If you’re a parent, it’s almost inevitable that you’re going to be faced with your child not wanting to go to school at some point. In many cases, a child will outright refuse to go to school.
Many parents respond to their child’s refusal to attend school by yelling, screaming, and taking everything away.
Other parents get worn down by their child and simply give up. Many parents of teens will just let their child become truant. They’ve reached their wit’s end and just can’t go any further.
The most important thing to do if your child refuses to go to school is to identify the underlying problem. Is it workload, peer pressure, or your child’s way of coping? Look at your child’s situation closely. Does he require more sleep? Is there a social problem?
In my experience, most kids who refuse to go to school fall into one or more of these four categories:
Note: If you suspect your child is struggling with anxiety or depression, it’s important to consult a medical or mental health professional for support and direction. Psychology Today is the leading site on which therapists list their services and you should be able to find many in your area.
Sometimes, avoiding school is one of the first signs that your child is being bullied, so be sure to investigate that possibility. And be aware that many kids are embarrassed to admit they are being bullied and may not tell you.
Finally, many kids just resist structure and have a hard time with authority. Not going to school becomes just another avenue of acting out for them.
A child’s refusal to go to school is his way of solving a problem that’s real to him. In other words, he tries to solve the problems of bullying, academics, authority, or anxiety by refusing to go to school.
Unfortunately—and we see this over and over again with some children—the way they solve problems gets them into even more trouble. Indeed, refusing to go to school creates a host of new problems for your child. Therefore, you need to help your child develop better problem-solving skills so that when problems arise, your child will be able to solve them successfully.
The truth is, millions of adults get up and go to work every day. Mature adults have solved the basic but important problem of going to work reliably. They’ve developed mature problem-solving skills that help them function successfully in the real world.
As parents, you have to be able to tell your child that it’s his responsibility to go to school. Learning to accept this responsibility is part of the problem-solving process. You need to say:
“You have to go to school even when you don’t want to. That’s your responsibility. It’s not about your wants, it’s your responsibility.”
By the way, don’t try to have a serious discussion in the morning about the getting up problem with a child who won’t get up. That’s not the time for them to learn new skills because they’re too busy justifying their excuses and fighting with you. Instead, have a problem-solving discussion later when both of you are calm.
When we look at adult problem-solving skills, two things stand out: motivation and consequences.
The motivation is why adults have to go to work. Adults have to feed their families, and they have to feed themselves. They work hard to have a nice car, nice clothes, or to go out at night. These are the motivations.
The consequences are that they lose their job if they don’t get up and go to work. Over time, if they lose too many jobs, they wind up in trouble socially and economically.
The same motivation and consequences apply to your child when he doesn’t want to go to school. And you need to teach that to him now. You can work on motivation by using a reward system. You can say to your child:
“If you get up on time, you’ll be able to stay up until 9 p.m. You’ll be able to listen to your music after bedtime to help you go to sleep. Or, if you get up on time, you can have an hour in your room to relax and you won’t have to have lights-out right at bedtime.”
At all times, parents should connect getting up for school on time with good grades and good performance. And praise your child when she gets up on time successfully. One thing a parent might say to a kid is:
“I like that you get up on time in the morning. Do you ever feel like not getting up? What do you tell yourself when you don’t feel like getting up?”
When you calmly engage your child you learn how your child thinks and how he solves or doesn’t solve the problem.
Giving consequences can be just as simple. The key is to avoid getting into a power struggle with the child and to start using consequences at an early age when your child first resists going to school.
Sometimes, consequences involve withholding something, like not letting the child stay up later. Other times, consequences involve enforcing something. For example, you can say to your child:
“You haven’t gotten up on time all week, so for the next week, your bedtime is an hour earlier. If you can get up on time all next week then we can talk about you going back to the schedule we had before. You just have to show me that you can do this.”
If your child has a problem with getting up in the morning, YouTube, video games, and other electronics time should be withheld or limited as well.
There are consequences to not meeting responsibilities in the world, and that should start when you’re a child. And know the difference between consequences and punishments. The right consequences actually motivate your child to good behavior. They put you back in control and teach your child how to problem-solve, giving your child the skills needed to be a successful adult. Punishments, in contrast, create animosity and are ineffective in changing behavior.
Read my article How to Give Kids Consequences That Work to show you how to design an effective consequence.
Allow your child to face natural consequences. Natural consequences are those imposed by the school and society, not just by the family. For example, it’s OK to let your child be late and face the consequences from the school. Write a note saying: “She wouldn’t get out of bed, please hold her accountable for her lateness.”
Your child may get detention. Or she may fail a class. Let her do so. You should not protect your kids from the natural consequences of their actions.
I have known many young people who have gone back to school to get GEDs, night school diplomas, trade school certificates, and college degrees after failing out of school. Parents should work on accepting that as children become teenagers and young adults, the responsibility, the accountability, and the social consequences fall more to your kids than to you.
Parents of kids who resist going to school need to consider a whole new way of communicating with their kids and a whole new approach to responsibility in the home.
Ask yourself: “Does my child resist me on most things I ask him to do? Does he consistently fail to meet assigned responsibilities in the home? Does he have fairly unlimited access to things like video games and computer games?”
If the answer is yes, then you need to set firm limits and create a culture of accountability in your home. And you may need to develop a whole new way of communicating with your child. Too often in these situations, the child pulls the parent into a heated argument.
When you argue with your child, you become her equal, and that’s not effective at solving the problem. Parents need to learn not to attend every argument that their kid invites them to.
If you have ever gotten a speeding ticket, you know that the police don’t yell and scream and argue with you about your speeding. Rather, they calmly and authoritatively write you the ticket and send you on your way.
It should be the same way with your child who won’t go to school. Calmly enforce the consequences and offer to help them learn to solve the problem of getting to school on time.
Educate yourself about your local truancy laws. The way truancy is defined and handled can vary from locality to locality. Many parents are fearful that they will have to pay hefty fines for their child’s truancy, but that is not always the case. There are still areas that focus on holding kids responsible.
Don’t assume that you know what might happen with truancy laws in your area. Rather, speak with the person who handles attendance issues at your school or call the juvenile justice division at your local courthouse. Once you have knowledge of the system in your area, you can make informed decisions. They might also be able to refer you to appropriate local supports.
Also, keep a record for yourself of your child’s absences. If you do have to explain your situation to someone, a thorough log of your child’s absences, absence reasons, and your response will help tremendously.
Contacting the school each time your child is absent is another wise move. Let the school know when your child is sick as well as when he straight-up refuses to go to school. And don’t lie to cover for your child.
As a parent, do the very best you can, and then accept what you have no control over. Parents may often feel alone in dealing with these types of power struggle behaviors in the home.
Frankly, in many cases, they are alone. The youth culture—and many of the professionals who have bought into the youth culture—promotes the concept that kids should not be held accountable for not meeting their responsibilities. They promote and reward victim-hood instead.
In my opinion, parents and professionals are doing kids a grave disservice by not holding them accountable. The truth is, kids who are held accountable behave better, and kids who behave better are happier and better equipped to be successful as adults.
And understand that change is not an overnight process. It is unlikely that your child will make a complete turnaround and start liking—or even tolerating—school in the short-run. 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 often.
James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.