What to Do if Your Teen Is Cutting Class

Algebra = not fun. Nipping out to McDonald's = fun.

AP history = so not fun. Hiding in the woods with friends during third block = extra fun.

Chemistry = torture. Sleeping through the snooze button in a soft, warm bed = absolute bliss.

Your average high schooler might use these equations to explain why they ditch class. Don’t believe them. I mean, of course. Even Urkel would take snooze over chem class. But kids don’t cut class, risking poor grades and punishment, because it’s fun. The motive lies deeper than that.

In my role as a teen life coach, I’m always working with kids on the reasons they cut class. But even in my previous career as a high school teacher, my class was never the one kids cut. Students reported to my class for the same reason they’re willing to work with me in coaching, on cutting other teachers’ classes: because I get why they do it. And because rather than chastising them, I help them work out the problem behind the behavior. Got a teen who’s cutting class? Read on for an understanding of why they’re doing it and how to help them change that habit.

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Their reasons for avoiding class may not be what you think

Here's the most important thing to know: Kids have a legit reason for avoiding class. It might not be what we'd call "good,” but they have a reason. And if we’re willing to put ourselves in their shoes, we can understand and help them work through the issue.

The reasons vary depending on the kid, but the root cause 95 percent of the time is social. They’re either avoiding class due to social rejection (aka bullying), or they’re rolling with the cool kids to gain acceptance.

As adults, we’re so far beyond the cloistered desperation of high school we’ve forgotten how it feels to need our peers’ approval. So we can say, “Who cares what anyone thinks. Just ignore them! Go to class! Earn your future!” and think we’re dispensing wisdom. We’re not. Instead, we’re making clear how far removed we are from teen reality.

To get closer to teen reality, remember this: For adolescents, peer acceptance is oxygen. If there’s a pack of kids publicly ostracizing or cutting on a kid and that kid doesn’t have a single friend in the room to make it clear somebody likes them, walking into class feels like walking into a guillotine. And if a kid feels guillotined, no firing squad of adults is going to force them to go.

On the flip side, if a kid has been ostracized in the past and suddenly has an opportunity to chill with the social tastemakers (in the woods, during math class), they’re going to snag that opp. Because this is their chance to shake off the “loser” label. Nothing — not failing grades nor parental punishment, nor any other threat — will trump this chance.

With this new empathetic state of mind, your approach to discussing the topic of cutting class will be much better received by your teen. So let’s move onto the strategies and conversation starters.

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Strategies for getting kids back in the classroom

The first thing kids need is to puke out all their perceptions; to just clear it all out of their brains. That alone can give a kid a fresh slate and a burst of optimism. To open the conversation, tell them they can be super-honest, that you don't have an intention to "cheer them up" or "change their mind” — and mean it! If we imply they should see the situation differently than they do — if we even think it — teens will Spidey-sense our intention is not to listen to them but to change them, and they’ll shut right down.

Once you’ve established that you’re there to listen and understand, hit the kid with open, curious questions like, "It was hard for me to find true friends when I was in high school. What's it like for you?" or "What's the social dynamic like at this school? Where do you feel like you fit into it?"

If they share that kids are mean to them, make "listening noises" as they hash that mess out. Use phrases that encourage more hashing, like, “Really?” “Tell me more,” and “That must suck.”

In the details they share, you might be able to capture breadcrumbs you can build a trail with — but the trail should be made of questions. Remember, your job is to help the kid uncover what they would like to do to solve the problem, not to find and propose your own solutions. (I know. It’s hard! But it works.)

For example, if they say, "Last year, I had one friend, but we had a fight and then she joined the mean kids’ friend group,” you can ask questions like, "Where did you meet that friend? What did you like about each other?"

Those can be followed by questions like, "So it sounds like, in the past, you found a friend in activity X. I wonder if there are other cool kids doing other activities at your school?"

If the response seems open to that possibility, you could ask, "Are there activities you'd actually be interested in?" And then, "Do you ever feel like trying any of them?" (Note: questions. All questions.)

If you spot a glimmer there, ask them to describe which activities sound good and why. What has held them back from exploring that activity in the past? What would it take to move past that barrier, to go ahead and try it?

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This ask-questions-listen-to-the-answers process uncovers happy options for the kid to find new connections at school and sparks confidence for taking the steps to follow through. That's the key. A kid won’t cut when they’re excited about going to school. But for most teens, excitement doesn’t come from the academics; it comes from the social connections. For the vast majority of kids, once the happy, confident connecting starts, the class-ditching stops.

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