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Sleep Disorders, Truancy and Student Needs: A Complicated Mix

by Wrightslaw

I have a student with a sleep disorder and emotional issues.

How do the compulsory attendance laws and a student with special education needs intertwine?

Good question. All states have compulsory attendance laws. I am not aware of exceptions for children with disabilities, but suggest you contact your State Department of Education to find out if your state has exceptions.

  • Are the sleep issues a recent problem?
  • What do the parents say?
  • Is the child’s doctor aware of the frequent  absences and the impact they are having on his education?

In some cases, the child’s doctor may ask that the child receive special treatment for a specific period of time – for example, when the doctor is trying different medications and the child’s sleep is disrupted.

In other cases, schools let these kids slide which does not  help. Kids with emotional and behavioral problems are at very high risk for dropping out.

If a child doesn’t attend school regularly, he cannot learn what he needs to know to handle life after school.

The fact that the child is often absent triggers responsibilities for the IEP team.

  • The IEP team is required to review and revise an IEP “to address any lack of expected progress” and “other matters.” A child with a sleep disorder who often misses school is probably not making expected progress, so it’s time to revisit the IEP.
  • The IEP team is also required to consider providing related services for “a child whose behavior impedes the child’s learning … positive behavioral interventions and supports, and other strategies to address that behavior.” Clearly, this child’s behavior is impeding his learning. The IEP team needs to meet to devise new interventions, supports and strategies to address the behavior.

If the child is not attending school because of depression and other emotional issues, the IEP team needs to meet and decide how to modify or revise the IEP.

The team needs to be creative and involve the child’s doctor and therapist, parent(s), and the child, if possible. The child may need related services including counseling or other assistance.

Normal Adolescent Sleep Patterns

As a group, adolescents are notoriously difficult to awaken in the mornings. In most cases, this is not due to laziness or depression, but is simply part of normal human development. During adolescence, circadian clocks are geared to late night behavior. Boys tend to grow out of this around age 20, and girls a year earlier.

For these reasons, experts in neurology  and chronobiology make a good case for opening high schools later and experimenting with timing of the curriculum and exams. This could lead to a better match between the requirements of the educational system and the capabilities of students. (For more about biological clocks and sleep rhythms, read Larks, Owls and Hummingbirds by Leon Kreitzman, co-author of Rhythms of Life with Russell Foster, a neuroscientist at Oxford.)

American Academy of Pediatrics Recommendations

Studies show that adolescents who don’t get enough sleep often suffer physical and mental health problems, an increased risk of automobile accidents and a decline in academic performance.

In a new policy statement published in 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends middle and high schools delay the start of class to 8:30 a.m. or later. Doing so will align school schedules to the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents, whose sleep-wake cycles begin to shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty.

Compulsory Attendance Laws and Truancy

If the school labels the child as truant under compulsory attendance laws, problems caused by developmental or emotional issues turn into legal problems. If the child is judged “truant,” it is unlikely that anything positive will happen, and more likely that the child will drop out of school.

The question about whether to use compulsory attendance laws also depends on how the juvenile justice system in your area views kids with emotional and behavior problems. Some juvenile judges are staunch advocates for children and want to help. Others blame the kid for emotional problems — not helpful.

Thanks for caring about the kids!

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27 Comments on "Sleep Disorders, Truancy and Student Needs: A Complicated Mix"


Good idea about involving medical personnel. Getting a team of cooperative professionals to meet with varied schedules is extremely difficult and would be a dream come true if it ever becomes the norm. In my experience, the parent has been the constant and go-between to help us all get an accurate picture of how the student’s condition is manifesting in the classroom. We just evaluated a 2nd grade student who was diagnosed with a sleep disorder as well as other medical conditions that interfere with his learning. His IEP was only in effect for the last 5 days of the school year. I have never had a student with this type of medical condition and look forward to working with him. I am hopeful that catching him early in his educational career, we can provide the motivation and encouragement so will he develop an intrinsic motivation to attend school and apply the strategies he will learn. By the way, he had 100% attendance this past school year.


My student is has missed the magic # for school attendance, he has been sick documented, or sent home with fever. The school sent home conference for truancy. They have been threatening and not helpful, my student is on I.e.p.


I am a senior in highschool, and I have suffered with insomnia my whole life. This year it has gotten much worse, I have issues with anxiety and depression also so I am not supposed to be on addicting medications at my age. I have tried many sleeping pills and none seem to work, nothing makes me fall asleep and I am always awake. I usually crash at about 5 am, school starts at 6, I am constantly truant because once i fall asleep I can’t seem to wake up, I really wish the school system would understand things like this. I get good grades but I am threatened to be dropped because of my attendance, and might not be able to graduate, which is very very stressful to even think about.


