School or Daycare Avoidance/Refusal Part Two

My son Lawrence started kindergarten this school year. He was in a wonderful preschool the past two years, where he thrived. Of course we were concerned that he would have a little trouble adjusting to starting kindergarten, but while we got the “trouble adjusting” part right, we got the venue wrong. He’s had no trouble adjusting to kindergarten – it’s a problem with where he is the rest of the day that is generating phone calls to my husband and I.

After morning kindergarten, Lawrence goes to daycare, which is located on the school grounds. He eats lunch there and then spends the afternoon. At first he seemed to love it – one time he even scolded my husband for picking him up, as he was going to be a penguin in a play they’d been rehearsing. Then we started getting calls, and hearing that he was getting timeouts. And some of the infractions were relatively serious, at least for Lawrence, such as hitting another child or teacher. And Lawrence has started saying more and more that he doesn’t want to go to daycare, or that he wants us to pick him up early.

It’s a perplexing and frustrating situation for a parent to be in. And let’s be honest, it’s potentially inconvenient. Although daycare obviously isn’t mandatory, as school is, my husband and I both rely on Lawrence being able to go there, or we can’t work. So we started brainstorming with the daycare teachers to find the cause. But for a while we were stumped.

We considered a couple of possibilities. Was he, we asked the daycare teachers, having trouble with other kids? Nothing in particular that they had noticed. Maybe, I thought, the problem is that he isn’t getting a nap in the afternoon anymore, as he did in preschool. His personality changes if he’s sleep deprived. But on further examination, that explanation didn’t seem to make sense. In the past, when he was a little demon due to sleep deprivation, we saw it at home as well as at preschool, and we weren’t having any problems with him.

At this point, although we don’t have a definite answer to what the problem is, we have a pretty good working hypothesis. When my husband went to pick up Lawrence the other day, the daycare teacher told him that Lawrence had again acted out in a very uncharacteristic way. My husband expressed our bewilderment with the situation with the teacher. She said she believed that the problem might be three things. One is the lack of structure in the daycare environment. Lawrence seems to thrive on some amount of structure, which is probably why he’s doing well in kindergarten. But the daycare situation could best be described as “controlled chaos.”

That controlled chaos is the second problem. Lawrence is used to, and apparently needs, a fair amount of peace and quiet, only broken at home by himself. At preschool, the two hour nap provided him, even if he didn’t sleep, with a long period of peace and quiet. There’s none of that at daycare. In fact, there isn’t even anywhere he can go to escape the noise and occasional mayhem. Since I’m very sensitive to continual noise, I can definitely relate to that environment possibly making him cranky.

The other way in which this daycare is not particularly well suited to him is the small amount of attention he receives compared to what he’s used to. The ratio of teachers to children doesn’t favor individual attention. It’s not the teachers’ fault, and they probably suffer in this situation too. But it is definitely not what Lawrence is used to. For the first 3 1/2 years of his life, he was home with me, and obviously received lots of individual attention. Then he was in preschool, where the ratio of teachers to children allowed the teachers to focus on him frequently. Although he’s not needy in terms of getting attention, he seems to need more than he’s getting in daycare, or possibly he just needs to adjust his expectations.

Whew. That story turned out to be a lot longer than I expected. And you might be wondering what the heck this has to do with depression. First, I thought it might be helpful to anyone who is seeing school (or daycare) avoidance in their child and is scratching their head over it. And second, while depression and anxiety can cause school avoidance, not addressing an environment that a child who is not depressed is unhappy in may ultimately lead to their suffering from depression.

I know of what I speak, not as a parent, but as a child. Depression doesn’t run in my family – neither side seems to have a hint of anyone with mental illness. Yet, starting at around seven or eight, I battled undiagnosed depression for twenty years. I was generally happy at home, but I dreaded school.

What changed? Well, for one thing, we moved from a middle class town in New Jersey to a rich, preppy town in Connecticut. Darien, our new home, was like many moneyed towns in that a huge emphasis was placed on sports. You were defined to a great extent by how you performed in sports. I, as you might guess, was not strong in the athletics area. I was a voracious reader, which didn’t lend itself to a lot of extracurricular time spent on sports, and I was (still am) not terribly well coordinated. Also, having Attention Deficit Disorder meant that my attention generally wandered while the Physical Education teacher was explaining how to play a game, which inevitably led to screwing up during the game. You know that kid who was always picked last for the team? Yup, that was me.

Unfortunately, in the 1970s no one, even the medical community, realized that a child could suffer from depression. It was obvious to my parents that I didn’t have many friends, and they told me subsequent to my depression diagnosis that they realized that something was wrong with me, but it never occurred to them that it was depression.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that every child who is dealing with a less than optimal environment at school or daycare is likely to get clinically depressed. My emotional resilience had suffered some blows before we moved to Darien, both from my parents’ divorce, my stepfather’s deployment to Vietnam and multiple moves before this one.

However, by way of advice, I can tell you that I’m going to keep a careful eye on Lawrence’s situation and watch for any signs that it’s adversely affecting his mental health. If I start seeing some, if we can’t find an alternative form of daycare, I’ll probably have him talk to a therapist who can help him find ways to adjust to the environment. When it comes to depression in children, I believe in preventative care.

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