In my office I pay close attention to school attendance. Students are the most successful when they are in the classroom.
Teenagers, generally speaking, like school. They may not love the homework, or expectations of them while at school, but I do believe that teens would prefer to be in school than at home, especially after the school closures from COVID-19. At school they get to see their friends and enjoy social time. Many of the memories of high school are made in the hallways during passing periods and at lunch time.
With that being said, when I see a student who is having attendance issues, I often think that there is something else going on. Absences could be mental health related, family instability, or something else beyond their control. When I start to notice spotty attendance, this is a que for me to check in with the student to make sure they feel supported or if there is something I can help with.
Flipping the script a little bit, I want to encourage parents to partner with their teen’s school when it comes to attendance. If your teen says “I don’t want to go to school” during their morning routine, put your curious parent hat on and ask why. It is easy for teenagers in this situation to tell their parents that they feel sick or have a headache, and this may very well be the case, but I also want to encourage parents to dig a little deeper.
One of a teenager’s most relied on coping strategies is avoid, avoid, avoid. My concern is that if a teen does not want to go to school, there could be something going on at school that they are trying not to face. Teens especially may try to avoid difficult things when they think their parents are not totally tuned in.
When your teen says “I don’t want to go to school,” start with a question about academics. Ask them if there is an upcoming test they are feeling nervous about or an assignment they needed help with and were not able to finish. I see this all the time in my office. Some students assume being absent on test day is a solution to their problems instead of confiding in the teacher that they may need support. Sometimes too there is a misconception that the make-up test is easier than preparing for the original exam.
Not wanting to go to school could also be for social reasons. I encourage parents to find out if their teen is struggling socially. Did something happen in class and they feel embarrassed to go back? Is something going on with their friend group? It never hurts to ask who teens are sitting with at lunch or if there is someone they are feeling connected to at school.
In cases like missing assignments, tests, or not wanting to see a friend at school where teens are avoiding something, we need to find the balance between compassion and logical consequences. Learning to communicate with a teacher or friend and to advocate for themselves is always a more valuable life lesson than missing an entire day of school to avoid an unfinished assignment in the grade book or an awkward lunch period. We can’t always pad a teen’s landing, but we can support them while they grow through these situations.
I am in full support of mental health days for students when a day is needed. If adults can take personal days in a full time job, full time high school students should be able to too. A mental health day is healthy here and there as long as they are monitored and do not become a regular habit. If they are happening more than once per quarter, I would suggest that the mental health day is coupled with a conversation about what else is on the teen’s obligation plate.
During the mental health day try to connect with them to gently figure out what is going on. Be honest with the school when you call the attendance office to let them know your teen won’t be in class that day. If your student isn’t physically ill, say they are taking a mental health day. This will perk the ears of the Dean of Students or Counselors and they will want to check in to see if the teen’s workload is reasonable or if there is a social issue. Words matter and teens learn that if they are “sick” they can get out of things or gain their parent’s attention. This can carry over into adulthood.
If your student is not open to confiding in you, this is another reason to give the school a call. There are counselors, teachers, and administrators who have their eyes out throughout the day. Maybe the student support team has noticed your teen is behind on their homework or is sitting alone at lunch. Partner with your teen’s school to make school a comfortable place for them.