Tips for Handling an “I-Don’t-Want-to-Stay-at-School” Meltdown

Tips for Handling an “I-Don’t-Want-to-Stay-at-School” Meltdown

You are dropping off your child at school. You know that she’s been hesitant about school since the year started. She’s still getting used to the newness of kindergarten. But today your usually compliant daughter turns into a crying, howling, falling-on-the-floor-refusing-to-get-up wild child. She keeps saying that she wants to go home and begging you not to leave her.  Now you are standing in a hall full of children and parents coming to school with this screeching child and all the advice about goodbye routines is not going to help you. What do you do?!?

First, take a deep breath. Then follow these steps:

  • Do not get upset yourself. You may feel like everyone is watching you and thinking you are THAT parent whose child is out of control and won’t go to school. But chances are, every parent who walks by you has had to deal with a child having a public melt-down at one time or another. And the teachers have certainly seen children fall apart over going to school. So put embarrassment aside for the moment.

 And don’t get angry. It may feel like your child is purposefully not listening to you when you tell her to calm down and instead deciding to have a tantrum. But when they are anxious or scared, children do not have that much control. Their behavior can look very much like a willful tantrum. It is not. This is her way of telling you that she is really worried about going to school and that anxiety is overwhelming her abilities to keep things together. As the parent, you need to help her to find a way to get her feelings and behavior back under control. (Here are some great phrases that parents can say to themselves when their children’s feelings are causing them to get anxious or angry.)

  • Get down on your child’s level and speak in a slow, calm voice. You want your child to be calm enough to focus on what you are going to say to him. To get to that place, you could say something like “Johnny, right now, you need to calm down so that we can talk. Look at me.” Then hold up your hand with your five fingers out and say, “I want you to pretend that my fingers are birthday candles and you are going to blow each one out.” Have your child go through blowing out all five of the “candles”. You may need to go through both of your hands before he is calmer. If blowing out the candles is not helping, here are other breathing exercises that can help children calm down in the moment. Once your child calms down, you can talk to him about how you notice that he is calm by saying something like “Wow. I can see that you are feeling calmer. Your body is more relaxed and you can breathe more slowly.” This will help your child to be able to recognize the signs of anxiety in the future and to know that he can calm himself down.
  • Talk about the things that are going on in the classroom. Sometimes when children get really upset, they cannot follow what is going on around them. They need an adult to narrate the “story” about what is happening. This can help the child take a step back and see what is happening around her. Make sure that you point out fun things like “Look, Mr. Jones has a bunch of monkeys on the wall. They have the names of all your friends. And look, there is your name.” This gives them the chance to see that the classroom is not such a scary place after all.
  • Let your child know that you know that he can succeed. This is important since anxiety is convincing your child that he can’t succeed. And it’s important to be specific. So instead of saying “You’ll be okay”, you need to let him know HOW he will be okay. You could say something like “I know that you are really good at listening to Mr. Jones, and you will be able to do that today during story time” or “I know that your friends will be really excited to play today at recess.” Again, it is helpful to mention the activities that your child will be doing.
  • Let your child know that you will be back and leave something that she can keep while you are apart. This may have to be something that you happen to find in your purse or pocket this time such as a hair band or even a penny. (You can make an object for your child to carry) Or you could draw a heart or smiley face on her hand with a pen (or lipstick). It just needs to be small enough to not be disruptive in the class.
  • Set up a treat for the end of the day. This is a great way to give your child something to look forward to and reward her for a job well done. You could decide to go to a park after school or she could pick a special video to watch. This does not have to be big or costly.
  • Take your child into the class and leave. Yes, we know that if it were that simple, you would have done this in the beginning. But now your child should be calm enough to try again. You may need to walk in with your child and sit for a while so he can get engaged in whatever the class is doing. Or your child may need to hold her teacher’s hand while you leave. Whatever you do, do not sneak out. Your child needs to learn to let you go and sneaking out will not teach that skill. It may also make your child more anxious.

If your child absolutely will not let you go: Let’s say it’s been an hour, your child is now so loud that he is disrupting the class, and it’s clear that he is not going to calm down enough to stay, your child may need to leave and start fresh tomorrow. It is critical NOT to take your child out of class when he is upset and tantrumming. This will only teach him to tantrum in order to get out of class. He needs to calm down and remain calm for 2-5 minutes before you leave. This will help show that he can calm down.

You may not need to go through all of these steps. For example, your child may respond better to having a heart on her hand than to the promise of going to the park after school. Do what works best for you and your child. And the first time that this happens, you may leave a still crying child at the school. Getting over anxiety takes time, especially for children.

It is also important to do some prep work at home, like setting up a strong morning routine and goodbye routines. The most important things, though, are to be calm and consistent. And patient. Your child will be able to conquer the anxiety and will soon be skipping off happily to school!

Image: © Khunaspix | Dreamstime.com

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Katherine Pears

Dr. Katherine Pears is a senior scientist at Oregon Social Learning Center (OSLC). She earned her Ph.D in clinical psychology and has worked with OSLC since 1998. Katherine is the principal investigator and co-developer of the Kids In Transition to Schools (KITS) program. Currently, she oversees all the clinical and research activities for KITS. When she’s not in her office, you’ll find Katherine in the kitchen whipping up her latest creation or outdoors hiking a scenic trail.

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