My junior infant doesn’t want to go back to school

My son started in junior infants last week. As he is our eldest we were all a bit nervous, but it seemed to go fine. We had prepared him well and he seemed very positive about it.

However, yesterday he announced that he did not want to go back to school. He told me that he didn’t like school and wanted to stay at home. I couldn’t find out whether anything had happened; he just said he did not want to go. I, of course, insisted he go and he got upset and teary when I left him there. It was very hard to leave him there so upset. Now this morning he said the same thing. What should I do?

For many children, initially starting school can go well and it is only in the coming days or weeks that they become reluctant to go or nervous about staying there. Lots of children are initially positive about going to school because it is new and exciting but once this has worn off, they may decide that they would prefer to stay at home.

In addition, some children can find it difficult to get into the swing of the school schedule or to connect with other children in the classroom and can feel a little lost during the first few weeks.

This can often be the case for children who are young starting or who have not had a structured preschool experience.

The good news is that with a little bit of support and sensitivity, most children quickly settle and get used to the new school routine. Here are some tips:

Talk to your son’s teacher
The first thing to do is to check in with your son’s teacher about how he is getting on at school. It could be that, though he is a little teary when you leave, he settles quickly and is doing fine.

In these cases, simply gently persisting in the morning will work with him. If he does have trouble settling, the teacher can give him special support in getting started in the day and in facilitating his contact with other children. The more you trust the teacher and school staff, the easier it will be to leave him.

Find out some details about your son’s day at school
It can really help to find out a bit about your son’s school day; for example, the daily routine, what toys and books are in the classroom and the names of the children he is sitting beside.

The teacher should supply you with information or even allow you to come back a little early to observe your son briefly in the classroom.

When you discover things that you know he might enjoy, you can talk to him about these as you walk to school: “Today you are doing art, what will you paint?”

When he is worried, there may be some things in the school environment that you can distract him with: “Let’s look at the fish tank and see what the blue fish is doing.” The more you are tuned into his school day, the more you will be able to help him engage and settle.

Facilitate his connection with other children
What helps most children settle and look forward to school is meeting and getting on with the other children. Help your child make friends by finding out the names of the other children at his table in his classroom and making a special point to establish connections and talk to their parents.

You could arrange a couple of one-to-one playdates in your home so he gets to know them and learns to enjoy playing with them. You may have to offer a few playdates until you discover one or two children with whom he has a natural affinity. This will give him more of a reason to look forward to going to school if he is nervous.

Respond positively when your child becomes anxious
If your son becomes anxious at the point of going to school, the key is to respond calmly and positively. Be aware of your own feelings at this time. It is easy as a parent to become upset yourself in the face of your child’s anxiety; you can worry that something is wrong or even panic about what you will do if your son point-blank refuses to stay in the school.

The public and busy environment of the school gate only adds to the pressure for both child and parent. It can really help if you think through a set of strategies that you can employ step by step to allow you to feel calm and in control.

Be matter of fact and positive
Don’t comment too much on your child’s anxiety or persuade him not to be worried. Warmly acknowledge and soothe your son’s feelings; give him a hug and say, “It’s okay, you will be fine once you get into school,” but don’t go overboard.

Talk about positive things he likes in school
You have PE this morning, you like that,” or “I wonder what book Ms N will read today,” or “I wonder did Paul watch the football too,” and so on.

Be prepared to follow through and leave your son, even if he remains upset
Say goodbye positively, tell him you will see him later and then trust the teacher to take over and manage. Check in with the teacher later about how he settled.

Consider taking a break
If his anxiety gets too much, it can help to delay going into the classroom until five minutes later. Take a walk somewhere for a few minutes, help your child calm down and then return. It can be much easier to drop a child into school when all the other children are in the classroom.

Prof. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, September 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.
For information on John’s upcoming courses for parents see