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My son hates school and is trying to get kicked out. What now?

We’ve had meetings with the principal, school social worker, individualized education program (IEP) coordinator and teacher, during which they brainstorm ideas he immediately finds ways around, including walking out of class. He isn’t violent, but he says he “wants the school to burn down,” which, of course, is a bright red flag for the school.

We work with a therapist, and the odd thing is he’s a pretty great kid at home: loving, funny, mostly behaves (though he’s not perfect). He just hates school so much. We live in a small town, and the alternatives are an expensive private school that won’t admit him with this behavior, and a religious school we don’t want to consider because of its extreme ideology.

I assume my child is going to get expelled any day. What are parents’ options when a child gets kicked out and there are no other schools available? Does one of us quit our job and home-school him? Is that the only option?

A: Thank you for your note. As difficult as your situation is, I promise you are not the only family who has these problems. Although every family is unique, the experience of a child hating school is not uncommon, and I hope my response can help you find empathy for your son while also providing some other choices.

From reading your letter (and trusting everything you say), it can be said that the problem is clearly the school. I know it may sound obvious, but he has friends outside of school, and his behavior at home is loving, funny and appropriate for his age, so all of his problems exist in and around school.

You say you’ve met with the school social worker and the IEP coordinator, but I am missing an important piece of information: Where is the testing? Ten-year-old boys don’t want to be problems in school. They don’t want to be suspended, walk out of class or threaten to burn down a school. These are signs of a child who is suffering and who doesn’t know how to do anything differently.

I am guessing — though I could be wrong — that the adults in his life don’t have many tools in their toolbox for determining how to get through to him. I wouldn’t be surprised if psychoeducational testing revealed a learning disability, coupled with depression or anxiety (or both). I don’t take testing lightly. I know how costly it is to have it done privately, and I know that if you go through your public school system, it can take a very long time. Regardless, it’s worth the effort.

If your son is diagnosed with a learning challenge or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, that would explain why school, in all of its forms, has been unsuccessful. Children are too immature to advocate for themselves, explain their interior worlds or control their emotions. When they feel like failures early on, they will develop coping mechanisms to do the best they can with what they have. Add in the bullying, and you have frustration on top of frustration, because not belonging is especially painful. Any safety, vulnerability or trust goes out the window, and you are left with anger that is covering up an ocean of fear and confusion. The school can “brainstorm” every idea in the world, but if it doesn’t get to the bottom of why your child is hurting, then the solutions will never work.

You ask what your options are, and “does one of us quit our job and home-school him?” I think that yes, options such as this should absolutely be on the table at this point. With your son on the brink of expulsion, you are now looking at raising a young man who could get into serious trouble far beyond school. The chances of having mental health issues, abusing drugs and alcohol, and ending up in the criminal justice system are going to increase as his ability to succeed in school decreases. Home-schooling and unschooling (or self-directed education) were previously seen as relatively rare options, but the pandemic has changed that.

“There are many children who benefit from having more freedom and control over the way they learn, and these children are often able to thrive in learning environments that center [around] curiosity, collaboration and choice,” says Domari Dickinson, a parenting coach, mother of four, and former educator and instructional coach.

Because your son is thriving at home, removing the toxicity of the school environment may allow him to relax and learn again. “What this looks like varies from family to family, but with this model, the learning is driven by the interests and activities chosen by the child and is directly related to their individual life experiences and goals,” Dickinson says.

Although most of us have been socialized to believe that children can only learn in traditional schools, I am afraid that your son may experience too much failure in school, leading to self-hatred and a dangerous drop in self-esteem. I would rather see you get support in embracing self-directed education than have you lose your son to a system that is hurting him. (Check out the Alliance for Self-Directed Education at self-directed.org for more information.)

Figure out the testing situation as soon as possible, and research other educational options for your son, finding support and determining how your family could make this work. You have a good relationship with your son right now, he has neighborhood friends, and he has a foothold in feeling loved and supported. Don’t allow chronic suffering because you are too afraid to leave a societal convention. Good luck.