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Skipping a day of school now and then is actually good for kids, says Leah Hager Cohen. Not just for their spirits, but for their education, too. (shoothead/flickr)

My kids’ school recently revamped its attendance policy. Apparently the old one had not been sufficiently stringent. Now, whenever you attempt to call your son or daughter out sick, you must first sit through a ponderous recorded message, lasting well over a minute, which not once but twice advises you “consult the attendance policy for clarification.” It seems timed to induce parents to conclude, long before reaching the beep and being permitted to leave a message, “Never mind, I guess a rash and temperature of 101.5 isn’t such a big thing after all.”

Anyone who takes in earnest the suggestion to consult the full attendance policy will encounter a 3832-word document, opening with nine bulleted “key points,” in which one learns that “In extenuating circumstances, a student may appeal absence-related consequences to the Attendance Review Panel to resolve attendance issues,” and “Appeals must be in writing to the student’s assistant principal within one (1) week of the incident.” It ends, some six, single-spaced, byzantine and frankly intimidating pages later, with an assurance that the policy “adheres to the Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 76, Section 1 and conditions under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), Massachusetts General Law Chapter 71, Section 37H.”

You still with me?

I hate schools.

Okay, not really. But must they be so schooly?

My own parents had a fairly relaxed approach toward school attendance. As a child I was pretty much allowed to take a day off anytime I asked. It’s not that my parents thought education unimportant (they met in teacher training school). It’s just that they didn’t see education as being limited to what happens in the classroom.  TWEET

I didn’t take excess advantage of their beliefs. If I’d tried, they likely would have amended their policy. But with their blessing I did take a day off at least every other month, and some of my very best and most formative experiences happened as a direct result of skipping school. These might involve taking the train to the Museum of Modern Art, visiting the school for the deaf where my father worked, volunteering with a traveling theater company, riding the NAACP bus to the nation’s capital to march on Washington, baking an elaborate pastry concoction, painting an over-sized street scene on a canvass spread across the kitchen table, or going on a long bike ride to a grassy spot along the river with a sandwich, a bottle of lemonade, and a fat library book in my pack.

“Couldn’t a bunch of those activities as easily have taken place on non-school days?” I imagine a skeptic asking. True enough; they could. Yet it seems to me that no small part of their value was a function of doing them in place of school. By designating these activities as worthy — as containing at least as much merit as a day of standard lessons — my parents signaled something indelible and transformative about the meaning and purpose of learning, about the scope of human development and human being.

By designating these activities as worthy — as containing at least as much merit as a day of standard lessons — my parents signaled something indelible and transformative about the meaning and purpose of learning…

I believe I’ve failed my own children by not providing them with a comparable sense of freedom and autonomy regarding their own growth. They hardly ever miss school unless they’re sick. I’m not quite sure why this is, how I let it happen. Have I let myself be overly cowed by the school district’s dim views on truancy? Are my children overly susceptible to the idea that missing a day of school will have dire consequences? Or perhaps it’s more that the times really have changed, that with today’s unremitting emphasis on “teaching to the test,” perfect attendance matters in a way it didn’t used to — and matters not just for individual students’ GPAs, but for teachers’ and administrators’ performance evaluations, and district scores, rankings, and budgets.

Last month, my son was out of school two days in a row. This was hardly a radical, subversive move: he had his wisdom teeth out. (Even so, and despite having conscientiously followed the rigorous instructions regarding leaving a message on the school attendance line, I had to engage in additional correspondence with one of his teachers, verifying that he’d missed her class for a legitimate reason, in order to avoid her imposing grade penalties.) But oh, how it filled me with joy, and no little nostalgia, to see how he spent these serendipitous hours. Swollen-cheeked, Tylenol-with-codeined and all, he threw himself into composing and recording music — three or four new songs in those two days — melodies, harmonies, lyrics, multiple tracks laid down with guitar, percussion and vocals. He lost himself in ungoverned, ungraded creative exploration. And found in himself something of worth.