My 11 yr old son has Tourettes/ADHD/OCD and had a 504 plan that none of the 4 teachers went by and was really vague in the first place, breaks and work “chunked”, home work shortened. They were to busy to work with him. He was making all F’s and because he is Academic Intelligent he wasn’t offered IEP. I am fighting now to get the IEP for “other health impairments” and unique learning needs. I have him in home schooling where he attends one day a week while the school and I work this out. He is doing PERFECT, small class, one on one teaching, peer to peer teaching, fun learning. Mainstream is overstimulating or understimulating classes with negative teachers, no help or consideraton of 2 disabilities, ADHD, tourette’s. He has small behavior discipline problems. Where is law for disability discipline if not expelling? No behavior modification done.


Need to network with other parents of children with sleep and health issues. Our child’s IEP team at NPS school is not willing to give him accommodations for sleep disorder, and their solution is for him to change his behavior. Any advocates or attorneys who can help? Thanks! Marcie, founder & director – 2E Network LA


I came across this post while researching for myself. I (31 yrs old) have a sleeping disorder called idiopathic hypersomnia. It’s a form of narcolepsy. Today I had to go to a truancy board meeting for my 5 yo son b/c he has missed 9 days of school & had 21 tardies. Yes I do know those are a lot. With my disorder I have an extremely hard time waking up and hearing alarms. I am not suppose to live alone b/c of the severity of it. (I do live with another adult) I cannot control this disorder and it gets worse with age. I am being medically treated for it with med management but there isn’t a cure. My question is, how can I be threatened with jail time when I have no control over the disorder? Yes I know my kids need to be in school, yet I can’t always wake up. Any help?


I have 2 sons, 1 with Asperger’s, high functioning, other 1 with characteristics of Aspergers. Both recieve speech. Because I filed a police report of inappropriate touching of young girls against the school principal, my sons were found to be truant & no longer needed speech in their small school where they had been for 4 years with their friends. My oldest son was bullied by 4 boys & choked by another. 4th grade teacher refused to report it & let him report it. 3 years now my sons have continued to be discriminated, harassed, & abused at school. My sons had Dr notes regarding frequent use of bathroom, which made them late by 3-5 min for school. Both had IEP & still do & want to go back. need help.

Colleen D

What can be done if a parent is unable to obtain an IEP for their child? Can the 504 be modified, like an IEP, to provide support for a child with an ongoing medical condition?

Emma B.

Angela: Take your child to the doc or an urgent care each time he is ill, and misses school and/or is late to school. Make sure you get a copy of the paperwork from EVERY visit. Then, make an appt. with your pediatrician to discuss the frequent illnesses and get documentation of that visit. Keep a copy of each letter you send to school and document all your child’s illnesses/symptoms.
Our child has several Dx, an IEP, missed the “magic” number of school days. The principal still decided to go ahead with the truancy charge in our county. Although the charges were dropped and we won our case against the school board, my husband and I have this charge on our permanent records! Find an advocate in your state for your child and document EVERYTHING!


I have a straight” A” Asperger’s child, who just needs a little more sleep (a morning or two a month) now that school is starting earlier. Is there a specific I could look up to help when I go for his IEP in two weeks?
We love in PA.

Terry G

My daughter’s new hs repeatedly failed to fully implement her 504 (now special ed IEP) leading to Fs, anorexia nervosa, an irregular racing pulse and depression. Despite repeated letters from her psychiatrist, her school filed a criminal truancy charge (since 2002 TX has criminalized truancy, letting the school and the city where the JP or municipal court sits split the fees). It took 3 terms, multiple ARD meetings (with a court reporter present), a special ed advocate and a special ed lawyer to get the truancy charge dropped. But now, in the 4th term, the general ed teacher who was present at these meetings did not implement the IEP, leading to a 79 in his class while her other grades are 99, 99 and 93. Stay tuned for further legal action. Who will give her back her health, her change for college, her earning potential? Any precedents?


I am curious if there is anything that can be done for a child without a diagnosis – but misses school because he simply gets ill easily. My child only misses school for appropriate illness and doesn’t always require a dr. visit. Now, because he has missed the “magic” number, he is receiving unexcused absences if I don’t take him to the dr. for every missed day of school. This is a child with straight A’s and is 1-2 grade levels above in all skills. Yet we are headed down the path of labeling this child a “truant.” Where is the common sense? Please advise


Very helpful information. I have several questions about truancy laws in Alabama as related to special needs students. Could you give me a link that would help answer my questions?


My children, 13 and 7 year old, require vision therapy to improve his school performance. They have to leave school early in order to be on time for their therapy every Mondays at 2:00pm. Is there a provision on the IEP where they can be excempt or not count on their attendance as a absency?


My daughter was diagnosed with Epilepsy two years ago, she had missed alot of school due to having seizures during sleep, she was put on homebound for most of the year, returning this year. We are trying to get a “fresh” start and after many more fines, the school doesnt see this as a disability. She was bullied, and nothing was done, she became severely depressed, and had to attend, a “bad” kids school for three months. She also struggles with other health problems. The school turns there heads and the truancy officer harasses me, and speaks horrible to me, my daughter is failing three classes, they say she is ” lazy”.My daughter complains of blanking out, due to her seizures, what can I do??


