Helping Reluctant Children Learn to Love School

aquesen-1 Amanda Quesenberry, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at Illinois State University in the School of Teaching and Learning. Dr. Quesenberry has over 15 years of experience working in the field of early childhood special education. In this post, she shares insight into a problem that many parents face–children being reluctant to go to school. Read on for more!


Amanda post 1

This picture, taken on my daughter Amelia’s first day of preschool, pretty much sums up her feelings about school.  For any parent this would be a problem, but for a professor, whose job is to teach future educators how to help children love school, it presents a special challenge.

Amelia, like both of her parents, tends to be very strong-willed and independent, yet also quiet and reserved around others.  On her first day of preschool, other parents stood at the door weeping openly as they watched their young ones run off to make new friends.  I, on the other hand, was trying to peel Amelia off of my side so that I could leave.  Once I left, I know that she did okay, but my highly verbal little gal was quick to tell me later that she didn’t like school because, “I just don’t really know what to do” and “Mommy, when you leave, I am not happy!”  Over the next few weeks we tried many approaches to try to make preschool a more positive experience.  First, I took the ‘wait and see’ approach.  I figured that after a while she would surely grow to like school.  However, weeks turned into months, and Amelia still cried at every single drop off.  It was emotionally draining for me and for her. 

As an early childhood researcher and educator, I felt like I knew what to do when my child went to school.  Before the first day of school, we went to visit the school, we talked about school, and we read books about going to school, and on and on.  Once she showed repeated signs of distress, I talked with her teacher, I attempted to sit in on several class sessions (not the best plan with a clingy child, by the way), I talked with Amelia until she nearly refused to talk about what she did at school, who she played with, what she had for snack, if she went to the bathroom, and on and on.  Also, I poured over websites and blogs that offered up a whole host of reasons for why she might not like school.  Here are a few:

  • The way the information is taught isn’t interesting or engaging to the young person.
  • The school (staff) isn’t meeting the child’s individual learning needs.
  • There is a hostile environment in the school or classroom.
  • The child is socially disconnected at school.

From What to Do When Your Child Says, “I Hate School!” (Timmons,

Going through this list, I considered each point.  First, I considered if Amelia might be bored or uninterested in what was happening at school.  As is true in many preschool programs, there was a lot of free time when children could self-select where they wanted to play, who to play with, etc.  Developmentally, I knew that some unstructured time was good, but was she getting too much unstructured time?  Next, I considered if her learning needs were not being met in this classroom.  Every time I asked Amelia about what she did at school and/or about her teachers, she would not respond.  This made it really difficult for me to determine if her needs were being met or not.  Clearly, I could tell from the numerous times I was in the room that it was not a “hostile” environment.  There were times when the teachers were, perhaps a bit too directive, but not overly harsh or hostile.  Finally, I considered if Amelia was socially disconnected at school.  I knew she had two or three close friends, but other than that she never talked about any other children.

As we neared the winter break, my husband and I began exploring a number of options.  Of course we could leave Amelia in the current program and continue to try to find ways to make things more tolerable.  We could also move her to a new program, which could be a better fit for her needs.  We visited several programs with her and ultimately decided to move her to a new program after the winter break.  Deciding to move her was a tough decision because I knew that there was a chance that it would be no better.  Also, I knew that in a new place she would have to make new friends, learn a new set of routines, get to know the teachers, etc.

In preparation for the transition, I did a bit more research on the topic and also communicated with her new teachers to share some helpful information about Amelia.  For example, I shared a few of Amelia’s favorite things (e.g., anything blue, the movies Frozen and Lion King, playing with baby dolls, etc.).  As a parent and early childhood educator, I appreciated the way that her new teacher asked me about Amelia’s interests, about her temperament, and her previous experiences.  On Amelia’s first day of school, I was impressed at how much attention her teacher had paid to my comments.  Here are a few things she did to make Amelia feel welcome on her first day:

  • Placed blue playdoh (with sparkles) out for Amelia to use;
  • Put out several books and toys with the Frozen/ Lion King theme;
  • Showed Amelia around the “baby” room;
  • Assigned two children to be Amelia’s ‘buddies’ until she learned more about the classroom;
  • Coordinated with the kindergarten teacher at the school and asked her to allow one of Amelia’s friends to be late so that she could be there to great Amelia on her first day; and
  • Let Amelia sit with her for the first few days until she was more comfortable in the room.

Her teacher realized that helping Amelia have a successful transition into her classroom was key to helping her come to enjoy and become more engaged in school.  This is an important lesson for all current and future teachers to remember.  When welcoming children into your classroom, do all that you can to make every child feel welcome and a part of the classroom community.  Most of all, it is important to spend a bit of time getting to know each child.  Sometimes this information can come from a parent, a former teacher, or, of course, the child.

Amelia is getting ready to begin the fourth week at her new school and so far things have been much improved.  Every day after school she tells me what she did; the games she played, the songs she sang, and books she read.  She knows the teachers names and the names of the other children in her class – this never happened even after four months in her previous school.  I believe that she feels that she is an active member of the classroom community.

You may be wondering why I’m spending so much time writing about my kid.  Well, of course, I love my kid- just like every parent loves their kid.  Beyond that, I want all teachers to know how much their time and attention to detail matters.  It all matters; from the way you arrange your classroom, the way that you schedule activities, the special ‘extras’ you include to make each child feel welcome in your classroom, the time you spend making playdoh, talking with each child to get to know them better, searching for books and other items at garage sales, paying for these things with your own money- all of these things and a million more things that you do to make learning fun and engaging for children, matter. So the next time you wonder why you make the effort to do all the little extras that you do every day, remember Amelia, and her mom, and the millions of other children and parents who so appreciate all that you do. Thank you!


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