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When they refuse to go to school

We all want the best for our kids, and we recognise the importance of school in terms of their learning, personal growth and future opportunities. But what do you do when your adolescent son or daughter refuses to attend? By Kate Barber

Guidance counsellor, teacher and proud father of two boys TONY JONES acknowledges the barriers young people face alongside the hugely disruptive impact of the last two and a half years. He urges parents to connect with their school if, for whatever reason, their child is struggling or refusing to attend. 

School is about “accessing learning, which creates opportunities, which increases a young person’s potential”, says Tony, “but learning is so much more than academic grades. It’s about making connections with others and growing your awareness around yourself.”

Missing school means young people are missing out on opportunities. But Tony says we need to think about this in terms of “the script they’re forming of themselves and life” and the significant impact this has on their lives going forward. 

The last two and a half years have been hugely disruptive for young people. “We have disconnected them from others, at the same time that we have increased their online connections, which are unfiltered and distorted,” says Tony. Young people have missed out on the everyday social interactions they would have gotten from being at school, and many have developed apathy or anxiety, he says. 

If young people have absorbed the message that it’s okay to stay at home, it follows that some will be resistant to the alternative, says Tony. “Often it comes down to what’s more appealing or comfortable – to play on their console at home or to go to school”. 

There are a raft of reasons why a young person might resist or refuse going to school, and peer relationships is a typical one. Adolescents are highly emotionally driven and seek social validation from peers. It is common for young people to encounter difficult relationships, even bullying, and want to avoid school.  

However, Tony says that young people often don’t want to attend because they are struggling with the learning. “Often it presents as anger, when the reality is they don’t have a clue what’s going on in a class.” 

It can be very difficult to know what’s really going on, and yet it’s crucial to get to the bottom of it, so they can get the support they need. 

It’s near impossible to make your teen go to school if they don’t want to, and highly distressing when your attempts to do so are met with hysteria or the threat of self-harm. Tony says that the line between behaviour and mental health has become very blurry. This is not to deny that many young people struggle with depression and anxiety, but sometimes adolescents will “up the game to trigger parents into not responding”.

In a moment of high stress, it’s vital to “pause and de-escalate the situation”, says Tony, but he urges parents not to “default into inaction”.

“What if you were to say: ‘I hear what you say. You’re really distressed, and we need to get you help for this. And I’ll be fearless and committed to helping you through this’? Either you’ll get the support you need, or you’ll call them out for the behaviour, or both,” says Tony.

Of course, it’s not easy to call up or walk into a school and ask for help. “When your son or daughter isn’t attending, you’ll be getting daily alerts from school, and the shame and guilt can feel overwhelming,” says Tony. “But you need to reach out to the school and ask for full disclosure to get to the bottom of what’s happening.”

Teachers, deans and counsellors care and want to help. “When you get a parent who reaches out and says they’re struggling, there’s almost nothing you wouldn’t do to support them,” he says. 

Tony also urges parents to “reach out to others for support – for yourself. Self-care is vital in this. Above all, we need to be kind to ourselves. This is really hard, and you don’t have the time and energy to beat up on yourself.” 

Every Day at School is a Big Day

In New Zealand, school attendance has been declining across the board since 2015, exacerbated in the last two years by Covid-19. Across the country, only three in five students (or 60 per cent) attend school regularly (9 out of every 10 days), and there are more and more cases of chronic non-attendance. 

Associate Minister of Education Jan Tinetti says that “school provides routine and responsibilities, allows young people to navigate relationships, and helps grow resilience. Attending school means that these young people will grow up having more choices.” In August, the Government launched a nationwide campaign, “Every Day at School is a Big Day”, to support practical measures in place in schools to remove barriers to attendance. 

Tony Jones is a guidance counsellor, specialising in working with adolescents and families. He was also the relationship counsellor on Married At First Sight New Zealand. He lives in North Canterbury with his wife and two boys.

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