A one-step guide for anxious parents and guardians. 

Every year, I hear from parents who are considering pulling their kids out of school because their children are not thriving. 

The best option for the vast majority of them, and the one that I encourage for most of them, is to focus less on changing their kids, and more on changing the context. For most of them, the first step is to withdraw the young person from a school setting that is not working for them.[1][2] And in the majority of those cases, the parents struggle with the idea of giving up midyear, and begin a drawn out process of kicking the can down the road. The delayed response to remove a child from a bad fit environment does not serve the young person, and guardians of school children of all ages do this. But the failure to act can be particularly damaging when the children are in high school—when there is the least time to take necessary action. This guide is intended to help accelerate the process of deciding how best to support a young person who is not doing well in school.

The only step: Identify what matters most 

When a child is not doing well, families should first ask, “what really matters most?” To do so they should list out what they would like for their child or their school. Then, they should begin striking everything that is secondary. What matters most is the one thing that you would want if everything else was stripped away; the one thing that remains after all items but one are taken off the list as nice-to-haves.  

For example, if the young person has attempted suicide, then what matters most could be (for the child) proactively reducing suicide risk factors and bolstering protective factors. In such a scenario, focusing on their chances of admission into Harvard University is a dangerous distraction.

Or, if the young person is being bullied at school, then what matters most could be (for the school) an environment that prioritizes inclusion and psychological safety. What probably does not matter most is whether the school has a robotics team, the number of AP courses available, or the manner in which GPA is calculated. 

What matters most does not have to be the elimination of a harmful condition or situation, although that is usually the case for those who are considering pulling their children out of high school mid-year. If what matters most can readily be accomplished within their current school environment, then pulling the child out of school is probably not necessary. However, if what matters most cannot readily be accomplished within their current school environment, then the child should be withdrawn from school as soon as possible. In that case, school is a barrier to what matters most.

In a future essay we will discuss some of the practical reasons why pulling kids out of a high school where they are not thriving should be the preferred option, not a last resort. We will also discuss considerations for the next steps.

[1] Because schooling is often a source of harm, it makes sense that the immediate response would be to eliminate the harm. The second second step is often finding them therapeutic care, and with very rare exception, schools are not therapeutically oriented.

[2] School “not working” for the young person can range from very immediate threats to their physical, emotional, and psychological well-being (e.g., bullying, depression, internalized stigma) to being a waste of their time because they see it as nothing more than the place they are forced to be at for 15,000 hours of their life.

Image by tonodiaz on Freepik