There’s nothing worse than seeing the worried look on your kid’s face as they get out of the car each morning, with their shoulders hunched over like they’re carrying the weight of the world.
Then, each afternoon, you find another negative comment from the teacher in their folder. Your once carefree child is on the verge of giving up entirely on their whole school experience.
However, within about an hour of arriving home, they start to perk up and you see the light come back into their eyes. If you’re upset because your child hates school, I’ve got an action plan to help you think through causes and solutions.
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Don’t blow it off – take the problem seriously.
I’ve had parents mention casually at a parent/teacher meeting that their child hates school. I knew the student felt that way, but I found it heartbreaking that the parent just accepted that reality.
I think these parents probably also hated school as a kid, and they just assume it’s a fact of life.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Your child doesn’t need to hate school, and it should alarm you if they do.
Kids are in school for 180 days each year, for about 8 hours a day. And they stick with it for 13 years. For much of the year, your child’s teacher spends more time with them than you do. If you HATED your job, would you continue doing it if you had a choice? Wouldn’t you aim to do something about it?
These are your child’s formative years, and they shape the person he or she will become. Do not accept misery on behalf of your child. Look for solutions below, and see if you can right the ship.
Make a list of possible reasons why your child hates school.
The first step is brainstorming reasons why your kiddo might be struggling to find the joy in their school experience. Unfortunately, kids aren’t always the best at identifying the true cause of their frustrations.
Kids will say things like, “The teacher is always yelling at me.” If that were the true source of the problem, you could just switch teachers and the problem would be solved. What they really mean is “The teacher is always redirecting my behavior, and I feel like she doesn’t like me, because I literally get nothing done and distract the kids around me in the process of acting out.”
Or, your child might say, “The kids are ALL mean to me on the playground.” That’s possible, but as someone who has taught in public schools at both the elementary and middle school level, I can say it’s not likely. What’s more plausible is that your child is struggling with social skills, feels lonely and is sometimes picked on by one or two kids. That subtle difference has a completely different solution.
Let’s look at some possible root causes for unhappy kids in school, so that you can come to your parent/teacher meeting prepared and open minded about what s/he has to say.
Neuro-divergent Students (ADHD, Autism, ODD, and More)
Some kids with undiagnosed or untreated ADHD, autism, or ODD are really challenging to educate within the public school system. There are countless other behavioral challenges that are difficult for mainstream educators to manage with 20 other kids in the room and a rigorous curriculum to get through.
It’s true that education SHOULDN’T be a one-size-fits-all proposition, but for now, that’s mostly the system we must work within. There are fabulous teachers and administrators all across the US who go above and beyond to get extra training to be a better teacher for a broad range of learners.
However, not everyone is cut out to deal with the countless demands on teachers AND become an expert on neuro-divergent children who are mainstreamed. We simply haven’t been provided the resources.
Neuro-divergent students are as different from one another as they are from the general population, so it’s very difficult (and ill-advised) to make generalizations.
That said, if your child is unable to focus, struggles with respecting authority figures or following someone else’s schedule, gets easily overstimulated, or has poorly controlled emotional regulation, the average public school experience is going to be difficult to navigate for the child and their parents.
This is absolutely not my area of expertise, so look to this collection of resources for guidance. Included are some great mom bloggers whose children receive special education services. They are heroes in my book! Also, be sure to know your special education rights.
Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Challenges
Not every student with social, emotional, and behavioral challenges has or needs a diagnosis. Some kids are just tough cookies to crack!
If your child is having social difficulties in school, it can make group work, recess, PE, and meal times especially hard. Unfortunately, broken hearts interfere with academics, too. Children don’t compartmentalize hurt feelings and come back to class with an open mind that’s ready to learn.
When feelings are hurt regularly, it can make the entire school day painful. When these days continue over a period of weeks, your child may become miserable at school.
So many parents choose to move their child to a different school, or homeschool them as a result. Only you know what’s best for your child.
Unfortunately, until the root cause is addressed, the problems will follow them to another classroom or another school. Kids who are high in interpersonal intelligence will do much better at making friends.
For students who struggle with interpersonal intelligence, relocating to another school won’t solve anything. In fact, they’ll carry the same problems, but now have the pain of a stressful transition, too. They need to practice and learn social skills, and often mature a little bit.
Homeschooling students with social difficulties will shelter them from the pain, but they’ll also not get an opportunity to grow in this area unless they’re also getting lots of social interaction from homeschool community groups.
