Ask Sandra: How can I help my Primary One kid who refuses to go to school?

A primary one pupil cries during the first day of school at Ahmad Ibrahim Primary School, Jan 4, 2016.
A primary one pupil cries during the first day of school at Ahmad Ibrahim Primary School, Jan 4, 2016. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Q My child started Primary 1 this year. She was fine for the first few weeks but, late last month, she started refusing to go to school.

Often, she claims to have a tummy upset or a headache, but it goes away once I allow her to stay home for the day. Once, I had to drive her to school and carry her into the classroom. I am at my wits' end on what to do about this.

A According to two child psychologists I spoke to, this is a classic case of "school refusal" in which a child complains of a headache or stomach ache shortly before it is time to go to school. If the child is allowed to stay home, the symptoms quickly disappear, only to reappear the next morning.

First, you need to find out what is causing this. As your daughter had initially adjusted well to school, something new may be going on, such as bullying.

Talk to her about how school is going - ask about what she does each day, what she's learning and what scares her or makes her nervous about school.

Also, visit her school and ask her teacher and school counsellor about what might be going on.

Is your child having difficulty with a particular subject or teacher? Sometimes, it may be physiological, such as her sight.

You should also observe how she interacts with the other children and teachers and whether her behaviour has changed in any other way.

It is important that you help your child solve the problem. Impress on her that avoiding or running away from a classmate or teacher is not a viable long-term solution.

Explore what can be done to help your child. For example, if she suffers from panic attacks, the teacher can allow her to take a break from class if she feels a panic attack coming on.

You can explore other strategies with the counsellor on how to help her manage stress.

Try relaxation techniques that she can do at school, such as deep breathing exercises.

Encourage hobbies and interests. Fun is relaxation, and hobbies are good distractions that help build self-confidence.

Sometimes, the reason a child is reluctant to go to school has nothing to do with the school.

It could be a major change in her life, such as the birth of a sibling, or a divorce.

If so, the solution involves addressing the family issue.

If, for several weeks, you have tried everything and the anxiety interferes with your child's enjoyment of other areas of her life - for example, she cannot sleep and is always worried or sad - then it is time to consult a psychologist.

School anxiety is not a psychiatric diagnosis. But when the condition is severe, it may be a symptom of an anxiety disorder.

Child psychologists often use cognitive behavioural therapy, in which patients learn to change negative thoughts and behaviour. They help children to gradually face their fears and learn to overcome them.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2016, with the headline 'Ask Sandra'. Print Edition | Subscribe