When a child refuses to go to school, those without any experience often advise the parents to "get tough," and "tell them they've got no choice." Such people seem to imagine the child calmly listening as his parents explain the importance of education, then admitting the error of his ways and hurrying to the bathroom to get ready! In fact, they are more likely to scream, cry, or retreat into sulky silence. And an exhausted mother, already late for work, cannot physically drag her 12-year-old son to the school gate.
First, you must understand why they do not want to go. Bullying is a common reason. Sometimes, a child is simply picked on by another child, or group of children, who call them names, spread nasty rumors, and so on. In other cases, the bullying escalates to punches, kicks, or threats. It can happen secretly, with the bullies catching the child on his own, or it can take place in the open, leaving them humiliated as well as terrified.
But bullying can be more subtle, taking place even among friends. Look back to your own school days and you may recall that the worst bullying you ever endured was at the hands of someone you considered a friend – and possibly still do. Indeed, the child may not even realize he or she is being bullied.
This is the sort of bullying one often encounters in the workplace, where the spiteful and sadistic, no longer able to punch and kick their colleagues, must find other ways of hurting them. Your daughter, for example, may have been told, with sickly politeness, that she is no longer "in" with her group because they all have boyfriends now and, though she's very nice, she's just too "immature" or "innocent" and, frankly, not cool enough to hang out with them. Where does she sit in the lunch hall now? Who does she chat to before class? Such problems seem trivial to an adult, worried about mortgage repayments and ageing parents, but to a child they are momentous.
Fear of failure or embarrassment is another common reason. Your child may have some sort of learning difficulty, such as dyslexia or dyscalculia, which leaves them feeling bewildered and stupid. Imagine how upsetting it must be to face a classroom of children who all seem so much smarter and more advanced than you. Imagine the terror of being asked to read something out loud, or solve a math puzzle, when you cannot even grasp the basics. And remember, if these problems are mild, they may pass undetected.
Personality disorders and mental health problems can also play a part. Someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, for example, would find school a bewildering, terrifying place, as would a child with social anxiety or an avoidant personality disorder. And, as with something like dyslexia, many only experience these in a mild form, making them hard to spot.
Children dislike school for the same reason adults dislike work. The fact is that some of us are extroverts, some introverts; some people love to socialize and meet new people, and some hate it. For a child who is by nature quiet and introverted, the noise and bustle of a school, the lack of privacy, alone time, or personal space, can be traumatic. And for the sensitive, school can also be a torment. At no other time of life are you so self-conscious, so aware of what your peers think of you, and yet at no other time are you so intensely judged.
Persuading your child to explain why they keep faking illness and refusing to go to school can be a real challenge. The young have nothing to compare their experiences with. They may not understand that bullying is not their fault, or that it's OK not to enjoy socializing, to struggle to fit in, to dislike sport, and so on. To get to the truth, you will have to find a way past this shame and embarrassment. And when it comes to bullying, there is also the fear of reprisal.
Children often lack the words to express how they feel. A 10-year-old girl whose best friend turns against her and encourages others to do the same, is not going to say "Mum, Dad, I do not wish to go to school any more. It's horrible. The girl I considered my best friend has changed. I don't know why. I suspect she is hurt by her parents' divorce and is taking it out on me. Anyway, she refuses to speak to me and is now encouraging my other friends to turn their backs on me as well." Instead, she will simply fake illness and then scream and shout when you doubt her. Neither can a child explain the nasty sarcastic remarks a teacher makes about their learning difficulties, or the intense discomfort they feel when meeting new people.
Above all, be gentle and patient. And try to focus on your child, not yourself. Droning on about how stressed and tired you are, or how hard it is for you to force them out of the door each morning, will make no difference. On the contrary, they are likely to stop listening. And lecturing them on the importance of education will make no difference either. Children and teenagers have little sense of adult life, of how hard it can be to find a pleasant, well-paid job. Their school is the limits of their world.
Rather than just asking them outright, you could try a more indirect route. How about their friends? Be very careful how you approach them, however. Do not blurt out "Sarah won't go to school. Do you have any idea why?" If your child finds out that you've gone behind their back, they are almost certain to be angry. Instead, skirt around the issue. Ask your child's friends what they think of school. Are there any bullies? What are the teachers like? The more you talk to them, the more likely they are to let something slip, maybe without even realising it.
And be observant. For example, if your child is not only refusing to go to school but has also stopped wanting to go to the park with his friends, that would suggest bullying. If he or she has been making comments about being thick or stupid, then they are probably struggling with schoolwork.
Finally, it is worth adding that some children just don't like school. They aren't being bullied, get along fine with other students, and find the work easy enough, but they resent the lack of freedom. The exceptionally clever grow bored and frustrated. Or maybe they have matured faster than their peers and find the atmosphere unbearable. Some are impatient to get out into the real world and begin a career. To an intelligent and mature 15-year-old, the sniggering childishness of others in his age group must be as horrible as it would be for an adult. Indeed, some young people are frankly more mature than many adults.
Once you have some answers, you must approach the school. Of course, if your child has not been attending, the school will almost certainly approach you. When you deal with the teaching staff, it is vital to do so in the right way. You need to be firm and assertive but polite and reasonable. Aggression will get you nowhere. Those who represent an institution live in perpetual fear of being sued or dismissed as a result of complaints. If they sense that this is possible, they will grow defensive.
Equally, you mustn't be too soft. If your child tells you she is being bullied, and the teacher replies that she has never seen any sign of this, that your daughter seems happy, or insinuates that she is just making it up to get out of school, you have a right to be angry (though, to be fair, bullying isn't always easy to spot). Above all, make it clear that you are not interested in blaming anyone, you just want the matter resolved.
If they are struggling with their work, could you hire a private tutor to give them a few hours of extra tuition? If you cannot afford this, try a neighbor or family member, or even help them out yourself. And always seek professional help if you suspect Asperger’s, social phobia, or some other learning difficulty or mental illness. As for dyslexia, most schools now have the facilities to help.
In the meantime, do not allow your child to make herself too comfortable at home. Don't be cruel (especially not if they are being bullied), but don't let them play video games and watch TV all day. This is not a bad life. Indeed, many adults wouldn't mind such a life. Unfortunately, they will soon get used to it. Give your child free reign and not only will they fall behind with their work, they will be even more reluctant to return. By allowing this, you also condone their behavior.
It is equally important not to allow your child to become isolated. If they do, the shock of returning to a school environment may be too much and trigger a new bout of truancy. So encourage them to go out. Could you drive them to a karate class in the evening? Or maybe a dance class? Offer to drop them at a friend's house and pick them up. And when their friends come to visit, make an effort to be as polite and approachable as possible.
Sometimes, nothing works and a child refuses point blank. You may have to accept that this is just the way things are. But it isn't the end of the world. Many parents choose to home school their child, often with great success. Keep this in reserve as a final option. Maybe you could do some research online, chat to other parents who home school, and order a few books on the subject.
Dealing with a child who refuses to go to school isn't easy. For many people, already struggling with ageing parents, stressful careers, and mounting debts, it is the last thing they need. Plus no one likes to think that their child is unhappy. But you are not alone. And, as you can see, there are steps you can take.