing geese, the landscape’s changing colors — and a new school year. For many, a new school year is exciting and marked with new clothes and school supplies and eager anticipation.

For some children (and their parents), school is not a relished endeavor. A young child cries and begs to stay home. Older children are grouchy, negative bears every school morning. The teenager is impossible to wake up and then just drags through the day. As a parent, it is incredibly painful to watch your child have such difficulty with an endeavor that defines an entire childhood and adolescence: school. For a parent who enjoyed school, it can be quite puzzling to understand why one’s child “hates” school.

An Early Struggle

A child’s passionate distaste for school usually begins early on. Many parents can recall an event or moment in childhood that marks the turning point from like to dislike. A struggle of some sort develops but goes unidentified and unaddressed — for months or even years. If not addressed as early as possible, it will get worse year by year. The source of the struggle lies in one of four areas: social challenges, learning disabilities, sensory issues or lack of meaningfulness.

Social Challenges

Positive relationships are crucial to school success. Learning is a social endeavor and occurs in the context of interactions. When a child is struggling and failing to make positive connections with peers and/or teachers, then school becomes a source of pain in that child’s life. Addressing these social difficulties is imperative. Schools often offer support through the guidance department in the form of direct teaching of social skills, buddy programs for young children and support groups for older students.

If you see that your child is not developing positive peer relations, contact your child’s teacher to discuss options within the school setting. Outside of school, consider your options as a parent for helping your child engage in positive peer relations through age-appropriate opportunities such as play dates, team building experiences or community involvement.

Learning Disabilities

Academic difficulties are often obvious early on in a child’s schooling. The difficulties lie in the primary areas of communication (reading and writing), computation (mathematics) and concentration (attention and focus). In some children, the difficulty is subtle and grows to be more debilitating as the years pass. In others, the struggle is obvious and draws the attention of a special education team. Diagnoses range from learning disabilities to AD/HD to dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia and others.

If you suspect that your child is struggling with communication, calculation and/or concentration contact the school and request a team meeting and an evaluation. Then, if you think that the evaluation misses something, seek outside professional advice to delve deeper. Though it may cost money, it is worth every dime to arrest the issue before it grows out of control.

Sensory Issues

More than ever before, we see children with significant sensory issues. These are the students who find school a difficult place to be because of the sensory overload. Some children can be super sensitive to fluorescent lights, carpet and furnishings, perfumes and environmental contaminants common in offices and in old buildings. Schools are noisy, boisterous places filled with active children. This noise can be overwhelming to some. And many children are overwhelmed by being in and around so many other people all day. They are sponges for other people’s emotions and energy and find it exhausting to be in a school building with hundreds of people every day. The child who experiences sensory overload often leaves school at the end of the day feeling utterly exhausted or intensely wired, reporting a headache and/or stomachache, and may report ringing in their ears and other physical ailments.

These children need to have their sensory issues addressed in order to be able to tolerate the school environment. This may mean a perfume free classroom, quiet time in a cocoon swing, ambient lighting instead of overhead lighting, and/or strategic placement with teacher(s) who can help them buffer the impact of stronger personalities.

Lack of Meaning

The child who struggles to find meaningfulness in school is the least understood. Often, this is the student who has no apparent social, academic or sensory struggles. Parents and teachers often repeat phrases such as “He can do it but he just refuses to do the work,” and “She can memorize the lyrics to her favorite song but she chooses not to study for her tests.” Sound familiar? This can be common for a teenager in a rebellious phase. However, when it shows up in your third grader you know you have a long road ahead.

These children crave meaningfulness in their life’s activities. They are often quite bright and see little use for activities that do not challenge their intellect. These students will engage in assignments that show obvious benefit. They often place high value on their connection to the person in the teaching role. They can be extreme examples of children for whom learning happens only in the context of a positive relationship. These students will gladly work for a teacher whom they admire even when they see no use for the topic or activity at hand. The deep relationship with the teacher offers the meaningfulness that they need.

If your child fits this description, an effective strategy is to do your best to request input into teacher selection. Do your homework about the teachers in your child’s school and figure out the best matches. If your child attends in conventional school (public or private), look into other options (like Montessori or Waldorf) or consider homeschooling. Make sure your child has opportunities outside of school to pursue activities that he finds meaningful (hobbies, sports.) Help your child relate the work she is doing in school to her personal interests.

Strategies and Support

The child who “hates” school rarely grows out of it without support and help to identify the struggle. A child’s reason for hating school is often straightforward and can be dealt with promptly when appropriate strategies are pursued. It is important to remember that placing blame is not productive. A school may work well for many children and a teacher may be effective for lots of students. However, that does not mean the teacher is right for every student or the school the best setting for every child. Childhood is a crucial time of life and there are many options for education.

Susan Cowan Morse is an educational coach and consultant in Wilmot, N.H. She may be reached at

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