Some kids just don’t have great emotional regulation. Maturity helps a great deal, so sometimes “waiting it out” can work. In other cases, different solutions are required. If your child is having explosive meltdowns in class, especially if most other kids their age have grown out of this behavior, it will absolutely impede their ability to make friends and complete classwork. When kids can’t make friends, satisfy the expectations of teachers, it makes for a very miserable school year.
I had three students in third grade last year with serious emotional control problems.
- One of them was undiagnosed but quite likely on the autism spectrum. He has mostly grown out of his problematic behaviors as a fifth grader, likely due to having a stable home life now and a solid academic support plan. He’s doing wonderfully.
- The second friend is what educators call “twice exceptional.” These students are rare, but he was highly gifted in several areas (reading on an 11th grade level) but also had ADHD and serious behavior problems. He has been homeschooled ever since the start of the pandemic. I suspect he is doing fine academically at home because he has such an intense love of reading and learning.
- The third child had emotional control problems caused by fetal alcohol syndrome. In second grade, he used to become so violent that he turned over a fully loaded filing cabinet. He is now in fifth grade and thriving on the right combination of medicines to treat his depression and other mental health challenges. The entire campus knows him and keeps an eye on even the subtlest changes, ready to report back to Grandma. He smiles every time he sees me, tells me about his progress, and his artwork is incredible. He reminds me that there is hope for every child.
I wanted to include this because I think it’s easy as parents to focus on the problematic behavior, so you might be inclined to look here first.
But when I work with students, I almost never find that the behavior can be addressed in a vacuum. So often, behavior problems in school (the kind that are bad enough for your child to hate school) are rooted in mental health challenges, major upheaval or stress at home, learning challenges, or neuro-divergences, or low frustration tolerance that’s being aggravated by academic problems. It’s pretty rare for a kid to just have persistently bad behavior when there’s not something else driving it all.
If your child is miserable because they can’t behave and keep getting into trouble, you’ll need to get to the root of the behavior problem.
Bad Teaching / Bad School
It’s entirely possible that your child got a bad teacher this year, (or at least, a bad teacher for your particular student) and it’s making him or her miserable. But truthfully, kids are only ever upset about a “bad teacher” if they’re getting in trouble constantly, and it’s perceived as being unfair or just relentlessly negative.
Here’s how you can tell if you’ve got a “bad teacher.”
- You’ve never gotten any teacher complaints in the past, and the specialist teachers this year – PE, music, art, computers – are not having a hard time with your child. Administration is not concerned, either. You’ve spoken to multiple adults at the school with an open mind about your child’s behavior, and everyone thinks your child is lovely – except their teacher.
- You’ve spoken with the teacher in person (see below section), and talked with them about your child several times. The teacher has almost nothing positive to say about your kid, is defensive when you respectfully challenge her opinions or expertise, and just generally leaves a terrible taste in your mouth. So many teacher/parent relationship problems can be solved with an in-person meeting.
If a child isn’t confident in their academic abilities, learning will never be fun. If they have already reached a frustration point, where they don’t have any hope about growing, they will continue to struggle.
If your child hates school, they may simply hate feeling like a failure all day long. Wouldn’t that be so hard at any age? Read about some of the most common academic performance problems that can affect most of the core subjects.
Undiagnosed or Untreated Dyslexia
If you’re wondering about the possibility of your child being dyslexic, read more about dyslexia myths here. I’ve written a post to help you learn more about it, in plain language.
Dyslexia runs in families, but it’s also been historically under-diagnosed. If you were a struggling reader, it’s possible that your child might be dyslexic.
The programs available to help dyslexic students are incredible, and students can become great readers with the proper supports.
Some clues that your child might be dyslexic:
- A parent is dyslexic or was a struggling reader.
- They are great conversationalists and capable in other areas academically. It just doesn’t make sense for them to have such trouble reading because they’re quite bright in other areas.
- If you read a story to them that’s on grade level or even above grade level, their comprehension is on point. It’s just decoding text that presents a problem.
Reading ability touches every area of school life. If your child is dyslexic, they’ll have to work twice as hard as other students, and it’s just exhausting.
Other Learning Challenges/Undiagnosed Special Needs
If your child is struggling across the board in school and even has difficulty accomplishing cognitive tasks at home, they might have special learning needs.
Special education services are not something to fear. They can be a huge help to kids, and students don’t usually get pulled out of class or isolated from their peers unless they have significant physical challenges. They are required to be educated in the “least restrictive environment.” As a third grade teacher, I can tell you that the kids don’t even realize who is receiving extra support.
I’ve never once witnessed a child be made fun of for receiving special education services.
If you request in writing that your school test your child for special education support, they are required to respond within a certain amount of time. Learn your rights here.
