Updated: Nov 22, 2021
As homeschoolers, a luxury we use liberally is the decision regarding taking breaks from heavy schooling. I fully realize this is not something those families who use brick and mortar (public, private, montessori, etc) schools can freely do. However, mental health breaks might still be necessary parts of schooling years.
So, how can parents who use other educational services determine whether and when to take breaks and maintain attendance to avoid truancy claims? This will differ based on your state and immediate district. I cannot give you permission or definitively tell you that breaks are ok, but I can help you think through whether and when to consider them.
Like with homeschooling, any drastic change may necessitate a pause to allow child brains to address one major event at a time. Yes, school is a majory event. Moving, new babies, family deaths, divorce, and more might result in enough upheaval that a break is needed. Children struggle to learn when their worlds are in turmoil, so time to adjust to a new normal without the pressures of school expectations might be appropriate. Talk to your child's principal or counselor to determine how best to do this. You might not be able to take off more than a week and you might have to fascilitate schoolwork at home in the interim.
If your child is neurotypical, this might not be necessary often, though mental health days are good for everyone. With neurological diagnoses, though, children often need more than a weekend's break from the rigors of a school environment. There are many demands placed on these fragile brains throughout a school day and it becomes overwhelming. Socializing, meeting expectations of each teacher (main and specials or each subject later on), the schoolwork itself, navigating changing hormones and bodies, and so much more affect the psyche heavily. Our kids might tell us in not so great ways that they are struggling with the demands. After school meltdowns, school refusal, poor grades, and poor behavior reports may be clues to needing a mental break. If you consistently struggle with behavior at school and poor grades or school refusal, these are not necessarily indicators that a break is in order, but likely communicate your child needs a different set of supports at school and home to succeed. However, working with the teachers and support staff is crucial in determining this.
What to do during a break
Like with homeschooling, these breaks are meant to be a reset. Do something your child loves. Reconnect. Bond. Have fun. This is not about addressing school struggles but about giving their mental health a break. We all need more down time and time to recooperate from the rigors of school and work. We can begin teaching our kids how to do this through these breaks.
How to get breaks
Again, figuring out your schools' rules regarding taking time off is important. Most schools have a call ahead or excused absence policy in place. Working within this policy will keep you from having truancy issues or punitive actions against your child for missing school. They will likely still have to maintain the assigned work from the day(s) they miss. Additionally, it may be possible to add mental health days into an IEP or 504 plan to ensure mothly or quarterly breaks. This is something to discuss with your support team.
In addition to periodic breaks, homework can cause some difficulty. For elementary students, homework is shown to be more harmful than beneficial. As such, if your child is struggling with homework, talk to their teacher(s) and figure out whether the homework is necessary to your child's understanding and success in the content. If your child can already write their letters and add/subtract, they shouldn't be asked to complete tracing homework. If your child has an IEP or 504, homework considerations can be added to it.
As a reader mentioned in comments on the homeschool version of this post, the transition between school and breaks might mean breaks aren't worth the trouble. I completely agree. If your child has a harder time moving between the two schedules, breaks are not going to work for you. For a long time, we didn't take breaks because the transitions were too challenging. We can more now, but sometimes, getting back on track is tough. Our breaks are generally shorter to prevent this struggle. Instead, setting up decompression times on weekends and evenings might help. Many families go from school to events or sports which might be difficult for the kids. Taking very young students to playgrounds or other safe places to run is a good way to help prevent the after school meltdown (or energy rush) too. Kids have been asked to sit calmly for hours on end in many schools situations and releasing their energy is a must after school. In climates where outside is tough in the winter (like where we live), indoor obstacle courses can be great. We tape down yarn in different patterns and include jumping jacks and situps to help get those post school wiggles out.
Whatever your situation, a break or other decompression time not only helps kids now, but also teaches them to regulate as adults and not allow bosses, etc to overtax their systems.