When Your Child Really Doesn’t Care About School

care about school

Sometimes it feels like our kids and teens really don’t care about school. Even when they’re really smart and underachieving, or especially when they’re failing school, it’s not as simple as not caring about school. As Ross Greene says, kids will do well when they can. When they can’t, there’s definitely a reason. And that makes how you respond as a parent extremely important!

When School & Life Gets Stressful, Kids REACT

We’ve been seeing a lot of school challenges with kids of all ages in terms of school since 2020, and it’s not just coming from virtual learning. We’re seeing the impact of mental health issues, trauma, attachment issues, challenges with resilience, and more. As a result, we’re also seeing an uptick in concerning behaviors, such as kids who are:

  • Refusing to attend school
  • Refusing to do any schoolwork
  • Reacting in intense ways (fear, anger, overwhelm, avoidance)
  • Avoiding responsibilities at school and at home
  • Engaging in power struggles
  • Underachieving
  • Hyper-focusing on “distracting” behaviors

On the surface, most of us see clearly what our kids are NOT doing. But sometimes, we forget to dig deeper to get clear about why they are (or are not) behaving in a certain way. In the coach approach, we encourage parents to get CURIOUS – to ask in more detail when facing a concerning behavior: “What Is Going On” (WIGO)? When they don't seem to care about school, we must ask ourselves...

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What is REALLY Going On?

When we start to look more closely at what’s causing the kinds of reactive behaviors listed above, we discover that complex kids usually have an emotionally charged relationship with some (or many) aspects of school -- whether it's social, academic, self-esteem, or a combination of them. Very often, our kids are dealing with difficult feelings like:

  • Perfectionism
  • Procrastination
  • Excitability/Irritability
  • Unmanaged Triggers
  • Feeling Out of Control
  • Low Self-Esteem
  • Isolation
  • Disconnection from Self/Peers/Family
  • Mistrust of Teachers and Parents
  • Disempowerment
  • Hopelessness

There are dozens of reasons why complex kids are struggling with these feelings, and many of them are captured by research suggesting that burnout comes from high expectations and low control. As Nir Eyal explains in his groundbreaking book, Indistractable, when people experience high expectations but do not feel that they are in a position to adequately control their role in achieving those outcomes, it can actually lead to anxiety and depression.

This is effectively what’s happening for many of our kids. If what's expected of them feels unachievable, they often give up even trying. As one of my kids said to me once, "don't you see mom? If I don't do it, I haven’t done it wrong!"

Counterintuitive TRUTH

Most people think that when kids struggle with school, the most important thing for us to do is to re-engage them… get them to do the work expected of them. But that’s generally not the path that leads to the greatest success.

The counterintuitive truth is this: When kids struggle with school, the most important thing you can do is take the time to CONNECT with them… to build your relationship with them so that they’ll slowly begin to trust you. Talking about next steps can come later. Sometimes much later.

Diane and I have been working on developing a clear and simple way for parents to better understand their complicated role in empowering young people to independence. And while there are many steps on the journey, this pyramid is a good starting point.

Independence Pyramid

Start at the bottom and spend most of your energy focusing on building your relationship with your child, teen, or emerging adult. Connect. Play. Relate. Don’t worry about school for a bit. Just focus on being in a relationship with each other.

The relationship is fundamental to developing trust, and trust is absolutely essential for any student to be available for learning. Literally. They'll shut down with cortisol (stress hormones) streaming through their body all day long. With oxytocin (happy hormones) taking more of a lead, they’ll have a chance to begin to see hope and possibility. And that all depends on trust.

Trusting you, their parent, opens up the door for them to trust themselves. From there, you can guide them, step by step, to their own success, moving up the pyramid.

As you improve communication, you can collaborate more effectively, leading you to problem-solving. Ultimately, going through this process with your kids, again and again, in the context of trust and open communication, empowers your kids to take ownership of their agenda for learning.

But notice how late ownership comes in this process. Once a student has shut down, they need you to do a lot of the heavy lifting to go through the parenting phases to help them become willing to trust themselves again to re-engage in taking ownership of their education. It’s not something you can ‘tell’ them to do. You have to guide them to it, one step, one conversation, one day at a time.

Asking for Help

If you’re wondering why your kids won’t accept your help, we wonder the same about parents all the time. It’s so frustrating to watch parents struggle thinking your kids don’t care about school or worrying when teenagers are failing school and don’t seem to care when we know we can do something to help you change that.

Now we understand that it is complicated, and it’s not going to happen overnight. We know that it takes patience, and calm, and support, and guidance, and some carefully placed tools to improve communication. No one expects you to know how to do this!

But you can do this! We promise. We’ve guided thousands of parents to reconnect with their kids and help their kids begin to care about school again. And if you want some support, we’d be overjoyed to help you, too! So if you’re ready for help, we invite you to download this free guide and let us start helping you connect with your child again, so you can help your child learn to care about school again. The change you want for your child starts with you.

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