Dear Zoe: Help! My Son Hates School



Dear Zoe,

School’s just started and my 6-year-old cries every morning, saying he doesn’t want to go! I’ve spoken to the teacher who says he’s fine in class and transition to CP* can sometimes take time, but I hate feeling like he hates school already. What can I do to make things better? Should I just look for another school? I feel so desperate, I’m even considering homeschooling!

– Desperately Don’t Want to Homeschool

Dear Desperate Mum,

Congratulations! No need to despair, your son appears to be in great shape.

A healthy brain tells its owner when there is a perceived threat. For children, the start of a new semester is about being separated from parents, entering unfamiliar territory and interpreting a wave of new faces. The primal internal warning around all of this is typically articulated as “I hate school” or even, “I hate you!” These can be loosely translated as, “Everything is different!” and “Help!”

Going into Lower Elementary is extra challenging because your 6-year-old has just entered a stage of development that is all about relationships. While he is getting used to where he fits into the big world he has noticed out there, he is seeking a sense of security from the adults he trusts. Predictable routines are an important source of stability now — but there’s nothing predictable about a new school environment and a bunch of people you don’t know beyond knowing you really want them to like you. It’s like being lost at the fair, supposed to be fun but so isn’t.

Maybe it’s not much fun for you either. At home, the new morning routine isn’t going well, the new teacher hasn’t smiled at you and still doesn’t remember your son’s name, you have images of tearful children banished to corners of classrooms, and any minute now you’re going to get told off for not leaving your child in the right place at the right time, equipped with whatever was on that endless list of school supplies!

Your son is right — everything is different — and here’s how you can help him.

Team up against the bad guy

More often than not, the bad guy’s the panic, not the school. Pick a moment to talk when you have each other’s attention (not when you’re going out of the door to school!) then tell him what you’re noticing: “So I guess you’re not so happy about school these days?” Encourage him to describe what he’s feeling. “How’s it going at school? I bet it’s a little strange to be in a new place with all those new people, right?”

Let him know that you’re on the same team and that his feelings are normal. “Going into CP seems to be a big deal. I think I would be a little nervous if I were you.” Point out that things are different for you too. “I’m struggling to get the hang of . . . maybe you could help me out here. . . tell me who I should ask about that.”

Keeping the old alive can be a powerful way of getting used to the new

Try to find out what he hates. To “I don’t like the teachers,” you could answer, “It’s really tough getting to know new teachers, especially when you loved your previous teachers so much. Maybe we could go back and visit your old school one day.” Or “Would you like me to organize a play-date with (someone from his old school).” And “I used to enjoy having more time for. . . with you. Shall we try and do that this weekend?”

Don’t say, “You’re a big boy now”

No! He’s not big, he’s only 6! This is so tempting, not least because French parent-culture would have you believe that every child should aspire to being ‘bigger’ than they are. (Almost as soon as you’ve walked out of the hospital after giving birth you’re asked if your child is sleeping through the night!) It’s normal to want your son to be robust and normal. Actually, your son has gone from being the big boy at nursery school to being the little boy at elementary school, amidst big boys he will idolize and want to impress. It is not unusual at this age to see behavior regress rather than develop, because with age comes expectation and responsibility. When fearful that they won’t be able to manage it, children try to avoid it. By being a baby again, they are asking to be looked after by their elders.

Recipe of routine and reassurance

Looking for another school sends a message to your son that he is right to be scared and that school is wrong. Homeschooling, while reassuring him that he’s safe with Mummy, would also endorse the idea that he doesn’t have what it takes to be in a world outside home. It is solution-focused and natural maternal panic sends us in search of solutions, but it also prevents us from confronting the bad feelings that will follow, wherever we go. By helping him name his feelings, you are equipping him for every school he enters, not least the one we are all in every day. It’s a cliché, but someone wiser or cooler coined the cliché long before we overused it, so hold each other’s hand as you walk the darker corridors of the school of life. And maybe get more sleep, both of you.


*CP (cours préparatoire) is equivalent to first grade in America or Year Two in England

Have a question you need answered? Send them to Dear Zoe.


About Author

Zoe Gelis is a trained psychotherapist with a private practice in Paris. Previously, she was an Associate Psychotherapist at the Royal London Hospital. If you’d like to know more about Zoe, visit her here .


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