Your children should go to school and stay at school unless the alternative is reasonable and preferable, for example, if your child is ill, or if a family member dies. School should be the choice unless the alternative is clearly something your child should do or needs to do. This may seem a simple point, but it is a major issue for children who have school attendance problems.
Your child may develop physical symptoms such as stomachaches and nausea as a reaction to going to school or as a way of getting out of going to school. The guiding principle is, regardless of your child’s age, she is treated as if she is ill. This means she generally stays in her room all day, eats soup and other light foods, is not allowed to come out of the room or have other children in the room, and may only come out to go to the bathroom every two or three hours if she wishes. This begins first thing in the morning and lasts all day. Your child is not allowed to come out to play with other children later that afternoon or evening. If she is really sick, a 24-hour period of rest and quiet is just what she needs. If she is in fact ill, she will not find this particularly objectionable. On the other hand, if the illness is put on as a way of getting out of school, having to stay quiet all day is typically less desirable than going to school. If the symptoms are serious or if they get worse, your child’s doctor should be consulted. The same approach applies if your child gets ill at school and comes home. Whether physical symptoms occur before school starts or after she gets to school, responding as if she is ill saves having to decide if your child is ill.
Your child may become violent, have temper tantrums, or otherwise become upset about the prospect of going to school or staying at school. When this happens, try to find out why. He may be under great social or academic pressure, or he may be having difficulties with peers. Assume he is legitimately reacting to something quite negative or undesirable. Always start by giving your child the benefit of the doubt.
What happens if you have given your child the benefit of the doubt, have talked with him about the problem, have explored the situation at school, and come to the conclusion his reaction is neither legitimate nor reasonable? Firmly insist verbally your child go to school. Surprisingly, a lot of childhood difficulties are easily resolved if you insist your child conform to your expectations.
What if this does not work? In this situation, negative discipline is a mistake. If your child’s reaction to going to school is so intense he is willing to refuse to cooperate when directly confronted by you, the problem must be extreme. To simply force the situation through negative discipline means you are refusing to understand. Professional attention may be needed.
Any time your child behaves atypically, first talk with him about the problem and about your concerns. Then, talk with other people about the problem, seek professional advice, and do what you can to be sure you understand why your child is behaving so unusually. Until you have an explanation for the behavior, do not pressure him to do things he perceives as contrary to his own self-interest. Once you understand why, you can then either correct the problem or encourage him to behave differently. With all children, but especially with children grade school age or older, the use of negative discipline is always a last approach and should be used only when it is reasonable and appropriate.
The problem of staying at school often becomes more pronounced in high school. When adolescents are having difficulty with school involvement and attendance, the most likely explanation is difficulty with the learning process or lack of interest. Whether the problem reflects defiance or delinquency, learning difficulties or disinterest, the initial approach is the same: talk about the problem. “Why don’t you want to go to school?” “What is the problem keeping you from attending school regularly?” Most always, your adolescent’s response will be literal truth. (Unfortunately, parents, school officials, and other adults are disinclined to accept the reasons given as legitimate.) Your adolescent says, “I don’t go to school because I do not like school.” Instead of a lecture, ask “What don’t you like about school?” She says, “Everything.” You say, “I hear you saying there is nothing you like about school. Could you start making a list of everything you dislike about it?” You can then assist by suggesting focus on teachers, specific subjects, rules and restrictions, other adults at school, other students, and so on. If you are calm but persistent, you gradually get a picture of school from your adolescent’s point of view. It may be surprising to learn this picture really does justify disliking school and usually constitutes a legitimate explanation for why she is not going to school.
Once you understand how your adolescent feels and why, you can begin to help her think about her options: changing to a different course of study, special tutoring, transfer to an alternative school if one is available. In a few situations, you may conclude school has nothing worthwhile to offer your adolescent. Or perhaps her learning problems are so severe, so chronic, continuing in school will not accomplish anything. At that point, it is time to begin discussing possible, legitimate alternatives to regular school attendance.