Parents, you’ve got questions, we’ve got answers.

Or just as likely, we’ve got questions and you’ve got answers.

Challenge: Back to School

When a child says "No" to school

Vote up!
Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Email this article

Two years ago, our daughter had a fantastic year in Kindergarten. Last year, her experience in first grade was a nightmare that caused us great distress. My daughter was two months short of being six years old when she entered first grade.

There are a slew of reasons why her experience at school last year was so bad. We moved into our first house in a different neighborhood, we changed schools, we no longer saw our friends as often, we no longer had the same neighbors, and more. These changes were not easy for either of our children, but I didn’t take notice of the impact as I should have.


From a sociable and lovable little chatterbox who performed outstandingly in every aspect in Kindergarten, our young daughter turned into a disconsolate and lonely girl who wouldn’t play with the other children in the school yard. She would walk about by herself in a huge and unappealing yard that was populated by dozens of other children. There she would stand, sometimes kicking the asphalt or looking sadly at her feet. It was a heartbreaking sight.

The year before, she was always delighted as she ran around a smaller school yard with her classmates. Her teachers depended upon her to cheer up moody and unhappy classmates. A simple touch from my daughter’s hand would relieve another classmate’s sorrow or frustration. After such a great year, I never suspected that the new school year would be anything but fun for her. In fact, I was confident that she would do great.

However, from the start of the new school year our daughter complained that the school day was too long. My husband left the house before 8 a.m. every morning to take both our children to school. Every morning, my husband was detained at school by our daughter’s unexpected complaints and fears. He would stay in the classroom to reassure her until she felt confident enough to wave good-bye to him.

Over the first several weeks of school, I dropped by the school during recess and/or the lunch breaks to visit her. It was during those visits that I saw how sad our little five year old was. Invariably, she sat by herself near the classroom door or she paced the school yard, eyes cast downward. I had never seen her this sad before and I was stunned.

Our daughter explained that the recess and lunch breaks were too long. The children were left under the supervision of yard monitors while the teachers went to take their breaks. Despite knowing that our daughter was saddened and lonely, her teacher left her every single day in the yard...even if she was crying. My husband and I frankly failed to understand how the teacher could leave a young child alone and afraid in the school yard.

Strangely enough, we defended the teacher and her right to privacy and time to herself. We tried to inform our daughter that she could not expect her teacher to stay with her during recess and lunch. We said this despite the fact that her Kindergarten teachers never left their young charges, just as we had never deserted our young daughter. The first grade teacher failed to provide our daughter with the unconditional love that she had learned to acknowledge in her life. Unconditional love was, and is, the norm in our daughter’s life. Yet we abandoned her to the care of a teacher who could not provide that level of care and attention.

Apparently, our daughter could not bridge the gap between receiving unconditional love both at home and at her previous school versus facing the reality of a teacher who did not have the capacity to dispense unconditional love. The fact was that our daughter’s entire world was falling apart because of our inability to provide her a loving environment in which she could learn and spend an entire day. Our daughter must have wondered how, if we loved her unconditionally, we could have abandoned her at a school where her teacher could not requite her love.

I tried to work with the teacher in order to learn how our daughter could adapt to her new environment. It seems, though, that the onus always seems to fall upon the young child and, in this case, it was our daughter. Effectively, the teacher advised me on what my daughter could do to improve her situation. For example, my daughter should warm up to her new classmates. Then, I should initiate play dates for her. However, when my daughter remained disconsolate and continued to show little interest in her classmates, her teacher appeared to wash her hands of the matter.

It wasn’t until the third month of school that I began to perceive that as our daughter continued to suffer with difficult morning separations, the teacher did little to help her. This young teacher had no idea what it meant to comfort a sad child. In truth, she also demonstrated little interest in providing her young students with the affection and succor they needed. Her class was very structured and orderly; the teacher was clearly in command of her students. Beyond the veneer of a controlled classroom, though, my husband and I noted that the primary element of joy was missing. There was little joy in the room and it became obvious why our daughter cried every time we brought her to school. However, we didn’t quite catch understand how deeply disconsolate our daughter was.

