When School is the Worst


According to William Glasser there are five reasons students may disengage from the traditional school approach (the teacher determines a great majority of the activities and is the primary evaluator of all the work being completed). School does not meet their biological need for survival, belonging, power, freedom, and fun. Glasser wrote extensively about these needs in his 1998 book Choice Theory. His writing influenced my approach to teaching immensely. You do have a few options to choose from when responding to a student who is disengaged. You may try schooling at home if you feel that more attention with a teacher is the component your student is missing. A private religious or preparatory school may provide the religious interaction or the rigor you think your child is missing; Or, you may decide that unschooling is the option because you want your child to be able to pursue things within her interest. Sandra Dodd wrote about school choice on her website several years ago and I think her ideas are extremely valid. In short, her recommendation is to detach yourself from the school as the parent and hand the responsibility fully over to your child.

The ideas I’ve published here are written for families whom traditional schooling is the only choice they’re comfortable with but have found that their child doesn’t seem to care or put effort toward school. As you consider these ideas try to remember a teaching adage; Show, don’t tell. Don’t tell your kids they belong, show them; Don’t tell your kids they can do it, let them discover that they can; Don’t tell them you’re watching them, show them you’re watching. Our kids can pick up hypocrisy very quickly. That’s why you often hear, “Mom, watch me,” at the playground 20 times in a row. The parent may say he’s watching, but the child feels like he’s not. I would argue that no matter what approach you use, if you’re approaching a disengaged student with anything but kindness and authenticity, you’ll likely only get rebellion.


Make every effort to create an environment where your child wants to be and feels like she should be. Help her understand that her need for belonging and survival are not changed by her performance or abilities. This does not mean being excited about everything she does. If she wants to be comforted, offer comfort; if she wants to be left alone, offer space; if she wants advice, offer advice. Many parents may assume that means they have to be their kid’s friend. You don’t have to be friends, but you should be kind. Being kind will make you feel more like friends but that doesn’t mean you throw rules and boundaries out the window. It probably just means you’re closer…much like a person in your neighborhood or work is likely to be close to you and seek advice from you if you are kind.


Power is synonymous with competence and confidence. I’m more likely to feel my need for power is met when I know that if I set a goal for myself that I am able to achieve it. Students who are disengaged don’t often feel this way about themselves. They may set goals but have no tools for planning or carrying out their plans. You can help them meet their need for power by supporting them in the development of things they want to do. Maybe your son wants to hit a homerun for his baseball team. Instead of passively offering advice like, “Well, you just need to practice more,” help him come up with a plan for how to achieve that goal. What does he need to get better at, when could he practice, and what is he already doing well that is getting him closer to that goal?

Another big way parents can help fulfill this need is by being willing to help their children with chores until they feel comfortable doing it on their own. I think the number one reason young children don’t take very good care of themselves is because they don’t know how to, or if they do they only do it while the adult is around to avoid getting in trouble. If you’re unhappy with the way your child does chores, pull back your expectations a little, teach them how to do it well until you can tell they’re ready to handle it on their own. It’s really no different than teaching a child how to use sharp knives. You model the behavior, give them a chance to try it, stay close for safety and correct as needed. The only difference is that you trust your child has learned to respect the sharpness of the blade and will follow your directions. The consequences of loading the dishwasher incorrectly don’t seem as dire to a teenager compared to slicing open a finger. If the consequences don’t involve family safety or health, let them try it their way. It takes longer but it’s much more effective then teaching through guilt or fear.


Sometimes this means freedom from structure, even structure they want for themselves like organized sports. But, freedom can also mean freedom from criticism, quizzing, and guidance. Kids who are disengaged in school often have a high need for freedom. Even older kids, especially those who don’t do well in school, are very limited to the opportunities for freedom in school. Make attempts to simplify your child’s schedule to have as much self-directed time as possible. Personally I don’t think video games counts as free time because the video game is directing much of the activity but you can decide that for yourself. The main idea is to give your student clear boundaries of what they can’t do with their time (like no electronics, you can’t bother anyone else, no power tools depending on age, etc.) and let them be free to be their own boss for that time. Then, when they go back to school each day they may at least have something to look forward to and paying attention will be easier.


Fun is not the genetic need for amusement like it sounds. The need for fun is primarily met through learning. That’s what makes the early part of many relationships so fun; the couple is learning so much about each other. Allow your student to be curious and follow their curiosity through to its end. Maybe they show a lot of interest in jokes, or goofing around. They’re learning about what makes people laugh. Encourage them to explore what makes people laugh and maybe they will end up creating a stand-up routine, write their own sitcom, or draw silly cartoons. You’ll find that a child is never too mature to create something they love. Even if it seems like it would be too immature for them.


We all have this biological need to survive; some have a higher need for it. Pay close attention to what makes your student feel secure and what makes them anxious. Generally speaking this is food, water, and shelter. It may seem obvious but make sure they have access to healthy food, clean water, and reliable shelter. They may still have the freedom (discussed later) to choose to eat, drink, and be sheltered at times in their life but can they count on it being there when they need it?

Philip Mott

I've been working with families for two decades now. I write about topics pertaining to parents of children ages 4-12.

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  • I like your approach to operating your classroom. Students who engage themselves in the room will find their way to the curriculum and mastering the skills they might find a use for.