Skipping school

Kids skip to “hang out,” but also to avoid feeling overwhelmed

A balmy day, the prospect of an overly warm classroom, a pile of math questions…at some point, most kids will be tempted to play hooky, and many will do it at least once during their high school career. But for the vast majority of young teens, skipping school is too loaded with guilt to become a habit.

More freedom, more problems

Still, students in grade nines and 10 have more freedom, and it’s less likely that a teacher will chase them down if they don’t show up for class. And if kids aren’t happy in school, skipping can become chronic. According to Ann Johnston, the principal of Thomas A. Stewart Secondary School in Peter-borough, Ont., there are two main reasons why kids cut class: Either they’re discouraged in class or they want to hang out with their friends.

Kids get discouraged when they don’t understand the work or they’re not hitting it off with a teacher. When this happens, says Johnston, “they turtle.” They fail or don’t show up for tests, stop handing in work, and soon they’re so far behind, they can’t catch up. This can make being in class feel overwhelming, which is often when kids skip. If it seems like no one notices, they do it again. Before long, they’re cutting class regularly.

Friendships are really important to kids this age, which is why peer pressure can also lead kids to skip. If everyone else is doing it, it’s hard to hang back.

Falling behind in school

But attendance is compulsory and schools keep track of it in all classes, so they know when kids aren’t there and notify parents if absences become chronic. (There are actually legal implications as well; kids who don’t attend school can be charged with truancy along with their parents. The age at which these laws are enforced varies slightly among provinces.)

How should you react?

So how should parents react when they receive a letter or a phone call from the school? “You don’t want to come down on your kid like a bag of hammers,” says Johnston. Rather than a stern disciplinary approach, she suggests working with your child’s school to find a strategy tailored to his needs to help him stay in class.

Schedule a meeting

A meeting with the school is the best way to begin, and your child should be there for at least part of it. Most schools have student success teams that might include a child and youth worker, a guidance counsellor, the vice-principal and the child’s teacher(s). Depending on the reasons for your child’s absences (in addition to peer pressure and feeling discouraged, boredom, bullying and even being too hungry to get through fourth period can also keep kids out of class), the team can develop a plan to help her stop skipping. They may set up a program to help her catch up, for example, or a system for monitoring her attendance throughout the day.

In Johnston’s experience, that initial meeting is often the thing that turns kids around. But it’s imperative that parents follow up — “the most important part of a good strategy,” she says. “Get together with the school in two weeks or a month. If it’s simply to give your child positive feedback, that’s a great reason for a follow-up meeting.”

Johnston encourages all parents to make use of the school’s attendance-monitoring system — whether or not their child is cutting class. Most schools have some way to notify parents that a child is skipping school, such as an automated phone call.

At Johnston’s school, parents can log on to the school website, using a child’s student number, and get detailed information about his attendance. “If the school asks for a note to explain an absence, be sure to send it,” says Johnston. “You’re giving your child the message that being accountable is important.”

Finding someone to help

While you hope that your child’s school will work with you, it doesn’t always happen. Parents sometimes have to be persistent in dealing with this issue, says Peterborough, Ont., high school principal Ann Johnston. Sometimes it’s a matter of finding an adult at the school who is a good fit with your kid. It may be the guidance counsellor or resource teacher — someone who will stay in touch with you and your child.

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