When Your Child Refuses To Go To School

"My 15 year old son refuses to go to school, but otherwise is a good kid. How can I make him do school work? He attends a private school. He says he can't "force" himself to do it."


Kids love to learn. Learning is as natural as breathing to them--they absorb every single thing that happens! They learn through play, they learn from the behavior of the kids and adults around them, they learn from their own experiments. By all rights, going to school, where there will be new experiences, many kids, and a chance to master powerful skills like reading and math, should be exciting and fun for them!

Their minds don't function well unless this bottom line condition of being welcome and appreciated is met. At school, they need to know that their educators like them and think they're special. They need to know that they won't be bullied or made fun of on the playground or in the hallways. They need encouragement, high expectations, and a good deal of fun. Play, which is the language and work of young kids, is still deeply important to kids of school age. The more they are allowed to play in their learning activities, the faster they absorb information and new skills. At home, kids need kindness, affection, and some measure of one-on-one time with their moms and dads, even if it's has to be as little as a five-minute snuggle before going to sleep every night or the ride in the car to the Boy Scout meeting once a week.

There are several basic ideas about helping kids learn that aren't well understood in our culture. In fact, they're not well understood in most cultures of the world. For schools to foster learning, and for moms and dads to support their kids, we grown-ups need to see that these learning needs of kids are met both at home and in the schools.

Here are a few of the key concepts that aren't yet well-understood:
  • Kids learn best through play and hands-on activities. The best teacher is experience, experience, experience! We need classrooms in which kids are doing things together, experimenting, and teaching each other what they've learned. In particular, free play without competition or preset rules is a great builder of kids’ intellect, imagination, and confidence. Jumping on the beds at home, chasing around the house, and wrestling and pillow fights (the kids win, of course!) are the kinds of personal, physical play that lift kids' spirits and create enough fun that they can manage to stay hopeful even when days at school aren't inspiring. If life feels like drudgery, learning won't take place. So free play is vital. It keeps your youngster's spark of hope and interest alive!
  • Kids need large amounts of physical affection and closeness. Closeness fuels their confidence and frees their minds of worries about whether or not they're OK. If they're unsure about whether they're OK, they can't concentrate on learning.
  • Kids need the freedom to make mistakes and ask questions without fear of shame or belittlement. Mistakes and "failures" teach as effectively as successes, as long as a youngster continues to be respected.
  • Kids need to feel loved, or at least understood and respected, in order for their minds to be clear enough to learn.
  • Children's keen sense of justice demands that they and others be treated thoughtfully and fairly. Fairness, to kids, means limits but not anger, boundaries but not belittlement, facing problems but not attacking people for having problems.
  • Schools are not set up to help kids with the tensions that keep them from learning and getting along. This is a job we moms and dads need to do. It's a very hard job, one that was never done for us. It feels all wrong to allow a youngster to cry on and on without fixing anything, without sending him to his room or insisting that he pull himself together. But listen. Listening heals. Listen your way through a big cry or tantrum once, without trying to "fix" his feelings or solve the problem, and you'll see how well it works to clear your youngster's mind and restore his sense of closeness to you.
  • The huge need kids have for one-on-one attention while they learn is natural. It's the school environment, where so many kids need to compete for the attention of just one adult, that's not natural. Kids' needs feel bothersome to moms and dads and to educators, not because the kids are out of line, but because our society is out of line. Policymakers and citizens haven't yet decided to give young kids enough adult attention in school, and moms and dads enough support at home, to meet natural human needs for support and attention. When schools are genuinely supportive to kids, we'll look back at present class sizes, at the lack of support for educators, and at the lack of services for kids experiencing difficulties in learning, and think of conditions in the year 2000 as primitive indeed!
  • What helps immensely is something we've always been taught to avoid at all costs. If you can sit close by while your youngster has a good cry about school, or a tantrum about not wanting to do homework, your youngster will do the work of draining some of the bad feelings that have paralyzed him. Emotional release helps kids focus their attention and regain their ability to be hopeful about learning. Your youngster won't sound reasonable while he cries or rages. He'll believe very strongly in the terrible feelings he's having. But surprisingly, the crying and the chance to make sure you know how bad it feels inside has a deeply healing effect. So try to keep from arguing and reasoning with him, and stay close while he "cleans the skeletons out of the closet" with his tears and his bleak or angry thoughts. He'll finish. The longer he has been able to cry, the more improvement you will see in his ability to concentrate and to believe in himself.
  • When a youngster isn't able to concentrate or to learn, there's usually an emotional issue that blocks his progress. It feels bad on the inside when you can't think! It feels scary on the inside when you can't do what's expected of you, and you don't know why or what to do about it! This is the position kids are in when they can't write a story, can't memorize their times tables, or can't sit down to their homework. They feel upset, and often scared. They also feel alone.
When we moms and dads see our youngster caught in upset around learning, it's usually infuriating. Our youngster's problems make us feel tired and worn. Our thoughts are something like, "By now, he should be able to do school work on his own! Why do I have to get into it?!" We badly want our youngster's problems to go away so we can get a little peace!

