School Refusal: When a Child Won’t Go to School

The transition back to school each fall is challenging for many families. But some children and teens feel so much emotional distress that they may repeatedly balk at attending school or staying there — a problem known as school refusal, or school avoidance if it occurs consistently.

What is school refusal?

School refusal can take many forms. It can include behaviors like frequently struggling to arrive at school on time, leaving before the school day ends, or not attending school at all. Headaches, fatigue, stomachaches, and other physical symptoms of anxiety may make it hard to get off to school in the morning or make it feel necessary to leave early.

School avoidance allows a child or teen to escape distressing aspects of the school day, which provides immediate short-term relief. However, when a student continues to miss school, returning can feel harder and harder as she falls behind academically and starts to feel socially disconnected from classmates and teachers.

What can parents do to help stop the cycle of school refusal?

  • Step in quickly. Missed schoolwork and social experiences snowball, making school avoidance a problem that grows larger and more difficult to control as it rolls along. Be on the lookout for any difficulties your child might have around attending school on time and staying for the full day. If the problem lasts more than a day or two, step in.
  • Help identify issues. Try to find out why your child is avoiding school. Gently ask, “What is making school feel hard?” Is your child struggling socially or being bullied? Afraid of having a panic attack in the classroom? Worried about his academic performance or public speaking? Fearful of being separated from her parents for a full day?
  • Communicate and collaborate. Your child’s school is a key partner in combating school avoidance. Contact the school guidance counselor, psychologist, or social worker to share what you know about why your child is struggling to attend school. The more information the school has about why school avoidance is occurring, the better they will be able to help you. Collaboratively problem-solve with your child and the school by identifying small steps that can help your child gradually face what he is avoiding at school.
  • Be firm about school. Be empathetic but firm that your child or teen must attend school. Tell her you are confident she can face her fears. Let your child know that while physical symptoms of anxiety, such as stomachaches, headaches, and fatigue, are certainly unpleasant, they are not dangerous.
  • Make staying home boring. Is there anything about the out-of-school environment that makes it extra tempting to stay home? Make home as school-like as possible.  Be clear that if your child or teen does not attend school, you will be collecting all screens and/or turning off data and home wifi.

School avoidance is a serious problem that can worsen rapidly. Work closely with your child’s school. It’s also a good idea to consult with a licensed mental health professional who specializes in child anxiety and can support you in helping your child or teen re-engage in school.

Excerpted from “School Refusal: When a Child Won’t Go to School” from Harvard Medical School. Read the full article online.

Source: Harvard Medical School | School Refusal: When a Child Won’t Go to School, | © 2022 by The President and Fellows of Harvard College
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