"Help! My Child Won’t Go To School! What Should I Do?"

“Help! My Child Won’t Go To School! What Should I Do?”

I’ve been talking with a few school administrators recently who were all struggling with what seems like an increase in the number of kids who are refusing to come to school.

In these cases, it seems their parents are either not willing or not able to get them to attend. There are a host of reasons that could cause a kid to not want to attend, but not attending is virtually always the wrong response to the problem.

Here are just a few of the challenges that lead kids to avoid going to school:Click To Tweet

Here are just a few of the challenges that lead kids to avoid going to school:

  • Social challenges or feeling bullied
  • Not getting the time or engagement they need from their parents at home
  • Anxiety, depression or simply having a sensitive temperament
  • Overreliance on parents, creating a fear of independent functioning
  • Learning challenges such as learning disabilities or ADHD and feeling like they can’t succeed at school

Why is it important to attend school regularly?

  1. Regular school attendance is the most significant predictor of school success. In fact, strong kindergarten attendance is the biggest predictor of high school graduation.
  2. School is where kids learn much of the knowledge and skills they need in life.
  3. It is where they learn how to learn, and essentially gain the confidence they need to become lifelong learners. In fact, a kid having confidence that they can develop significant mastery of new skills is one of the most important predictors of school and life success.
  4. School is where kids grow their social emotional skills and confidence…
  5. …and learn about who they are away from their families.

Lets look at a situation where sixth grader Lindsay was missing about a third of her school days.

Refusals to Go to School

Anne and Richard have two daughters, Lindsay (11) and Kristen (8).

Anne works as a project manager for a software company, which requires commuting and often working from home after hours and on weekends.

Richard is a general contractor with his own business building and remodeling houses. He usually has several projects underway and each day he needs to make sure that each site is on schedule and that his crews have the instructions and materials they need. He too has paperwork to stay on top of most evenings.

Lindsay is a sensitive girl. She loves playing at home and she enjoys playing and engaging with her family. She always has.

Unlike her younger sister, however, Lindsay is shy in new situations and is reluctant to venture into the world of her peers. She turns down sleepover invitations and throws a total fit if her parents talk about having a sitter so they can go out together, even once in a while.

In fact, Lindsay — even at age 11 — loves nothing more than to be at home watching a movie with her sister or cooking with her mom or dad.

Anne and Richard however, are on the go kinds of people.

After a week of work, and particularly for Anne who has spent the week in meetings or in front of a computer, they want to get out on the weekends, go on an adventure, take a long hike, go kayaking, or explore a state park.

Lindsay fights them and every time it seems there’s a battle to get Lindsay participating and out the door.

Where things were even more problematic was with Lindsay’s common refusal to go to school.

  • Stomachaches,
  • headaches,
  • a mean teacher,
  • and mean kids…

…were common complaints and Anne and Richard had to sort through all of her complaints to figure out what best to do.

When Anne, Richard, and Lindsay came in to see me, the year was only in its second month and Lindsay had missed 10 days of school with various complaints of physical ailments.

Her visits to the doctor came up negative for any specific illness. The doctor suspected anxiety and depression and referred them to see me.

Fighting Against Tiring Structures

After spending some time getting to know them all, we talked about Lindsay’s complaints and her reluctance to go to school.

After digging a bit to find the source of Lindsay’s anxiety and ailments, she revealed that some of the kids in her class were making fun of her and making her feel bad. She didn’t want to talk with the teacher about it because she feared that if the teacher talked to the other kids, that they would just be sneakier about picking on her and it could get worse.

It was clear to me that Lindsay really wasn’t looking for a solution… she was simply explaining her situation and her justification for her feelings. Her parents — of course — wanted a solution and kept offering various ideas, such as:

  • Words she could say back to the other kids
  • Ignoring the other kids
  • Lindsay talking to the teacher
  • Lindsay talking to the school counselor
  • Parents talking to the teacher
  • Parents asking the principal to change her class

Yet Lindsay would have no part in any of their suggestions and the only solution she really wanted was to be home schooled, something her parents were simply not able or even wanting to do.

They asked, “What’s wrong with Lindsay? Why can’t she just go to school and be okay, like the other kids?”

“Well, there are two problems,” I explained.

One is that Lindsay is — by nature — a shy, sensitive introverted girl. All the interaction in school wears her out and she craves quiet downtime. By the time school is over and then she goes to after school care, and then finally comes home, she’s emotionally spent.

Is your son or daughter emotionally exhausted at the end of the day?Click To Tweet

Then when the weekend comes and the family wants to get going, Lindsay just wants to rest and do quiet home activities.

The second problem is that Lindsay has been communicating her needs by resisting and fighting against the structures that wear her out, and her parents have been struggling to get her going. In other words, Lindsay and her parents have been in a Control Battle for several years now.

Lindsay just resists and her parents just push.

Lindsay has come to see her life as a set of uncomfortable expectations that she needs to resist and her parents have lost patience and now see Lindsay as simply stubborn and needing to be pushed.

In fact, Anne and Richard had become resentful that dealing with Lindsay was now a central issue in the family.

  • Will she cooperate or will she put up a fuss?
  • Will she go to school, or will we have to change our work schedules to take her to the doctor or stay home with her?