Listen to one of the songs Leah’s son, Joe Fitzgerald, wrote while recuperating at home. 

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Tags: Family

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  • Brian

    What works for one does not work for all. Not all truent students are running to the museum and enriching their minds. The likelier activities are Xbox, pot, and other things that lessen one’s prospects for the future.

    • Anthony

      With the exception of drugs, I don’t see the issue with taking the day off with no educational purpose. Schools can be very stressful in a toxic way. They enforce importance of grades and not importance of learning. They dehumanize children and make them feel like robots. A mental health day once a month or so isn’t a bad thing, in my opinion.

    • kaedra

      This is the thing that always amazes me – the parents complaining that xbox and TV are on and mindless, yet it is the parents who are creating the culture and setting the standard. If you think that such media are neutral or negative, why on earth are they part of your family life? This isn’t an issue of the school or child, its an issue of disempowerment on the part of the parent. Those “mindless” things are part of your family life because you put them there, so please don’t complain or assume that all the of us parents are having XBox or TV as part of a normal experience for our children. You bought it, you set the rules and guidelines around their use, so you really ought not complain about the use of it.

  • Kberg95

    Brian – my thoughts exactly. I damn near choked on my coffee while listening to the words: “He lost himself in ungoverned, ungraded creative exploration.” and said to myself “Oh, please – Is she kidding us?” Actually, that wasn’t exactly what I said, but I assume I am in polite company here. I know exactly what my kid did after his wisdom tooth surgery and XBox was certainly on the list, along with a lot of sleeping and mindless TV watching.

    Our school district’s policy on absences is to leave email and phone messages to the parent saying essentially – “Hey, your kid missed school today.” No excuse note needed. It is then left to the parent to decide what to do about the child’s absence. It took some getting used to but I ultimately think it is way more efficient than calling in absence requests or dealing with post absence notes.

    • Brian

      Absolutely, Kberg95. The argument just doesn’t have much substance to it. It’s not as though museums and other cultural enrichment activities aren’t available after school or on the weekends. An involved parent can’t encourage extra-curricular activities after school? Six hours of school a day is too much time for students? Besides being tough taking advice from someone that describes schools as “schooly,” the contributor simply makes a specious argument.

  • inkhart

    I too live in the world of lengthy attendance policies at my child’s school and I found this segment making me smile in the absurdity of it all. There needs to be rules so that kids can get an education and graduate but if your kid is way over stressed then I am all for giving them a “mental health” day and if they choose to do something meaningful with it, as Leah did, then great, but if they just need a day to get caught up or unwind then so be it….Try to know your kid, set appropriate boundaries and take it from there…it could make a big difference as it did for the speaker.

  • idler

    one might think that the current ~50% time off for: vacations, breaks, weekends, teacher “conference” days, etc. is plenty of idle time…
    hooky used to be something that students did on their own, without parental hovering – where’s the fun if it’s a parent sanctioned activity ?

  • jen ha tan

    i really like joe’s song.

  • Hovercraft

    Sorry, but does anybody know how to get the audio for this story to play? It looks like it should be playing, but I don’t hear anything. Thanks!

  • BusyWorkMom40s

    I am in my 40s now and I still remember the two occasions when I was in High School that I asked my parents to stay home (I wasn’t physically sick) because I just felt I needed it and my parents allowed me to do so. I didn’t have the words then but I must have just felt the need for a ‘mental break’ and felt ‘stressed’; I slept in and actually did school work. I not only went back to school next day more rested and caught up on school work but I felt a huge sense of trust from my parents to allow me to do this. Decades later, I still remember this event and the sense of independence and trust that my parents gave me — way more valuable than slogging through a day at school.

