Is School a Choice?

By: Mary Leadem Ticiu, Assistant Principal District 834, Guest Author

School has begun and questions arise related to “What should I wear, who will be my friends, how many notebooks do I need, who will they assign as my teacher, and why do I really need to go to school?” These questions reflect excitement and, for some, anxiety. The experiences of the child’s past often lead them to question what the school year will bring. Questions pose a wonderful opportunity for parents and guardians to talk about the choices we all make. I would like to consider what it means when students choose – or rather “refuse” – to go to school. If this happens, families and friends have the responsibility to listen, explain ramifications in a meaningful way, and support what is the underlying unmet need in a non-punitive manner.

As an assistant principal, you may think I am crazy letting a school-age child have an open dialogue about choosing attendance. However, there can be no choice without consequences. School is an educational pathway, like a golden ticket of greater value than a trip to Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. If we allow for the discussion of choice then we can hear what is intended by the child’s questioning, resistance, and outright refusal to attend.

Research provides us with reams of evidence of the need to attend school, learn for life and project a positive trajectory into a career of military service, mission work, technical school or college. Attendance is an early indicator of invaluable soft skills and the traits of success in the workplace. Choosing not to be a student will have a severe cause and effect in short term and long-term goals. The choice, in this case, may have negative consequences.

Why then do kids balk, refuse, resist and feel a compelling urge to skip or even quit? They know it is wrong, against the rules, not in their best interest and illegal. I believe many students simply want to make their own choices. And we as adults are obligated to get in the way of their potential failure and help them succeed. We must remember our own imperfections and trials and then lead them to a good place where they choose school each and every day.

As an educator trained in Reality and Choice Theory, it is my belief that all behavior is an attempt to meet an unmet need. When a child seeks to meet their needs, we as adults, must step in and seek the underlying reason, engage in the difficult and compassionate conversations, and listen.

What we hear may be a quest to address the following William Glasser ideals:
  • Power (which includes achievement and feeling worthwhile as well as winning)
  • Love & Belonging (includes groups as well as families or loved ones)
  • Freedom (includes independence, autonomy, your own ‘space’)
  • Fun (includes pleasure and enjoyment)
  • Survival (includes nourishment, shelter, sexual identity)

One of the core principles of the Choice Theory is that, whether we are aware of it or not, we constantly seek to meet the above needs and will take on negative behavior to meet those needs. There is a fine adage that “learning is the constant, time is the variable.” We can allow for variance in time. We can work together to determine if the rigors chosen in their high school have detrimental consequences to mental and physical health. In a sense, we can admit we have unique children with desires to meet their immediate needs and we shall benefit in an understanding of their reasons for a challenge. Hiding under the covers or gaming in the secret corners of a basement bedroom hinders students. If we game, we learn to game. If we hide, we also learn to hide. The amazing simplicity is if we attend school, we learn, right? I am a steadfast believer in school attendance.

Students cannot fully experience the strength of content when they do not experience the wonder of curiosity in classrooms rich in print resources or full of vibrant, meaningful content. They will learn an entirely different limited content out of school than in school. The cost will impact their lives. Some may regress into risk behaviors including chemical dependency and depression. Every time I sense we have a student choosing not to come to school I ask the following:

  1. Is there a way I can provide greater relevance or express the value in attending school?
  2. Can I help the student connect to a caring adult in the school?
  3. Did we as a school district miss something about the way the student learns?
  4. Do we need to personalize the pathway so the student can benefit from the “choice” to be a student?

If you listen you will hear the most amazing truths from children and young adults. They will let you know. And they will often make a better choice.

I know from experience that schools attempt each year to personalize the learning pathway for students. Please accept my belief that each school shall always have an adult in the child’s corner listening and affirming why school matters and why their individualized learning matters.

Let’s get in the way. Let’s help all students reach their potential and continue to listen. In keeping a steadfast determination to support attendance, we can help every child in a growth mindset. We all can listen more to what the words and actions are telling us. We can provide positive intervention with community and school support. When students respect their own choices, we all see the benefit of the choices made for learning and for attending school as it is the best choice for their future.