Assisting Our Kids, Supporting Their Schools

Almost every youngster will experience some difficult times in school. And almost every parent feels upset, helpless, and/or angry when these troubles surface. Our strong love for our kids and our frustration with a society that doesn't offer much support to its young people makes it hard to think clearly when our kids are having a hard time.

There are a few guiding principles that many people find helpful when they hit a hard patch:
  • First, listen to your youngster about the difficulty. He's feeling hurt and upset, and he can't solve the problem in that state. See if you can be warm and positive enough to help him have a big cry or a tantrum. Kids can often work through their feelings of victimization and come up with their own solutions to troubles at school, if they have the chance to offload the feelings in big, hard cries at home.
  • If he wants you to approach a teacher or other students, listen well before you attempt to find solutions. A teacher, principal, or student needs to have their side of the story heard before they will be able to change a viewpoint or cooperate toward a fresh solution. If things aren't working well, they feel badly about it (even if they're acting like they don't). Fresh, workable behavior comes only from a mind that's been freed a bit from its troubles by a good listener, a listener who cares about all the parties involved. Your thoughts are important, and working toward a solution is important. But listening well to the others involved is as vital as tilling hard-packed soil before you attempt to plant a new seed.
  • It doesn't help to blame your youngster, yourself, or the teacher for the difficulty. Blame wastes energy and makes others feel worse than they already do. Because blame spreads bad feelings, it gets in the way of the fresh thinking and cooperation you'll need in order to build solutions. You aren't to blame. You're working as hard as you know how that this difficult job of parenting. Your youngster isn't to blame. He's doing the best he can, and is carrying burdens he hasn't told you about yet, or doesn't know how to shed yet. The teacher is not to blame. No matter who has made mistakes, the heart of the matter is the lack of support and assistance for everyone involved.
  • Let your youngster be in charge of the solutions. After your youngster has shed big feelings of upset, and after you've spent some time just being close to him without trying to solve the problem, ask him what he wants to do. Listen carefully. There may be a role you can play in advocating for him with the teacher or helping him talk with his friends. But don't assume that because he brought his feelings to you, that he wants you to take charge of the situation. Many times, kids can think of how they want to take charge after one or several good cries.
  • Problem-solving goes better if we find a listener, too! When our kids struggle, we feel as frustrated and disappointed as they do! When they meet with unfairness, we want to storm and rage until the threat to them is gone. When they seem to be unable to help themselves at home, we aim our frustrations at them, driving them further into their shells of hopelessness. In short, when our kids meet trouble, we feel troubled too. To be good allies and problem-solvers, we need someone to listen to us, perhaps again and again, to how we feel and to the things we've tried. Someone listening to how angry or disappointed or exhausted we feel freshens our communication with our kids, their friends, and their educators. Our problem-solving effectiveness is 100% improved if we decide to find a listener and let them hear our fears and our frustrations before we try to help!
  • We live in a society that doesn't value its kids or the people who work with them. There is talk of the importance of education, and many skilled and goodhearted people working in that field, but too little funding and respect are funneled toward schools. In most schools, human caring and teaching expertise is spread far too thin. You, your youngster, and your youngster's teacher are all stressed because learning conditions aren't optimal. Constructive action means to look for people's strengths, call on their good intentions, and perhaps to look for additional help.

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