Absences Caused By Health Concerns or Major Life Changes
It happens quite often that we see kids get significantly behind in school due to absences. Parents usually don’t consider absences to be a big deal, and some see it strictly as a matter of compliance. Exceptionally bright kids can often make up a few missed days here and there.
However, when a child has significant absences over a period of time, they very often struggle, even long after regular attendance is reestablished. By third grade, kids who were absent a ton in kindergarten and elementary school are often still behind their peers.
Luckily, this is easily fixed with targeted, high quality tutoring. I would not recommend your child be tutored by their own teacher, unless it’s the only affordable option. Most public school teachers don’t have the mental or emotional bandwidth to take on high quality tutoring before or after school.
Instead, look for a private tutor who can identify missing skills and meet your child where they are at. If they’ve fallen behind their peers, they need someone who can get right on their level and push them a step beyond on a regular basis.
Lack of Grit/Persistence and Motivation
This is something that can’t be taught in school. We can remind kids to keep trying, and we can adopt a healthy growth mindset as a class. But if the child hasn’t been taught grit from an early age, or if their parents rescued them every time they encountered something frustrating, the teacher’s hands are tied.
Many teachers, myself included, will use stickers, prizes and praise to try and motivate kids to learn. But there’s truly no replacement for an inherent curiosity about the world, or a natural desire to achieve.
If your child is struggling with motivation in school, it can be helpful to build their confidence and sense of self worth in other ways. Check out my post all about positive affirmation for kids!
Meet with the teacher to get her perspective on why your child hates school.
It’s really important to have a heart-to-heart with your child’s teacher to try and get to the bottom of why your child hates school. Here are some tips for your parent teacher conference, and if you’re interested, I’ve got an entire post about conferencing with teachers.
Come with a list of questions.
Teachers are often pressed for time or super tired. That’s just the nature of the job. They DO want to help you problem solve what’s going on with your kid, though. Come with a list of questions to help you get to the bottom of why your child hates school.
Ask lots of questions about their academic performance, confidence, willing to take risks, social life, and emotional health.
Approach the meeting ready to collaborate.
Most teachers come to these meetings eager to collaborate, but also with plenty of experience dealing with parents who are either completely unrealistic and uninformed, or downright abusive.
If you approach the meeting with humility, curiosity, and concern for your child, you’ll likely have great success working together. Teachers love to see kids succeeding and happy in their classrooms and are almost always grateful for any insight a parent can provide about a challenging student.
Come to the meeting with an open heart and mind, rather than a chip on your shoulder. Your child’s teacher will return the favor and you’ll make a solid plan together.
Respect the teacher’s insight about your child.
Be aware that many kids are totally different people at home and school. If it sounds like she’s describing an entirely different person, don’t doubt her evaluation. School and home are two unique environments, so it’s expected that a child might respond differently in each setting, particularly if under a great deal of stress.
While you might recognize when your child is acting dramatically different than they usually do, you probably don’t have a great sense of what’s normal for their age. As a third grade teacher, I’ve got great insight into normal third grade behavior and ability. My own daughter is a first grader, and I’ve got a very shaky understanding of where she stands relative to her peers. It’s just not my area of expertise. First and third graders are nothing alike!
If your child’s teacher feels like their outbursts are no longer developmentally appropriate, take that seriously. If she is concerned that your child’s reading abilities seem stalled, ask her what actions you should take.
You’re the expert on your child, but the teacher almost always knows more about what’s normal or not for the age group.
Talk to multiple teachers for perspectives when possible.
No matter the age, your child likely has multiple teachers. Speak with anyone who interacts regularly with your child while you’re not around. Their PE teacher, soccer coach, piano teacher or Sunday School leader are all great options.
Come to these casual conversations with a listening ear. What do they notice about your child? Often, other people have insight you may be missing. We can so easily be blinded to our children’s gifts and challenges, especially when we are distracted with worry or fear.
Meet with your pediatrician and/or therapist as needed.
Sometimes, your conversation with a teacher might cause you to see your child’s challenges in a fresh light. Teachers are not allowed to diagnose things like ADHD and autism.
However, they might say things that give you clues that would warrant a meeting with a pediatrician or therapist.
Sometimes a teacher will say something and it will just click in a parent’s mind and change their perspective.
For example, I was meeting with a mom of a third grader one day about her son’s inability to concentrate. He wasn’t a trouble maker or even distracting other kids, but he couldn’t accomplish ANYTHING in class. Despite being intelligent, he would just space out for most of the class, and he never seemed to have any idea what to do.
