Finding Solutions That Create School Success for Your Child

Many students look forward to a new school year as a chance to reunite with friends and enjoy learning, but for others, it's a time fraught with  stress. Erika Rackers, director of special education at Great Circle, says there are common reasons why a child tries to avoid going to class or doing schoolwork, and they can be addressed with patience and a cooperative effort.

Great Circle, a nonprofit that provides behavioral health programs throughout Missouri and eastern Kansas, also operates six specialized K-12 schools – called Great Circle Academy (GCA) – to help students with emotional, behavioral and social challenges find education success.

"In general, when kids don't want to participate in school, at least one of two things is happening," says Rackers, who oversees the GCA in Columbia, Mo. "The student may not be developmentally ready for the material being covered, or there may be issues with fitting in socially. In either case, parents need to be proactive about helping kids overcome their challenges.”

Rackers  says when children feel powerless in a situation,  they tend to act out. Loss of control discourages them from participating, and that can lead to conflict.  She says academic and social problems can manifest themselves in different ways – acting out, shutting down, emotional outbursts or refusal to do schoolwork at home or in class. “What may appear to be defiance in school, like a student putting his head down on his desk, showing disrespect to the teacher or giving excuses like a headache or a stomachache, may actually be uncertainty, discomfort or fear of failure,” she says.  

Figuring out the root cause of the behavior and then developing a plan that supports the student academically and emotionally is key. "We would encourage parents and teachers to work together with the student to set some revised goals and expectations to boost the child’s academic tolerance," Rackers says.

Robert Pacanowski, Great Circle’s statewide clinical associate director of education, says some children are quick to put up walls when told what to do. Instead of creating a power struggle, he suggests parents work to identify the right motivation for their child. “What can they get out of school? What are fun aspects? Do they have a life goal – a career or personal interest – and how can learning and regular school attendance help them attain those? These are conversations that can motivate the child to make positive changes,” he says.

Giving the student a measure of control also can be a place to start. For example, instead of having the student write out 20 spelling words five times each, the teacher may reduce it to a more manageable number like 10 or lessen the pressure by giving your student more time to complete it, Rackers says. "That way, he can choose when to do it," Rackers explains. "Then build his tolerance by gradually increasing the amount of work expected."

This process should be free of nonjudgmental language punishment or threatened consequences, Rackers says. Frequent encouragement as well as reminders to do the assignment is appropriate, she says, and parents should focus on being " very consistent and positive. Use a calm tone and normal volume and remember to validate the child's feelings and concerns."

If the student is struggling socially, Rackers advises keeping the lines of communication open. "Sometimes, kids simply feel they don’t fit into the school environment, and that makes it difficult to establish relationships with teachers and students," she says. "Ask the child if there is an adult at school they feel comfortable connecting with. If not, consider meeting with the teacher or counselor to discuss options. Think about it from a work situation -- you wouldn't want to work in an office where you didn't feel accepted."

At home, Rackers advises to not fall back on vague queries like "How was your day?" Instead, try unconventional questions that invite specific answers, such as, "What is one creative thing you did with a pencil today?" or "What was the best activity you did with other kids?" And when it's time for homework, again remember to tackle it in easily digestible chunks. "If your student has a book report coming up, accomplish it in steps," Rackers advises. "Set a goal of picking the book tonight, reading the first chapter tomorrow night, and so on."

"Everyone wants to feel successful , to know that they are accomplishing things and have power over their decisions and achievements," she notes. "Addressing school avoidance may take some time, but with patience and consistency, kids can learn to motivate themselves and enjoy their studies again."