  • http://jeffreybenson.org jeffrey benson

    I thought I posted this, so my apologies if this is a repeat: I am a long-time educator. I have worked with school avoidant and disruptive students. I also have two pretty healthy kids of my own. Everyone needs idiosyncratic days off. I wish schools were the place for kids to go when they felt overwhelmed and stressed out, a place that gave them a time and support to gradually get back to speed and step over the threshold into class. But school is work; it is not a place kids have much agency or control over the expectations and pace; teachers are more than ever pressured by curriculum guides and standardized tests to keep the pace up. I want students to learn self-care and to manage their needs. Now if one of my pot smoking addict kids wanted a day off, they did not immediately get my endorsement. If one of my school avoidant kids wanted a day off, we had a longer talk about what that meant. But most kids are not like that. My own kids at home could take a day off now and then, with the rule that they had to do their homework, and had to be up the next day and to school on time. They learned that I trusted them, that they had to be responsible in the long run, and that knowing their own deep needs in this hectic world is a primary lesson for a good life.

  • Teri D

    It’s my understanding that state/federal funding is based on full day attendance, so schools are loathe to have you take your kids out for dr’s appts or fun. The money comes after the fact — so attendance is the key to the money that the school gets. Another example of how our education system has rewards/punishments in the wrong places.

  • Larry Constantine

    Yes! Absolutely!

    I have two grown daughters who grew up with regularly issued certificates redeemable for a “Mental Health Day” as needed–no doctor’s exam or parental review necessary. We all can use the occasional day away. And now, on my second shot at parenting, my teenagers have used their “excused absences” to visit the MFA, to attend professional conferences, and travel overseas. It’s not about being permissive but being adaptive. Indeed, every kid is different, and some would abuse or waste the opportunities for escape while others benefit from them. That is precisely what is wrong with increasingly rigid, zero-tolerance, one-sized-fits-all bureaucratic policies in our schools that are driven more by money and metrics than by intelligence.

    As a life-long educator, I take education very seriously, and willingness to undertake a certain amount of creative subversion in service of higher goals is an important life lesson.

    Prof. Larry

  • Lophius

    The author refers to her school district’s “dim views on truancy”, and places some of the blame on schools “teaching to the test.” She even questions whether missing a day of school will have consequences. Really?

    First, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts determines school attendance requirements and mandates that each district establish absence notification systems. Districts must follow the law and their records can be audited to determine compliance. In addition, some school funds are tied to student attendance levels, which creates an even greater motivation for schools to reduce absenteeism rates. If the author isn’t happy with the pressure she’s feeling to get her kids to school, perhaps she should direct her complaints to her state legislators.

    Second, I would make a similar suggestion regarding her accusation that “teaching to the test” is part of the problem. While this does happen (although not in all schools or classrooms), I would again suggest she contact her legislators (state and federal) and voice her concerns. It is our educational laws and policies that have linked student test scores to the evaluations of districts, schools and teachers, which has resulted in a more test-centric atmosphere in some schools.

    Lastly, I take issue with the author’s assertion that skipping school doesn’t have consequences. As a middle school science teacher, I’m not simply handing out articles and projecting slides that can be copied the next day. Rather, I challenge my students through hands-on lab activities, small and large group discussions, and reflective writing exercises. A student who has missed a day (or more) may be able to copy some notes or answers, but she will have missed some valuable learning experiences. She hasn’t worked as part of a cooperative learning team, didn’t think and write about her own learning, and may not make her own connections with how the concept fits in to the larger unit we’re studying.

    Will “skipping” a day be the end of the world? Of course not. But, it will have consequences, and in my experience it is rare that a student – or parent – will devote the time or effort to truly make up all that was done in school during that missed day…

  • Lindsay Goodwin

    I wholeheartedly agree. I took my kindergartener daughter to the Peobody-Essex museum last Friday to see 50 zebra finches making ambient music via electric guitar. We had a great talk on the way home about how she learned more that day than she would have at school, but how if she went to the PEM every day it would cease to be educational (or would it?). Amazingly, when I called the office to tell them about her absence I got drilled about why, even down to which museum exhibit I was planning on taking her to.

    I think that traditional schools are naturally resistant to the idea that education can happen outside of the classroom- it threatens them to their very core.

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