What if a student refuses to change classes and therefore threatens not to attend school?

(4-minute read)


Dear Devora,

As far as validating children, what happens when an older girl (6th or 7th grader) has been informed of a class change and she tells her parents, “I’m not going to school.” She is stubborn and manipulative and won’t budge. (She doesn’t want to hear what her parents say… She shuts down and won’t speak). She is a powerful girl and her classmates are scared of her, so a class change is being made and she has to learn skills on how to deal with her new classmates and friends. She went for therapy and as soon as the therapist warmed up to her and addressed some of these challenges, she shut down and stopped going and won’t speak… What do you suggest as an approach to help this child?

Thank you,

Wondering What To Do
Is there a quick fix??? School starts next week…

Dear Wondering What To Do,

As far as a quick fix, the short answer is “No.” You may stop reading here if you wish… 😉

Here is the long and solution-oriented answer. There is no quick fix because the problem didn’t happen overnight, either. In other words, by the time this student became a 6th or 7th grader who is so powerful that the school is requiring a classroom change, she has had many years to practice her intimidating behavior, which has been frightening her classmates. It also seems that she doesn’t have a balanced relationship with her parents either, and doesn’t communicate well with them. I’m basing it on what you wrote in the letter, namely, “She doesn’t want to hear what her parents say… She shuts down and won’t speak.”

Also, what you call stubborn, manipulative, and non-budging seems to be a response to her fear of change, and irritability at being held accountable for her behavior.

I would probably take a multi-prong approach. (Since I haven’t actually done a school or home visit and seen what’s really going on, I’m making guesses based on the content of the letter and past experience. Therefore, please take these assumptions and suggestions with a grain of salt as I might be totally wrong.)

The parents likely need training on how to improve their listening,  validating,  assertiveness, and  boundary-setting skills among others, so that they have a respectful and balanced relationship with their daughter. It seems that the daughter is acting like the adult and the parents are being ordered around as if they are the child. This needs to be reversed.

It’s also important to remember that home is a template for school. If certain behaviors are tolerated at home, children presume that they can do the same behaviors at school. When things change at home, it’ll be that much easier to change her behavior at school.

I would tell this young lady that “Although you appear to be stubborn, manipulative, and rigid, it is probably your fear and distress about all these new changes. It makes sense to have these feelings considering that you got away with things till now. And it might even be embarrassing to change classes because maybe you think that your classmates will find out why you had to change and they’ll think you got punished. And that can be quite embarrassing… Is that so? (Wait for her response so that you can clarify and validate what she says. If she remains silent, continue with the following.) However, your behavior has to change and what happened till now CANNOT AND WILL NOT continue. I’m ready to hear your suggestions to make things work at school.”

With regard to attending school, if she digs in her heels and threatens not to go to school unless she goes back to her old class, the only way this would be permitted is if she participates in coming up with a plan to change her behavior so that her classmates can feel safe in her presence.

True Story: (*details were changed to protect privacy)

I got a call a few years ago regarding a young lady with similar challenges. She was suspended for a week, came back to school even more angrily than before the suspension, resumed her red behaviors (she even ripped up some of the teacher’s materials), and was suspended again. At that point, the school required that a plan be put into place with a professional before she would be able to return. By then, she had been out a second time for two weeks already when I got called in.

Here is a short list of some of the strategies I implemented:

I set up a home plan to give the parents back the parental control they deserved, albeit in a positive manner. I also addressed the child’s emotions via an emotion program and validation,, (which I taught the parents and modeled for them.) I explained the authority ladder to her so that she would understand the hierarchy of authority at home and at school. We created a list of reds and greens  for home and school so that she would know which behaviors were acceptable or not, and she responded very well to the reward system that consisted of prizes and privileges she wanted for working on the greens. In short, with a comprehensive, multi-prong, set of strategies, she was able to return to school and succeed at it. While at first she came home gloomy each day, within two weeks she seemed happier in school and was coming home in a good mood. Of course, all of this didn’t happen in one session. It took a number of weeks to cover all these different skills as well as parent training sessions. (Yes, she cooperated with the therapy sessions and was allowed back in school right away since we immediately  created a list of reds and greens for school, and she agreed to do the greens and stay away from the reds. Again, she was unhappy at first, but she did the greens regardless.)

While I was lucky that in the above case, the child and parents got on board pretty quickly, sometimes it can take longer, and that makes sense, too. One of the things my teacher Marilyn Nehls used to remind me when I got impatient with the rate of progress was that “the problem took time to be created (albeit unintentionally), and therefore takes time to be undone.”

If some of the above strategies might be relevant to your student, feel free to implement them.
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Good luck on the start of a new school year! May we all experience joy and nachas (pride) from all our children, students, and clients.


Dr. Devora

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