Has your child ever run away from school? Mine did

When a child wants to avoid school or escape from there, don't presume it's normal. You need to stop and question why.

Teacher standing at the board with student writing

There are as many reasons to run away from school as there are children who do it. It’s important to pay attention to school avoidance—it can be a serious cry for help—but it’s not always as big a problem as parents and educators think it is.

A personal story

One of my daughters—a curious, sociable, and energetic child—hated school from the age of three, when I enrolled her in nursery school. I worked from home, and she loved spending time there with me. She always had projects of her own that she wanted to work on, and she experienced school as a waste of her time. Her academic skills were advanced for her age, and continued to develop through pursuing her various interests. In kindergarten, she developed a bad case of ‘Monday Morning Sickness’—she’d be great all weekend, then fall terribly ill on Monday morning. If I kept her home from school, she’d be well by 10am, and get progressively ‘healthier’ as the week went on.

The details of my daughter’s school avoidance tactics changed as she got older, until she was truant more than she attended during one year of high school. This was terribly worrying for me, but I’m glad to say that this story has a happy ending. After many years of conflict between us, and countless attempts to find a good solution, she became an enthusiastic and successful university student. Finally, she was able to throw herself passionately into topics she found meaningful, at a depth and complexity she found challenging. Finally school was worth attending.

A creative and independent spirit, a bad fit, or a cry for help?

In my counselling practice, I’ve worked with many parents who are concerned about a child’s attempts to avoid school, and I’ve learned there are many reasons for running away from school.

Running away from school can involve a bad fit between the child’s temperament or learning needs, and what is being provided at school, as was the case with my daughter. It can involve any one or more of a number of emotional issues, sometimes reflecting worries to do with family problems—divorce, neglect, economic uncertainty, illness or conflict at home. School truancy can also be a way to avoid having to do with social pressures, including bullies and problems with social skills.

One of the most frequent reasons for school avoidance that I’ve seen in my private practice occurs when smart kids have serious learning issues, including attention problems, uneven skill development, learning disabilities.

Some children run away from school when young, but later start loving it, just as it happened with my daughter

School truancy issues are highly individual, and reflect particular circumstances. They’re different across children, and they also change over time, as kids develop. Some children run away from school when they’re young, but then later love it, as eventually occurred with my daughter. Others enjoy school when they’re young, but reach a point where they have no time or use for it. Sometimes kids in the latter category are going through a stage where they’re more interested in other things—social, creative, athletic or other interests—and sometimes they’re independent learners, and create alternative educational and career paths for themselves.

While sometimes children run away from school for a relatively simple and benign cause, other times it’s a serious cry for help.

What can parents do when their child runs away from school?

Father and son smilingListen to your child

Ask questions, patiently and calmly, with the focus on understanding what’s happening. Try to look beyond this as a simple discipline problem, the fact that your child isn’t doing what he’s supposed to be doing. Let him do the talking. Listen actively to his answers. Try to remain open to what he’s saying, without judgement or criticism.

Do some soul-searching

Are there problems at home that might lead to your child needing more attention than she’s getting? Does she have worries you can help her with? Does she need help with social, emotional, or academic skills? Does she need more focussed time with you when you’re not checking your phone or thinking about your next commitment?

Focus on collaborative problem-solving

Avoid anger and blame. Don’t stigmatise or punish, your child. Don’t waste your time feeling guilty. Look at the issue as a shared problem, one to address and solve with your child and others, including the child’s other parent, as well as teachers and administrators. Perhaps there are friends or family members who can offer some insight or help, a grandparent, sibling or someone else who knows your child and the situation.

Are there problems at home that might lead to your child needing more attention than she’s getting?

Think about simple fixes

Would it help if the early morning getting-ready-for-school routine was made less rushed? Maybe you could get up 30 minutes earlier and have some easy time together before school starts. Would it help if the after-school arrangements were different? Is there anything you can do to smooth the end of the day for your child? How about if you were more actively involved in the school, perhaps doing some volunteer work on a regular basis?

Talk to the teacher

How does the teacher see the problem? What strengths and challenges has he or she identified that might lead to your child not wanting to go to school? Does the teacher like your child? When you’re in the school, does it feel like a positive environment for your child?

Think about an assessment

Your child may be experiencing a psychological or cognitive problem you’re not aware of, perhaps an undiagnosed attention deficit or learning disability. It can be easier for a child to run than to deal with a circumstance where people are telling him he’s not living up to his potential, where he’s working hard but not getting very far.

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Look for signs of serious problems

There are many less serious concerns that lead to kids running away from school, but truancy sometimes results from involvement with drugs, alcohol or sexual activity. It can also reflect experiences of bullying and social rejection or neglect, whether from teachers, peers or both.

Be creative

Consider changing classrooms or teachers. Think about home-schooling possibilities [which can be done collaboratively with other parents, or as part-time supplements to school]. Explore reducing or increasing your child’s academic load. Think about giving her days off—maybe one ‘mental health day’ for each four or nine days she attends. For some kids, the fact their parents are willing to consider alternatives like these is enough to ease the strain they’re feeling and help them move toward a solution.

Give your child as much control over the problem as you can

Do some problem-solving together, and be respectful of the solutions he generates. Work with him so she feels ownership over solutions and a partner in your actions moving forward. Ask he what she thinks will help, and give that a try if at all possible.

This was first published in the July 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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