Ouch, a pretty large Control Battle “Beast” was living in the middle of this family.

I explained all this to the three of them and, of course, Anne and Richard said it all made sense, but what were they supposed to do…?

Lindsay was happy that I had explained her basic nature and her needs to her parents and that made her feel more understood. But how were they to get out of their Control Battle and how could Lindsay move forward with her sensitive introverted nature?

The Most Important Lessons:

I went on to explain that Lindsay being sensitive and introverted didn’t mean that she couldn’t be strong and resilient.

Being sensitive and introverted doesn't mean you can't be strong and resilient.Click To Tweet

She was smart, talented, and when she was comfortable, was quite charming and engaging. Now she needed to learn to be herself effectively in her life. And her parents needed to help her accomplish that.

Over the course of a few sessions, we had some deeper conversations and learned some important things:

  1. Lindsay missed her parents. She felt she had no one-on-one time with either of them.
  2. Lindsay felt like they rarely did things that she likes to do. Even when they did things she likes, such as cooking, it was in a hurry… just getting it done.
  3. Because of this, going to school felt like more rejection. If Lindsay had a stomachache and wouldn’t go to school, mom would have to work from home and Lindsay would have some one-on-one time. Lindsay and her Mom both agreed that even when Lindsay did stay home, it was with a lot of frustration between them and was unsatisfying to both of them.
  4. After school activities were very stressful for Lindsay. It made her day too long and she had to keep up her social self, which was exhausting.

After we had a strong grasp on what was going on for Lindsay, we worked together to make some important changes in the family.

And all three of them understood before we started on solutions, that we needed to work together if we were going to Starve the “Beast”, as I call it. If Lindsay continued to fight her parents, she’d be inviting her parents to view her as stubborn. And when they view her in that way, they’d be much less likely to listen to and honor her feelings.

If Anne and Richard kept calling her stubborn and kept pushing, they too would be inviting the “Beast”. They would need to stay firm with their reasonable expectations, but do it with support and with the reassurance that they understand and empathize with her feelings.

  1. First of all, there would be no more not going to school and no more fussing about going to school. No more doctors visits for vague complaints. Lindsay was expected to be ready to go at 7:45 every morning with no fuss. She would be introduced to the school counselor who could help her learn to communicate her needs and feelings and improve her social skills. If Lindsay had a medical issue, she could go to the nurse who would be apprised of Lindsay’s tendency to express her emotional discomfort physically.
  2. Anne and Richard would give up their view of her as stubborn and would see her as the fabulous kid she truly is and support her in healthy ways to express her feelings and needs.
  3. Mary — an older woman who lives a couple of doors down and has known Lindsay her whole life — happily agreed to have Lindsay walk to her house after school and start on her schoolwork or simply relax there a few days each week.
  4. On weekends, parents, Lindsay and Kristen would work together to make a schedule that included quiet projects and downtime as well as more active family activities.
  5. Lindsay and dad would do some woodworking projects together starting with a new fancy bed frame for her room.

It took a number of sessions before the Control Battle “Beast” was defeated, but Lindsay and her parents did prevail. Now when Lindsay is having issues in the classroom, she has her counselor and teacher to help her find her voice.

And when she has issues at home, she can go to her parents who understand her and support her.

How did this family get things turned around?

We kept a few basic principles in mind and went from there:

  1. Regardless of our child’s temperament, we need to know they can grow up to have strong self-esteem, to have confidence in who they are, to be strong and resilient.
  2. No problem can ever be solved in a Control Battle paradigm.
  3. Underlying every Control Battle are real issues that need understanding, empathy and quality solutions.
  4. We need a way to surface issues and address them before Control Battles develop or, if one already has developed, to defeat it and keep it from returning.

Which part of this story resonated with you most?

Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

4 thoughts on ““Help! My Child Won’t Go To School! What Should I Do?”

  1. Thanks so much for this article. I heard your interview on shrink wrap radio and i learned so much!
    I can definitely see how Lindsay learned to get her needs met by being sick.
    I like your solutions too but it seems to wrap up so easily. How long will it take to see Lindsay and her family to really change?

    • Thanks for your nice comment and thoughtful question, Carrie.

      In this case, the behavior of not going to school changed after the first two sessions. The family therapy continued on biweekly basis for six more sessions followed by once a month for two more months.

      Sometimes, in situations such as this, couples issues will emerge that become the focus of therapy. And sometimes individual therapy for the child or teen will be needed, as well. But we never lose sight of the larger family dynamic and “Starving the Beast”, as I call it.

      I appreciate you leaving a comment for me, Carrie! Have an awesome day.

      — Neil

  2. I especially like this one: “2. Anne and Richard would give up their view of her as stubborn and would see her as the fabulous kid she truly is and support her in healthy ways to express her feelings and needs.”

    It’s great to be reminded we can give up a negative view about another person, whether it’s our kid or a co-worker or someone else … because there is a more constructive focus possible and it can create a different result.

    • You’re so right, Robin!

      Our negative views and opinions of others, especially our kids, often perpetuate themselves. When we view someone negatively, we treat them negatively, and often it encourages that person to continue behaving negatively. A lot of problems begin to mend themselves once we cease to view them as problems.

      Thanks for commenting. 🙂

      — Neil

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