It can be challenging for parents how to help a teenager avoiding school. As parents and caregivers, we know that, in most cases, our teenagers need to be in school. It’s not only academics that are important, but school is where they learn much about socialising and building relationships beyond their family. We’ve checked in with the research for what can assist families with a teenager avoiding school. Here is some of what we found out.
1. Take time to understand what’s going on
Find out exactly what’s causing your teenager avoiding school. It could be any type of fear related to the environment. The more information parents and caregivers have on why they do not want to go to school, the easier it will be to offer support. Think of any possible situation or circumstance that might have led to this refusal.
For example, we know that most young people need predictability, but the bus ride to school and lunch break both lack structure. Could this be the cause of your teenager avoiding school? If this is the case, you can ask the school to build in structure for your teenager during these times. Offering different possibilities might help your teenager realise that you are concerned and are spending time thinking about this and that you understand what they are going through.
Sometimes it can help to ask direct questions:
- are you not getting on with the other students?
- are you struggling with the schoolwork?
- do you have issues with any teachers?
- is something else bothering you?
2. Focus on open communication with your teenager
Teenagers need to have at least one adult who they trust and can communicate openly with. Open communication means you are willing to hear things that you might not like or agree with. Prioritise your relationship with your teenager over any specific action. For example, if they say, ‘I don’t want to go to school’, that could be a time for you to say ‘ok, let’s explore this.’
Find out what they need or what they feel might make the school experience different. If we focus too much on their refusal, it can create tension and could become a power dynamic. Having the parent be the one who gets to decide what the teenager does may not be helpful if they have mental health issues.
3. Encourage helpful coping strategies
Acknowledge your teenager’s distress and offer them reassurance that they can cope in challenging situations. Encourage coping strategies that you have seen work for them or may have worked for you in the past and explore different ways your young person can try to manage their worries. Focus on their strengths and ways to positively engage in day-to-day activities.
Try learning relaxation techniques together, such as breathing exercises, or mindfulness, to help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Look at increasing extracurricular activities and consider what your teenager was once interested in and foster that. If needed, arrange professional support to assist them with coping strategies and to better understand the underlying reasons for their school refusal.
4. Be clear that staying home is not an option.
Make it clear to your teenager that missing school is not an option. For most kids, the more absences they have, the harder it is to get them back into class. Getting them to school is one of the most important strategies, even if they do not stay for the entire day.
Create a plan together that explores ways to manage the beginning of the school day, school term, school year, social situations or schoolwork, depending on what is troubling your young person. When school is online, help them to make sure they have a plan in place when it comes to their routine, attendance and schoolwork.
5. Scaffold your teenager’s return to school.
Try a scaffolding approach to work your teenager up to going back to school for the full day. For example, the first step might be to start driving by the school with them. Get your teenager to agree to attend their most favourite two classes. These will likely not be academic subjects, but that’s ok! The goal is to reengage your teenager into the routine of going to school.
The idea behind scaffolding is that little steps will get your teenager more and more comfortable with the idea of going to school. It is important to keep school at top of mind, especially when your teenager is at home but should be at school. Focus the conversation on things such as how they feel when they are at school, talk about what it would look like when they return to school, how they would find their friends or find their class, and reassure them that they can use coping strategies to stay at school for the entire day.
There is no exact formula on the length of time to achieve the desired results. As a parent you know your teenager best and how much you can push to achieve the desired goal without your teenager refusing to cooperate.
6. Connect with the school
It can be helpful to share with the appropriate school staff that your teenager has a challenge with attending school. That way teachers will better understand the need for any accommodations your teenager needs to reengage with the school routine. A clear, understandable school support plan can help students feel confident. This will help with reintegration and address school refusal.
Make sure your teenager has contact with adults at school with whom there is a strong and positive connection. A trusted peer or adult can escort them between classes. You might want teachers to know about helpful coping strategies. For example, taking a walk outside to decompress.
Finally, success in school is not getting straight A’s, it is a period in your teenager’s life that we hope can be meaningful for them, but we know can be a challenge. The goal is to attend school with consistency, navigating the social environments without feeling overwhelmed with anxiety. School is not everyone’s favourite place. We hope it can be a safe place, a space where students have a positive experience and a starting point for youth to venture into adulthood with the skills to set their own path.