12 ways to battle school refusal

One of our followers has asked for help with supporting her grade prep son with transitions – particularly the one from home to school. Here are some ideas:

  • Anyone who knows me will be able to preempt my first tip which is to get yourself a visual schedule! Use several if needed i.e. one for the morning routine and then another separate one to show the reward, finishing with the reward, leaving the house, and walking to the school, and entering the classroom, and finishing off with another reward. Love a visual schedule.
  • Use a time timer to indicate the passing of time.
  • Make a list of potential rewards you can use for successful transitions. Get creative. Sometimes earning a day off or afternoon off (gasp!) will be motivating. Otherwise stickers, screen time, being a special helper at school, choosing where he sits, having time in the library or receiving a tangible reward (toy, snack etc.) will be motivating.
  • Remember rewards need to be changed over time as the novelty wears off.
  • Consider which skills your child is lacking in order to be able to successfully transition. Is it that he or she isn’t sure what to expect when they walk in the classroom? Is it overstimulating at school and they don’t know how to manage that? Do they struggle with a particular aspect of school and have now generalised that worry so that school as a whole represents that unease? Do they have big feelings and not know how to regulate them? When you sit and work out all the millions of skills needed for a successful transition from home to school, you can be guided by that list in terms of what you need to teach your littlie. A psychologist, speech pathologist and/or occupational therapist can usually help with this.
  • Be clear and consistent about the expectations i.e. a cool and calm transition = reward (which may be tangible or praise, whatever is motivating for your child). Explain what is and is not a cool and calm transition.
  • Prompt your child frequently to remind them in the moment of what they need to do in order to be successful. They will need a lot of hand-holding initially to be able to earn that reward. The first few rewards will be the most important and pave the way for future success.
  • Try to stay calm yourself. Easier said than done, but kids pick up on our emotions. Think about what your face looks like, what does your voice tone and volume say? How many times are you repeating an instruction? What are you actually saying to your child? The goal here, is to be calm, kind, supportive, understanding and firm (i.e. following through with noncompliance and sticking to your expectations as much as possible).
  • Do you talk about the problem in front of your child? If so, stop.  Talk to your child about your expectations and the rewards but don’t complain about it or negatively talk about it to others in front of him or her.
  • Celebrate the (sometimes very) small successes. If there’s a slight improvement in behaviour, acknowledge it.
  • Give yourself time in the morning to be able to sit with the behaviour and follow through with non-compliance. It might mean getting a babysitter in to help with the other children so that you can dedicate a few mornings to your child.
  • Be kind to yourself and your child. You’re both trying really hard and will get there eventually. Always ask your health professionals for help if it’s not working out for you.

We’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic! And email through any other topics you’d like us to address.

Amanda Abel is a paediatric psychologist and founder of Northern Centre for Child Development.




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