“I hate school! I’m not going!” When your child chronically refuses to go to school, you can start to feel like a hamster in a wheel—putting in a heck of a lot of work, effort, sweat and tears, but not really getting anywhere.
I’ve seen and sympathized with frustrated parents who resort to physically putting their child into the car and driving them to school, then carrying them into the building kicking and screaming. Parents are at their wits’ end with this problem and I get it. The key is not to get drawn into a power struggle with your child over school, but to address the underlying problem. Your child will not learn the appropriate coping skills to change their behavior if you keep engaging in this fight with them. Instead, it will only add to the negativity that of the situation.
I’ve also met parents of defiant teens who respond to their child’s refusal to attend school by yelling, screaming, and taking everything away. These parents are trying to hold their kids accountable, but they’re setting up a dynamic of “I’ve got nothing to lose” in their child’s mind. The child becomes motivated to refuse school even more because it’s one of the few things he/she can control. Instead, these parents need to get to the root of the problem and coach their child out of it.
Other parents get worn down by their child and simply give up. They let their child become truant or drop out of school because they’ve had it.
Why Kids Refuse to Go to School
In my experience, most kids who refuse to go to school fall into one or more of these four categories:
- Kids who are being bullied or those who are having trouble getting along with peers (short or long-term)
- Kids who are struggling academically and for whom school has become a very negative experience
- Kids who have problems with authority and following rules
- Kids who are experiencing anxiety: separation anxiety, (usually in younger kids), worrying about exams and/or what’s happening at home
Parents of kids who hate school end up frustrated, exhausted, and grasping at straws. The key is to meet the problem head-on and focus on solutions that will resolve the issue in the long term. This includes teaching your child how to be a better problem-solver with a healthier outlook on their responsibilities.
Also remember that when kids are having trouble socially or academically, there is always something that can be done to make the situation better. The goal is to empower your child to be a confident and creative problem-solver who believes he/she can have some control over what happens in their life.
How to Respond Effectively
Often times, parents get stuck in a power struggle with their child over school (constant negative cycle of fighting, yelling and nagging). In turn, school becomes a very negative thing for everyone involved. Rather than reacting out of emotion, try to step back, put your feelings of panic and anger aside, and focus on responsibility and solutions.
- Get to the heart of the issue. Sometimes it is actually a child’s lack of problem solving skills that are the root of the issue. For example, your child might be falling behind in class, but doesn’t know how to approach the teacher and ask for help. Spend some time talking with your child to really dig deep into the problem. Ask open ended questions—these usually start with “what,” “when,” or “how.” You might ask, “When do you have the toughest time in school?”
- Work on solutions at home and at school. Think of the people who work at your child’s school as your teammates. While they often bring a different perspective to the table, I can tell you that most all of them have the same goal—they care about your child and they want to help your child learn and grow, academically and personally. Talk to the school staff and work as a team to come up with a plan for home and school.
- Meet your child where he/she is now and coach forward. Change is not an overnight process. Your child will most likely not make a complete turnaround and start liking—or even tolerating—school in the blink of an eye. Start where your child is right now and gradually increase your expectations over time until you’ve achieved your goal. Be patient and check in with the school regularly. Talk with your child often to see if things are getting better, and come up with new ideas to try if needed. Continue to draw upon your support system for ideas and possible solutions.
- Be supportive and use positive incentives. Recognize your child’s progress, even “baby steps.” Let your child know you can see he/she is trying, or let him/her know you noticed the crying was a bit less (or they fought a bit less!). Tell them they are on the right track. Frame your accountability system in a positive way: “For each day that you do _______, you get an extra 15 minutes of ______.” Or “Once you do _____, you earn your _________ for the day.” I am not saying to never use consequences. I suggest offering extra incentives first and if that doesn’t work, make a current privilege dependent upon your child going to school each day. Every time you offer an incentive there is a built-in consequence—they don’t earn the incentive. No school today, no _______ tonight and they can try again tomorrow. Kids who are dealing with anxiety-based issues especially benefit from positive incentives such as earning something special once they go to school each day.
- Be empowered. If you’re seeing some seriously defiant behavior and your child does not respond to these strategies after a week or two, then it’s definitely time to reach out for some support—locate a therapist who can help you get your child’s defiance under control.
I’ve worked with many kids who struggled with getting to school and saw significant improvement over the course of the school year. Were there setbacks? Yes, of course! However, kids are resilient and they can learn and adjust with some coaching and support from you. Remember to reach out to your child’s school team as well. Teachers, counselors and administrators can provide valuable insight. Speak up, reach out, and ask for help. It might be just what your child needs.