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Refusing to go to school — Good Parenting

School refusalDear Dr. Debbie,

My sister’s daughter is 16. They’ve moved around a lot which has meant changing schools a couple of times. At the end of last school year, she was suspended for fighting, so this year, she was enrolled in yet another school. Three weeks into this school year, my niece has already been absent more than she has been present. She has been refusing to go to school. It doesn’t help that in Anne Arundel County, high school begins so early in the morning — way before a typical teenager is ready to be awake. Needless to say her grades have been way below what we know to be her ability, and we’re getting worried for her future.

What advice can I share with my sister?

Concerned Aunt

Don’t miss last week’s column Hands full with twin toddlers — Good Parenting

Dear Concerned,

Defiance about attending school is more common than most people think. It’s called School Refusal and can occur at any age.

At the root could be a variety of causes, and possibly more than one, including: not having friends, fear of being bullied, learning difficulties, concern for a parent’s well-being, severe fatigue, low self-esteem (and no future aspirations), general anxiety or clinical depression.

The first step would be for your sister to meet with the school guidance counselor with her daughter, if possible. They could meet after school hours if that is the only time she will enter the school building. If her daughter won’t go, the parent should go without her. As a concerned aunt, you could offer to go with your sister.

If the girl has had a history of anxiety or depression, it would be important for the mother to check in with her daughter’s physician, psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor or social worker about the current situation. If such help has never been sought, the school counselor or the family doctor should be able to provide a list of resources including testing for learning disabilities.

Believe it or not, some learning disabilities are not discovered until high school or later. Bring to the school counselor’s attention any assessments, treatment therapies and or medications that have been used in the past or are currently in use. A school psychologist or social worker can be brought onto the team for assessments and other services.

With input from all voices, a plan will emerge. Here are some possibilities:

Part time schedule

An every-other-day schedule or part-day schedule may be all a student needs to complete the credits required to graduate. Balanced with an enjoyable job and or regularly scheduled recreational activities — yoga, pottery, horseback riding, volunteering at the S.P.C.A — this option might reduce or eliminate her absences.

Go at night

Pre-dawn hours are indeed a deterrent to rising and shining for classes that start at 7:17 a.m. The national Start School Later movement, which is headquartered in Annapolis, cites too early hours as the fixable culprit for rampant sleep deficiency among teens in our country. Sleep deficit is related to, among other problems, depression and school failure.

An alternative to waiting for those in control to “wake up” and fix the schedule is to attend Evening High School which is held at several sites in Anne Arundel County.

Go to college

Anne Arundel Community College accepts currently enrolled high school students at a 50 percent tuition rate. Students eligible for meal subsidies should inquire about attending for free. There are courses that can simultaneously meet requirements for high school graduation as well as fulfill requirements towards a college degree. Placement tests will determine eligibility for some courses. English 12 is offered.

Stay home

With the recommendation of a doctor, a temporary exemption from school attendance can be granted for emotional reasons. Anne Arundel County Public Schools, as well as other area counties, will send a Home/Hospital teacher to your home to give one-on-one instruction and assignments to keep a student current until she is ready to return to the classroom.

Full-blown homeschooling is another option, though this requires a concerted commitment from a parent.

Show your niece that obstacles can be overcome. There are many paths to high school completion. And beyond that, many promising paths to choose from.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.

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