Meanwhile, we believed that she would be all right and that things would get better. We knew that this had been an unusually stressful year and we were confident that our daughter would adjust to the new school environment. It turned out that she never adjusted. The tears and resistance to attend school continued unabated. Yet we continued to encourage her to "challenge" herself.

The ultimate irony of this situation was that it was not our daughter who was confused at all. It was we, her parents, who were completely confused. We had done so much for her during the early years of her life through stay-at-home mothering, prolonged breastfeeding, and co-sleeping. Yet I had suddenly determined when she was nearly six years old that she needed to "grow up." So even though she was telling me that she was deeply unhappy and insecure, I wanted to believe that she would adapt to her circumstances.

Unbelievably, I had succumbed to the belief that young children need to adapt themselves to harsh, and often unnecessary, situations. Invoking the "resilience factor" of young children, we unwittingly press them to endure hardships that are harmful and derogatory. Indubitably, the general belief is that children will overcome their suffering, regardless of the futility of experiencing such pain and sorrow. I never thought that I would become so hard-hearted that I would expect my sweet and kind daughter to become more resilient in the face of adversity. Yet that was exactly what I was doing.

The wake-up call came abruptly when our daughter’s teacher graded her stringently on her report card. It turned out that I was willing to put up with the teacher’s inability to appreciate my daughter as a humane and loving little child, but I would not tolerate any misjudgment of her intellect. I suddenly realized how harsh and mean the teacher was. The teacher criticized our daughter for not expressing her understanding of books even though she read proficiently. I also learned that the public school system in Los Angeles was trying to institute much higher standards in order to achieve higher student performance. I frankly did not care was the school district was trying to accomplish. All I saw was that our daughter was being terribly underestimated and that was egregious. No one would underestimate our daughter’s intelligence.

As it turned out, no one underestimated our daughter’s intelligence more than I did. After several more weeks of soul-searching and blaming, I had come to the conclusion that the teacher was not good enough. Then, one night, our daughter said "It’s no one’s fault, Mommy, that I don’t want to go to school." She dismantled all of my exhaustive theories about whose fault it was that she did not want to attend school. Even though she had been telling me all along that the school day was too long and that she wanted to stay home, I just didn’t hear her clearly enough.

The fact is that she did not like the structure of her school day. Something was missing. Whether it was joy or spontaneous laughter, I won’t know. I do know that while I was delving into the psychology of why she would not attend school, she had already stated clearly that she was not interested in going.

The belief that she should somehow become more mature because she was in the first grade was ludicrous and irrational. Once I ceased to entertain that notion, I was literally free of my terrible headache. I finally understood that she was asking for more time at home with me. She simply needed more time at home and I realized that I was only too happy to comply. She is a joy to be around.

We never sent our daughter back to school after her winter break. She had already endured three months of quiet suffering at school. She spent the rest of the school year at home with me and she did a great deal of school work and spontaneous learning. There was never a dull moment for her because she was delighted to be home.

This all occurred a year ago, and now my daughter attend a new school. This school’s philosophy is based upon loving, nurturing, and respecting the unique gifts of young children. Interestingly enough, she has only the fondest memories of her first grade teacher. Just recently, she began speaking of the many books that her teacher gave her to read. She looks with pride upon the great deal of work she did at school with the same teacher last year. Our daughter never harbored ill feelings toward her teacher, unlike me.

It took me a while to recognize the simple fact that my daughter was not yet ready to attend a full day of school. I am only thankful that I did not fixate upon the mistaken notion that our daughter had to mature before she was truly ready to do so. It is absolutely unnecessary for parents to force upon young children rigid rules about behavior when they are perhaps not mature enough to comprehend why they need to follow rigid rules. Fortunately for us, our daughter was able to express how unhappy she was with attending a full day of school. Fortunately for her, we listened.

This post comes from the TODAY Parenting Team community, where all members are welcome to post and discuss parenting solutions. Learn more and join us! Because we're all in this together.