Q In the past month or so, my son (aged 10) hasn't wanted to go to school. Almost every morning he says he doesn't feel good. Our family doctor can find nothing physically wrong.
A One column ago we talked about the basics of school resistance. These are: (1) A tiny percentage of children are intensely distraught over leaving home and/or attending school. (2) The great majority of school refusals are not driven by anxiety but by apathy or frustration over something related to school. (3) It's not unusual for a child who has been school positive to become temporarily school negative. (4) Finally, and perhaps most frustratingly, parents often can't locate the root of the resistance, or if we can, we can't influence it directly.
Which brings us to where we are today. How can you lessen your son's resistance to school? Here are several steps:
Step One: To reinforce something said last column, begin by asking your son all about school—his teacher, the bus, other children, schedule changes, anything which could be affecting his change of heart. Also, talk to school personnel to get their impressions. It's possible what you hear could lead to a resolution. If not, proceed to step two.
Step Two: Inform your son that because the doctor has given him a clean bill of health, you will not allow him to stay home. If symptoms emerge such as fever, cold, etc., these are another matter—but don't tell him that. You'd be surprised how closely some kids can mimic common maladies.
Tell him if he feels ill at school he can ask to see the school nurse who may allow him to lie down in the clinic. However, you will ask her to call you if that happens; and you will then allow—actually require—him to rest in bed or on the couch for the remainder of the evening when he gets home—without friends, television or video games. Should your son in fact be under the weather, the quiet night won't bother him.
If you're not confident in your ability to judge legitimate sickness, or if your son is incredibly convincing, or if you just want another option, move to step three.
Step Three: On any morning your son claims illness, he will be permitted to stay home—in bed, all day and all evening, with no entertainment other than reading materials. Whether he gets up for meals is at your discretion. Again, if he truly is feeling bad, he won't totally mind his semi-solitary confinement. If he isn't, bed will quickly become more unpleasant or boring than school.
Two themes run throughout these steps. One, you are making school the more enjoyable option. Two, your stance is nonnegotiable. No matter how much your son might temporarily hate his scholastic lot, to allow him to avoid it is to allow him to take a course of action the repercussions of which he can't remotely begin to understand.
Dr. Ray Guarendi is a clinical psychologist and author.
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