It was clear to us that he had an attention deficit disorder, but he wasn’t hyper. It didn’t present the way it does in most little boys. We obviously never mentioned the word ADHD, but we dropped all the hints that he seemed literally incapable of focusing, despite multiple redirects and lots of movement throughout the class.
Mom admitted that her son hated school. He felt shame about himself and was tired of getting in trouble for bad grades and inattention in class. She felt bad for him, but she hated school as a kid, too. She just considered hating school to be a fact of life.
Mom confessed that the boy’s dad had ADHD but hated medicine growing up. The father had a bad experience with medicine, because he just felt numb, tired and depressed. They never considered getting him medicated because they were afraid he would lose his joyful, adorable spirit.
To be honest, I was shocked. I had literally never seen this child smile. He seemed truly miserable. So I said, “I know this is going to be so hard to hear. I don’t think your son is happy at all. That spunky kid you’re describing? It’s January, and I’ve never seen that side of him at all.”
Suddenly, she understood. Her child was spending 8 hours a day, five days a week unhappy. What was the harm in trying to treat the ADHD?
At first, we didn’t see much change. Mom got a follow up appointment and they switched medicines or doses. Within a couple of weeks of that second doctor visit, I saw the smile and fun temperament she was describing. It was like his whole world opened up. That incredibly bright kid began to actually achieve. Everyone wanted to be with him on group projects because he pulled his weight AND he was funny. It felt like a miracle to me.
Provide a restful break after school.
When your child hates school or is doing poorly, it can be tempting to try and force them to knock out their homework as soon as they arrive home. “No video games or t.v. until the homework is done!” is a common refrain.
I think sometimes kids do need a reasonable break when they arrive home. Keep it consistent – maybe it’s just thirty minutes when they arrive home to decompress alone and shake off the chaos of the day. My own husband requires this after a work day in order to be his best for the kids, and I think it’s fair.
Our brains need time to transition between work and home. Thirty minutes to an hour of free time, sunshine, fresh air, or journaling can be really wonderful.
Make sure your child knows that they’ll be given this time each day to prepare for home life. When they emerge from their room, you’d like to see a rested, respectful kid who is willing to help around the house, join up for family meals, or participate in extracurricular activities.
Protect everyone’s need for rest.
If your child hates school, minimize the amount of time spent on homework.
You only get so much time with your children before they are out of the house. If homework is causing your family to be miserable, and it’s interfering with your kid contributing to the family or having fun with extracurriculars, I would just not do it.
Yes, I said skip the homework. And I’m a teacher.
Homework is not an evidence-based best practice. Please don’t tell that to your child’s teacher. You don’t need to tell them how to do their job. Also, realize that many teachers would rather not assign homework, but campus or district policy requires it.
Homework isn’t differentiated. All kids get the same assignment, so it’s not really targeting the skills your kid needs the most. For kids who are already having a hard time in class, homework doesn’t help – it usually just frustrates them even further. It can also create a bunch of unnecessary stress on families.
However, homework is usually a very small part of your child’s grade. It doesn’t often make a meaningful difference on the report card. If your child is older and you’re worried about the long-term implications on their GPA, I still think it might be worth it for some families to skip.
Here’s a script that you can send your teacher. I’m happy for you to copy and paste this letter and then edit according to your child’s situation or age.
I wanted to let you know that we’re having a hard time getting homework done and it’s beginning to interfere with our family life. We are not going to continue doing homework as a family.
I understand that he will receive zeros for the work he misses, and that it will impact his grades. I have decided that I’m comfortable with that for now. I appreciate the work you put into the assignments and hope you will not take this decision personally.
My child’s education is important to me, and I want him to be successful. My goal is that in the near future, we’ll be able to tackle homework quickly and with quality. Maybe someday, he’ll begin to love learning again, and we’ll be discussing his college plans.
For now, we’re working on giving our child a break from the demands of the school day and encouraging him to play and relax as much as possible. We are also enrolling him in some activities after school that will boost his confidence.
To foster a love of learning at home, I’ll be reading with him every night. My goal is 20 minutes of reading a day with him.
I hope you can respect this difficult decision we are making. Please feel free to contact me at 555.555.5555 if you’d like to discuss this further.
The Big Ideas Educator
Find ways to boost your child’s confidence.
If your child is feeling unsuccessful for 7 or 8 hours every day, you need to find ways to help them feel confident and worthy of love and a future.
Remember that a person’s worth is not in what they accomplish, but in who they are and what makes them unique. Not every kid is cut out to be a stellar student, but each child matters.
So how can you boost your child’s self esteem?
Focus on modeling a growth mindset, teaching positive self talk, and giving them experiences in which they’ll feel successful. Look to your child’s growth areas, and give them more time spent in those activities.