My son has a sleep disorder as well as emotional and medical issues. We have a chronic illness note to excuse him whenever absent or late for a bad day. We also had home instruction. Entering highschool we are trying a modified school day- 1/2 day with core courses and flexibilty if having bad day-all in IEP, which is the important part. We filed a complaint investigation-and won which brings the state in to monitor-they can not discriminate. We have also been advised that it can lead to civil case. Help can be found at board of ed, county level and state level.The more informed you are about your laws the better. In our experience as long as you have documentation and let them know the willingness to take action, in our case, we have found we get alot more accomodations-we always remain cordial as to maintain a good working relationship.


Our son now 14 yrs old, has had sleep inertia since he was 7 yrs old due to a neurological disorder.
Our school district has not been understanding to meet the req.special needs he is entitled for FAPE all of his yrs. in public Ed. Since we have been ADVOCATING for three sons the past 11 1/2 yrs of living in this community, two have H/S diplomas and the youngest has private one on one instruction with academic therapy twice weekly and x5 daily practice sessions to assist in math. We do school seven days a week an hr+ to help our child retain what he needs to know to survive on his own one day! GOD willing! Children are the greatest GIFT we’re given. It’s a shame the school district that services our children here where I live, does not care about struggling learners.


Very helpful article. I will share it with parents and colleagues as we work through potential problems in cases where the student has sleep and truancy issues.


I had a similar issue with my child. I simply informed the school that his behavior was a manifestation of his disability and that I would be glad to prove that in a hearing if they wished. At that point, they no longer pushed the issue. I would say that forcing a child with insomnia to start the school day at a set time may violate Scetion 504 and the 14th Amnendment. In my case, the school agreed with me.


Not only do school districts need to look at start times for high schools but there needs to be legislation to determine at what time is it appropriate to start school for all children. In a response to new research on sleep and circadian rhthyms, school districts are flipping their high school start times with the younger elementary schools. These children are at much risk for health and learning issues if they too start school too early. You cannot look at one age group and neglect the other. many children with learning disabilities are more prone to sleep disorders. Many are already sleep deprived. We in MA. are dealing with this very issue right now. Tracy


I work with an adolescent who has been labeled ‘truant’ , now on probation and DCF control due to missing school secondary to severe social anxiety and depression stemming from loss issues. This girl is extremely bright and talented. She has a 504 plan which give her a late school day but did not allow for ‘bad days’. Now on top of the anxiety, she is faced with possible removal from her home if she ‘misses one more day’. This issue of truancy as a criminal behavior should be examined in the context of the child’s impairment; a symptom of the greater picture.
One way parents can address that with the schools is to insure they have documentation for EVERY absence. IF your child has a ‘bad day’, get the clinician to excuse him/her. If there is no clinician available,send a note to guidance and keep a copy! This may build a case for ESY!


As a high-school teacher with my own child who was growing up and in the grade-school system, there has been many pressures and perhaps imbalances at different times of the month. I talked with live forever at and they helped me to stop and think about the day to day schedule and diet of our son. Together worked through some of the details and guided me on my own research into the various aspects of sleep deprivation. Thanks for the internet!


My son had EBV (Epstein Barr) for at least 3 years where his blood level count for the virus was very high. He was awaiting residential care during most of this time, so the school district IEP offered him
2 1/2 hrs. a day with a special teacher, in both a public high school special ed class and in a Nonpublic school.

With medication and rest he got better. But we needed a doctor’s letter to explain the virus, the fact that it is not contagious, and the need for sleep. Behavior was faulted in at least 2 of the 3 years.


Excellent Point. Our son, now 18 at the age of 12-13 was being treated for a sleep disorder by a neurologist. It was brought on by huge hormonal changes with extreme growth which manifested itself through migraines in the morning. Eventually because of the truancy charges and prosecution along with an insensitive teacher negatively singling him out in front of his peers the day his grandmother died, he became phobic regarding school. Long story short, his IEP included homebound services- which were initially used, then modifications for him being able to go to a darker, quiet place for his migraines to rest in school. While being treated initially with medication that helped both migraines, sleep disorder and phobia for 15 months, IEP and awareness by all the staff and an understanding of it was very important.


My son was diagnosed with 4 sleep disorders and depending on the state service is difficult but not impossible. He receives instruction from the local high school under the Hospital Homebound provision. His condition is documented and his physician completes the form each year for the services. He also has an IEP to assist with accommodations such as the teaching schedule, class note taking, reading and more. I hope this information helps and that in your state there is a similar program available.


Very good post. It is something, I believe, I suffer from and had no idea that there was anything proactive to do about it. Wish I had looked into it earlier!