No matter how excited your child was to pick out a new lunchbox and backpack this year, there will likely be days when they just don't want to go to school. Whether they're saying "I don't like school" when you're home playing together or having a meltdown on the way to the classroom, there are things you can say to help ease their back-to-school nerves.
More than the exact words you use, the most important thing is your attitude, which your child is most definitely aware of. It's important to validate their feelings while conveying a calm confidence that school is the right place for them to be and that they can handle it.
Here are some phrases that will encourage your child to go to school.
1. "You're safe here."
If you have a young child, they may be genuinely frightened of leaving you and going to school. Tell them that school is a safe place full of people who care about them. If you say this with calm confidence, they'll believe you. No matter what words you say, if your child senses your hesitation, your own fear of leaving them, they will not feel safe. How can they be safe if you're clearly scared of leaving them? Try to work through your own feelings about dropping them off before the actual day so you can be a calm presence and support.
2. "I love you and I know you can do this."
It's best to keep your goodbye short, even if your child is crying or clinging to you, and trust that you have chosen a good place for them to be. Most children recover from hard goodbyes quickly after the parent leaves.
If your child is having a hard time saying goodbye, give one good strong hug and tell them that you love them and know they can do this. Saying something like, "It's just school, you'll be fine" belittles their feelings. Instead, acknowledge that this is hard, but that you're confident they're up to the task. This validates the anxiety they're feeling while ending on a positive note.
After a quick reassurance, make your exit, take a deep breath and trust that they will be okay.
3. "First you'll have circle time, then work time, and then you'll play on the playground."
Talk your child through the daily schedule at school, including as many details as possible. Talk about what will happen when you drop them off, what kinds of work they will do, when they will eat lunch and play outside, and who will come to get them in the afternoon.
It can help to do this many times so that they become comfortable with the new daily rhythm.
4. "I'll pick you up after playground time."
Give your child a frame of reference for when you will be returning.
If your child can tell time, you can tell them you'll see them at 3:30pm. If they're younger, tell them what will happen right before you pick them up. Perhaps you'll come get them right after lunch, or maybe it's after math class.
Giving this reference point can help reassure them you are indeed coming back and that there is a specific plan for when they will see you again. As the days pass, they'll realize that you come consistently every day when you said you would and their anxieties will ease.
5. "What book do you think your teacher will read when you get to school this morning?"
Find out what happens first in your child's school day and help them mentally transition to that task. In a Montessori school, the children choose their own work, so you might ask about which work your child plans to do first.
If they're in a more traditional school, find an aspect of the school morning they enjoy and talk about that.
Thinking about the whole school day can seem daunting, but helping your child focus on a specific thing that will happen can make it seem more manageable.
6. "Do you think Johnny will be there today?"
Remind your child of the friends they will see when they get to school.
If you're not sure who your child is bonding with, ask the teacher. On the way to school, talk about the children they can expect to see and try asking what they might do together.
If your child is new to the school, it might help to arrange a playdate with a child in their class to help them form strong relationships.
7. "That's a hard feeling. Tell me about it."
While school drop-off is not the time to wallow in the hard feelings of not wanting to go to school, if your child brings up concerns after school or on the weekend, take some time to listen to them.
Children can very easily be swayed by our leading questions, so keep your questions very general and neutral so that your child can tell you what they're really feeling.
They may reveal that they just miss you while they're gone, or may tell you that a certain person or kind of work is giving them anxiety.
Let them know that you empathize with how they feel, but try not to react too dramatically. If you think there is an issue of real concern, talk to the teacher about it, but your reaction can certainly impact the already tentative feelings about going to school.
8. "What can we do to help you feel better?"
Help your child brainstorm some solutions to make them more comfortable with going to school.
Choose a time at home when they are calm. Get out a pen and paper to show that you are serious about this.
If they miss you, would a special note in their pocket each morning help? If another child is bothering them, what could they say or who could they ask for help? If they're too tired in the morning, could an earlier bedtime make them feel better?
Make it a collaborative process, rather than a situation where you're rescuing them, to build their confidence.
9. "What was the best part of your school day?"
Choose a time when your child is not talking about school and start talking about your day. Tell them the best part of your day, then try asking about the best part of their day. Practice this every day.
It's easy to focus on the hardest parts of an experience because they tend to stick out in our minds. Help your child recognize that, even if they don't always want to go, there are likely parts of school they really enjoy.
10. "I can't wait to go to the park together when we get home."
If your child is having a hard time saying goodbye, remind them of what you will do together after you pick them up from school.
Even if this is just going home and making dinner, what your child likely craves is time together with you, so help them remember that it's coming.
It is totally normal for children to go through phases when they don't want to go to school. If you're concerned, talk to your child's teacher and ask if they seem happy and engaged once they're in the classroom.
To your child, be there to listen, to help when you can, and to reassure them that their feelings are natural and that they are so capable of facing the challenges of the school day, even when it seems hard.