As a parent, my priority was always the emphasis on education. Not in an authoritarian way, but just to show my kids how important education is for their future.
All 14 year olds must attend school by law with the exception of health reasons or homeschooling. 14 US states allow children to leave school at 16. Refusal to attend can lead to misdemeanor fines imposed on the parent / guardian.
All teens love to lie in bed and laze away the day but this is different from refusing or not wanting to attend school. My niece was a 14-year-old that suddenly decided she no longer wanted to attend school. Here are some reasons why this happened and how to get back on track.
Try and Identify why your child is refusing to go to school
Some days we all just need a day off. Even as adults there are some mornings you want to pull the duvet over your head and forget about the world. Teens are very often tired.
Because they are growing, because of hormones, or because they have spent the night chatting with friends online. The odd day off now and again is normal and nothing to be concerned about. However, if your child is regularly saying they don’t want to go to school, this is something different.
School refusal often has an underlying problem behind it. I know how difficult it is to get to the bottom of a problem with a teen. ‘Nothing is wrong!’, or worse, the 100-yard stare, when you’re talking to them but no reaction. Nada.
It’s like you’re not even there.
But we have to persevere. Try and identify if the issue is because of bullying, if they are struggling academically in class, if there has been a falling out with peers, or if they are feeling anxious about some aspect of school.
If your child is being bullied, this may take a while to come to the surface. Be patient. There’s definitely a reason behind the school refusal so don’t give up until you know what that reason is. If you can’t get any information from your child, I advise that you call your child’s school.
They will guide you in the best way to encourage your child to attend school. If there is bullying going on, more often than not a teacher has already flagged this and they are monitoring the situation.
Bullying is not something to be ignored, it can often escalate and become such an issue your teen simply can’t cope. By staying at home they feel they are safe and away from the anguish.
Your child’s school can arrange different methods of getting your child back in a classroom, be it shorter days, less pressure to complete work, or not having to join in certain activities where they may be exposed to further bullying such as gym class.
The reason behind non-attendance could be due to fear of failure. The transition from elementary to Junior High is very stressful for some children.
The thoughts of having to read aloud or present in front of a class of new people can be so overwhelming they just can’t attend class. Again if you can flag this with the school and assure your child they are not going to be called upon, this is sometimes the solution to the problem.
Alternatively, the issue may not be bullying but a clash within a peer group or sports activity related to school. They may feel they have let someone down or have said something to upset someone and can’t face the group of friends.
You need to reassure them without trivializing the situation. What seems unimportant to us, and something that we would just brush aside, can be the whole center of your teens world. They can’t see a way to get past this and that’s where your advice comes in.
Explain to them they need to face the reality and possibly the consequences of their actions. Realistically everyone has already forgotten about it or will as soon as they discuss it out in the open.
US Laws for Non-School Attendance
There are most definitely laws in place for non-attendance. All states have mandatory age attendance laws. The lowest age is 16 for 14 states. You cannot simply put your head in the sand and ignore that your child is not going to school. All states take non-attendance seriously.
There are a number of steps that are taken to ensure your child goes to school. Most schools have an ‘unexcused absence’ level of 7-10 days per year. An ‘unexcused absence’ is anything that is not explained with a medical note or a family funeral.
If these days clock up your school will contact you to set up a meeting with an attendance board. This is all in place to aid your child. If you miss the meeting this can lead to a day in court and a civil violation fine of $250. If you live in California, the laws around school attendance are much stricter. 3 unexcused absences, 3 lates /tardies, or 3 absences of more than 30 minutes put your child in the truant category.
If this becomes a mix of 5 of any of the above they are not categorized as Chronically Truant. You will be referred to the Attendance Board.
If you do not cooperate then on to the Local Juvenile Court where your child’s driving license will be revoked and can lead to a fine of up to $2500.
This is all the last case scenario. No one, including you as a parent, or the school or courts wants it to go this far. If you are in constant contact with the school, it won’t escalate this far.
Get the School on Board
As I say, everyone wants your child to be in school. There is a difference between truancy and school refusal. Truancy is caused by boredom, lack of ambition, and being behind in schoolwork. Kids that play truant generally leave the house for school.
Meet up with friends and cause mischief for the day, or worse, involvement in criminal activity, drug taking, or shoplifting.
School refusal teenagers generally want to stay at home. Home is seen as somewhere safe, where they don’t have to deal with their fears or anxieties.
If you engage with your child’s school they will be there to help. All schools will have school counselors and advisors on how to get your child back to school.
This may involve a scaled-back timetable, arriving and leaving school at a later and earlier time than everyone else. Allowing an area to become available in times of need during the day.
If your child is refusing point blank to go to school then other options can be temporarily put in place. Insist that school work is sent for your child to do during the days at home. Just because they are at home doesn’t mean they need to fall behind.
All teachers should have no problem grading/marking work submitted externally. It may mean dropping schoolwork at the school office once a week or you may be able to submit it online.
All educators want students to succeed. And the best option is for teenagers to be in school. If they can’t be in school, hopefully, this will only be a temporary measure, it doesn’t mean they have to miss out on learning.
Benefits of Education
We all want our kids to do well. Granted not all kids are academic but their education is still very important. I realized how important school attendance is during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.
My son was engaging with his remote learning and doing all the tasks set for him but he was so lonely. He craved teenage company. Myself and his dad just didn’t cut it. All he wanted was to be in school.
The idea of school just being for academic purposes is nonsense. School is where they can express themselves, and be comfortable with their friends. It is of course about learning but also learning to be an individual. Learning to be social.
If your child does not want to be there, it’s hard to get that point across. But you have to persevere. Missing school leads to social and future problems. Without any high school diploma, job prospects are thin on the ground.
That is the furthest thing from your child’s mind at the moment but try and keep it on your agenda. The longer your child refuses to go to school, the harder it is for them to return in the long run.
If your child’s school is willing for your child to work from home and your child is willing then this is the track you may have to follow. If you have tried everything else, in the end, you may find that a homeschool option is what works. The most important thing is not to give up. No matter how hard the struggle, if it’s difficult for you, think about how difficult it is for your teenager.
Hanging in there
Your teenager should feel that home is a safe environment. A place where the pressure is not like school. Instead of talking about grades, try and discuss what they liked about a particular topic. Trying to force your child back into a classroom may make things worse. The ultimate goal is that they turn the corner and return on their own initiative.
In the case of my niece, she struggled for three years on and off with traditional education. She was completing some work at home, but there wasn’t really anyone driving the bus, so to speak. My sister works full time and is a single mom.
There may have been a connection between school refusal and their divorce but it was likely more than she became a lost kid who needed some guidance and encouragement. It became the norm for her to be at home.
I would get angry at my sister’s lack of enthusiasm to get her to school. But in hindsight, my kids were at school, with never any question of them not attending. It’s sometimes easy to give advice or judge when you are not in the situation.
As time passed my niece realized that she wanted to be back in school. She was allowed to return on a part-time basis. She completed the rest of her work at home. She turned the corner.
It took as I say the best part of three years but she had the support of the education system, and family.
And most importantly, she realized as she grew up a little that education was going to give her the best chance for her future.
So, although currently your life seems all over the place and you wished your child would just go to school, don’t give up. Everything will work its way out. Sometimes we need to step back and acknowledge that the general way of doing things is not the way your family is doing things. That doesn’t mean you are doing anything wrong, just differently.
The answer is to find what best works for you and your family and if that is an alternative to mainstream schooling (even for a while), then so be it. Hang in there! It will get easier.