Last month, my son bravely headed off to kindergarten, with his new camouflage lunchbox in hand and a slightly quivering lip. But once he met his teacher and saw a familiar classmate, Eli’s nerves subsided and he quickly adjusted to the long hours, practically gushing about riding the bus for weekly field trips and playing soccer with the “big kids” at recess.
Still, even those who have conquered first-day jitters may not be free of the “back-to-school blues” just yet, says pediatric psychiatrist Patrick Kelly of the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. “There’s usually a little bit of a honeymoon period,” especially for older children and teenagers, he explains. “But about a month or so in, the teasing starts, the cliques start, the work gets more demanding, and it all becomes more of a routine, and that’s when some of the bigger academic and social issues can come to light.”
Indeed, once the reality that this is life, for the next nine months or so, sets in, kids may start to complain — a lot. “I’m bored” is an age-old favorite, with “I hate school” running close behind. The key for parents is to figure out what’s really behind those grumbles, says Kelly. He points out that some “bored” kids may really need more of a challenge in the classroom, while others may feign disinterest as a way to cover up that they feel like they’re falling behind. Still others may use it as an excuse when they’re really worried about social pressures, such as being intimidated or teased.
“It’s a fine line that can be tough to figure out,” he says, noting that IQ or achievement testing may help pinpoint real learning issues but that sometimes a parent just needs to probe a little deeper. “You might say, ‘I have to go to work every day, and you have to get up and go to school tomorrow, so what can we do to make it better for you?’ It’s about digging and digging until you find the root problem.”
What if your daughter is suddenly balking at doing her math homework, or your son refuses to study for his history test? A common issue is that as schoolwork gets up to speed (which can take a few weeks), even students who have done well in the past may struggle with more-difficult assignments and increased expectations related to grades and success. This can be particularly true as they transition from elementary to middle school, or from middle to high school.
“Many parents will say their child is being lazy when things get hard, but oftentimes they are just overwhelmed because they haven’t developed the necessary organization or study skills,” says clinical psychologist Eleanor Mackey of Children’s National Medical Center. She suggests meeting with your child’s teacher or guidance counselor to try to discern whether more-structured study hours or a tutor might help. Mackey said parents should also be aware that as children graduate to more demanding academics, an undiagnosed problem such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder might hamper their performance.
Finally, overscheduling can also be an issue, especially at competitive high schools, and once college admissions deadlines begin to loom: “Students often feel pressure to take on additional tasks and to be superstars, but realistically they just can’t keep up with it all,” says Kelly.
Sometimes the trouble has nothing to do with workload, however. For instance, if a child despises school, it may be that a “mean” teacher or even the institution itself just isn’t the right fit, although the No. 1 reason tends to be the other kids, says Kelly. He notes that it often doesn’t take long before glee at seeing old friends — or making new ones — fades in the face of anxieties about social hierarchies, cliques, dating, substance abuse and even bullying.
“Kids are really struggling at all ages to figure out who their friends are and where they belong in the bigger social scheme, and that can be really stressful, especially towards the beginning of the year,” says Mackey. She adds that a common warning sign is school avoidance: that stomachache just before the bus arrives, cutting clas or ditching the cafeteria to eat lunch alone in a stairwell every day. She says a wealth of research has shown that adolescent girls are especially at risk for depression and mood issues.
So what can a parent do to help? First and foremost, keep the lines of communication open. “You can’t necessarily step in and force someone to be your child’s friend, but you can really listen, be supportive and help brainstorm ideas to help navigate social situations, which can be really valuable as kids negotiate peer issues,” says Mackey. She notes that sharing your own school experiences, good and bad, can also be useful.
If it turns out that your son or daughter has been threatened in any way or is in physical danger, contact school authorities immediately, says Kelly, who also suggests supervising your kid’s Facebook account, to stay informed about his or her life and relationships and possible cyber-bullying.
In any event, it’s crucial to make sure your child is getting a good night’s sleep — particularly challenging when it comes to high schoolers — and a nutritious breakfast. Both are key to physical and emotional health and learning. “At the beginning of the school year, like any new year’s resolution, parents and families are pretty good about trying to get on the right routine and start things off right, but then we all slide back into bad habits,” says Mackey. She recommends setting — and sticking with — designated times for homework, e-mailing, texting or talking to friends, and physical activity. “You want to make sure that everything is in place for children to do their best.”
If you feel as if you’ve done that and just about everything else you can to get to the bottom of the protests about boredom or hating school and are still hitting a brick wall, don’t despair: Remember that it’s hard for all of us to give up summer fun for early-morning wake-ups, long hours at a desk and homework. And beyond that, Kelly says, “There are some kids who grumble just because they grumble.”