This exchange is all too familiar. For many people it first takes place when a child is in Grade 1 or 2. It is during those early conversations (when your child is in the elementary grades) that you need to ask: “What is going on that makes going to school so unpleasant for my child? Why is it so important to be at home? Do I know enough about what is happening with my child at school?”
The questions should be asked early in the school career of your child. If not, problems may carry on into the higher grades. For example, a learning problem that interferes with your child’s reading ability will show up in kindergarten or Grade One. If the problem is ignored, by grade 8 or 9 that child will have fallen behind in many subject areas. The problem will often be much more complicated and difficult to manage if allowed to persist for a long time.
Many students will keep it a secret that they cannot read. Teachers and parents may wonder why a student seems bored, frustrated or ashamed. The child may react by behaving badly, doing poorly with studies, having poor attendance or a combination of these. The child may not connect the feelings to the behaviour. When asked to explain the behaviour, a student might reply, “I don’t know why I skip school or behave that way,” much to the frustration of parents and teachers. This, however, is often an entirely truthful answer.
It might be helpful to think about the reasons behind your child’s problems with school.
Before you can examine the problem you must decide if it is one of academic achievement, behavior or attendance. It may also be helpful to look at the problem from the point of view of the teacher, the parents or the student. The situation could look quite different for each. One of the reasons that the school staff may not respond to your efforts on behalf of your child may be because they do not see the issue the way you do.
For instance, your child may have had special assistance in the lower grades because of difficulty paying attention, but not receive the same help in junior high school. This may be as simple as the new school not being aware of the problem. It is important that you discuss concerns such as this with the teachers at the new school.
It is also helpful to question the purpose behind the behaviour of refusing to attend school. A student who is skipping school to stay home probably has a different reason from the student who skips class and heads for the mall. The reason for staying home may be far removed from what you expect such as anxiety at having a sick parent alone at home. What you see as the problem may appear to be the solution to the problem for your teenager!
How the problem develops can be revealing. If good school skills and attendance in elementary school deteriorate on entering Grade 7 at a new school, it is likely that the problem is not due to a learning problem, attention deficit disorder or poor intelligence. It is more likely to be due to other issues in the student’s life.
On the other hand, if your child has been hyperactive and easily distracted since birth and has become increasingly impulsive, attention deficit disorder needs to be considered as a cause of the problem.
Remember that your child is going through many changes during adolescence. From being a child, entirely dependent for basic needs, your teen is learning to be a competent, independent adult. This includes developing a personal identity and values, a comfortable sexual awareness and the ability to be self supporting. There are many challenges for both adolescent and parent as you work out new ways of relating to each other.
You may need to discuss new areas of responsibility. For instance, you may now expect your teen to get up in the morning without having to be called four or five times. Such changes can cause conflict. Sometimes the teenager wants more control than a parent is willing to give. The result is refusal to go to school. “Dad wants me to go to school, therefore, I won’t go!” This is not unlike the two-or three-year-old who says, “Me do!” to establish some independence.
Many school problems for teenagers are not caused by an academic issue. Some of the following factors need to be looked at.
Conflict and fighting between parents can be a major cause of school difficulties. Domestic violence may have a direct impact by disrupting the family. A parent or child may need to find a safe shelter especially after sexual abuse. The child’s mood, self-esteem and motivation may all be affected.
Family attitudes towards education in general are also very important. The child will think education is important when mom and dad take the time and make the effort to get involved with homework and support parent-teacher interviews or other school activities. Teens need encouragement. Verbal “put-ups” and praise for success create far better academic results than do “put-downs” and endless criticism. Catch them in the act of being good!
Peers and peer group pressure
Adolescents need friends and friendships for their sense of fitting in or belonging. The development of personal identity moves from being family-centred to becoming part of a peer group in early and middle adolescence. Slowly this connection then shifts to one-on-one dating in later adolescence.
Peers can have an important influence on school behaviour. They can have a negative effect if others in the group do not see value in going to school. On the other hand, friends who want to succeed can motivate your teen to want to attend school and do well.
Drug and alcohol use and delinquent behaviour are two areas where peer influence can contribute to school problems. Sudden changes in school performance, physical appearance, eating or sleeping patterns, behaviour, friends and reactions to family sometimes indicate alcohol or drug abuse.
The social pressure on teens at and around school is great. Young people who are shy, who have physical disabilities or who have fears and anxieties that make them stand out may be picked on. They may not wish to go to school where they are teased and ridiculed. Who can blame them?
Inner fears may have a similar influence. For example, sexuality issues may cause teens to withdraw, especially if the issue is sexual orientation. Attraction to someone of the same sex can be a frightening realization for a young teenager. Homosexual youths have a higher rate of depression and suicide than do heterosexual adolescents.
Most activities of young people are healthy and beneficial. The common public perception that teenagers are often involved in illegal, immoral or unhealthy activities does not give a balanced view.
Many young people have so many out of school activities that their schooling suffers. Seeking a balance between these activities and the need to complete an education is an area in which parents can play a supportive role.
Many medical concerns may cause school problems. Depression may cause many of the difficulties already described. Some common illnesses and most serious chronic conditions can affect attendance, performance or behaviour. Specific difficulties with hearing, vision or some physical activities need to be recognized and dealt with.
“What can I do to motivate my teenager?” This is one of the most frequently asked questions by parents of adolescents. Needless to say, it is not usually asked in relation to motivating teens to spend more time listening to music, hanging out with friends, using the computer or video games, talking on the telephone or playing hockey!
Many adolescents do not enjoy going to school. The importance of an education in the future is not an idea to which younger teens can easily relate. This may be, in part, because the ability for abstract thought has not yet developed. Younger teens often tend to be concrete thinkers who do not think ahead to the positive or negative results of their actions. They respond better to immediate consequences, of which positive rewards are usually most effective.
The physical, mental, spiritual, social, academic, sexual and family health of young people are inseparable. By taking an interest in your child’s school activity, you have the best chance of understanding problems as they arise. You will be in a better position to help nurture your child towards academic success.