3 Ways to Solve Being Late to School

Sleeping girlQ. How should I respond to a child (12yo) who is always late (takes too long to get dressed, takes long showers, keeps skipping breakfast because she takes too long to get ready for school) and she responds: “I am lazy”. What can I do to assist her in being more motivated to be on time?

A. The cause of being late likely has one of three motivating factors. Motivating her to be on time will require a dig into why she is always late rather than focusing on simply the fact that she is. The phrase “she takes too long” leads me to think that you are setting an expectation that she cannot meet right now—and making a judgement that she is wrong. We typically look at behavior and define it as good or bad and react to the behavior accordingly. In doing so we miss the most important factor: what provoked the behavior.

To determine what the motivating factor is in this case, you want to know:

1) Is it school she is resisting?

2) Is the transition from home to school difficult?

3) Is it her innate slow temperament?

1) If this is new behavior, and she hasn’t had trouble with transitions in the past, then I would suspect a school-related problem. Is she being bullied, feeling stupid in comparing herself to her classmates, experiencing school or social anxiety? Is social media playing apart and causing friend problems and depression?

Especially with a tween or teen, getting her to share what’s happening is very tricky, especially if she suspects you would tell her what she should do about her problem or worse, somehow make it her fault (Well, if you would just do such and such that wouldn’t happen…) Start by making connecting statements, not questions, like: It seems to me that your morning lateness may be a resistance to getting to school for some reason. It makes me wonder if something has changed, something has gotten harder for you at school. Period. No requirement for an answer. She can take it in and remain quiet.

Something like this may need to happen a few times. Eventually, I’m feeling disturbed by this pattern of lateness and am very concerned that something is going on that you don’t want to tell me about. I get it that you don’t want me telling you what to do. And I also promise you that I am here to listen when you’re ready. Still not questions.

If you feel you have a good connection, you can move into questions. She won’t feel threatened if she trusts you. If she answers your questions and you get to the bottom of it move into problem solving. What do you wish would happen? How do you think you can get there? Is there something you wish you could say that you don’t think you can? Would you like my help or do you want to handle it on your own? Etc.

2) If she has a hard time with transitions, it’s a gear-change issue. For many kids it’s almost torture to leave where they are and what they’re doing and get their heads in gear for a different environment—even if they want to be where they’re going. In this case you want to give the actual leaving process more time. Start out by discussing how the morning routine doesn’t seem to be working for either of you. Ask her how much time she would ideally like to have between waking up and getting out the door. Give her full control of how she handles that time, but ask her to tell you her routine. Ask her if she wants your help with any of it. With a younger child you would come up with the routine together and find a way for her to check off things as they get done.

If she says she doesn’t want to go, let her know she doesn’t have a choice about going but she does have a lot of other choices within the parameters of getting to school. See if you can list those choices with her. Let her know that you understand that sometimes what goes on in her head feels out of her control and needs a virtual wrench to get those stiff gears in motion.

3) If she has always been a slow mover, the most important thing for you is to adjust your expectations. It’s not that she won’t move faster, it’s that she can’t. Her internal system just moves at a slower pace. If she feels pressured to hurry, she may dig in her heels and slow down even more. If her temperament is not understood, she will take criticism of her slowness personally and decide she must be lazy.

She reminds me of my daughter who always took her time to do anything. I’m a fast mover and was always trying to get her to speed it up until I learned about slow vs active temperaments from Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s book, “Raising Your Spirited Child”. She does things slowly and with observation. Things in her path can be distracting. What you can do is make sure she has more time (you too) so she doesn’t feel rushed and wrong. If she says she’s lazy, she’s getting that message even if the words aren’t said. You need to adjust to her before she will adjust to you.