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Understanding School Refusal

What parents need to know at back-to-school time.

The new school year is officially here, representing a huge transition for parents, teachers, and children. Few kids like going back to school. Even parents may feel sad at the loss of summer freedom and the return of early mornings and endless routines. It’s normal even for kids with lots of friends who excel at school to whine a bit in the first weeks back to school. Some kids are even more resistant, complaining each morning and needing several wake-up calls to get out of bed. It might be frustrating, but the frustration is normal.

For a small fraction of kids, the problem goes deeper. Some kids simply refuse to go to school, or fight going to school so hard that each morning becomes a miserable battle. This phenomenon, known as school refusal, isn’t a behavior problem. You can’t punish your child out of school refusal. Instead, it’s a form of anxiety that demands treatment. Here’s what you need to know.

School refusal is different from truancy

When kids begin refusing to go to school, some parents worry that their children will drop out, or that they’ll get a visit from a truant officer. School refusal, however, is different from truancy.

Children who are truant from school don’t want to go because they’d rather do something else—and they often concoct complex schemes to get out of school. Truancy is also more common in older children and teens, while school refusal can happen at any age.

So what is school refusal exactly? Some common signs of school refusal include:

  • Complaining of physical symptoms, such as a stomachache, to get out of school. At school, kids who refuse school may repeatedly visit the school nurse. If the child is allowed to stay home, the symptoms rapidly disappear. This does not, however, mean the child is faking; the symptoms may be a physical manifestation of anxiety.
  • Separation anxiety. Children with school refusal may have a history of separation anxiety, or may suddenly develop fears of being separated from parents, grandparents, or other attachment figures.
  • Changes in mood or behavior. Children refusing to go to school may be clingy or anxious, may throw tantrums, may begin struggling at school, or may behave in other ways that are out of character.
  • Negative experiences at school. Bullying, a bad teacher, trauma, or a generalized fear of going to school can initiate a chain reaction that leads to school refusal. Finding out what’s happening at school is critical to understanding school refusal.

School anxiety and refusal affect 25 percent of children, and often occurs between the ages of 5 to 6, and then again between 10 and 11. Children who refuse to go to school are often bright, with a history of excelling at school.

What parents can do to help

When a child won’t go to school, it’s tempting to treat it as a behavioral problem, or to simply ignore it and hope it goes away. But for children who are afraid of school, being forced to go to school can be extremely distressing. In this way, going to school becomes like a phobia. Consider how you’d feel if forced to do the thing that scares you most. That’s how your child feels.

Of course, not going to school is also not an option, so parents must find ways to support their children while still helping them get the education they need. If your child begins refusing to go to school, arrange a meeting with the school counselor, or with a therapist. Most kids who refuse school will need to talk through their concerns with a psychotherapist. Family therapy can also help your family find ways to support your child.

Some other strategies that can help include:

  • Not shaming your child for not wanting to go to school. Act as a supportive partner and listener.
  • Talking to your child about their reasons for not wanting to go to school. Consider brainstorming strategies for school problems, such as bullies and mean teachers. -Rehearsing responses to these problems can be especially helpful.
  • Talking about positive aspects of school, such as friends or a favorite subject, but without ignoring your child’s negative feelings.
  • Meeting with your child’s teacher to discuss the problem. You may also need to meet with school staff to craft an individualized educational plan (IEP) that addresses your child’s needs. Some children need to gradually reintegrate back to school, going to school in small doses as they get used to it. Working at home or with a tutor can help bridge this gap.
  • Helping your child build a support system. If they have trouble making friends, help them find new activities they enjoy so they can meet like-minded kids.

What not to do

The way you respond to your child’s school refusal can make things worse. After all, you're your child’s biggest ally. If your child feels they cannot count on you, they may feel even more anxious. Avoid the following:

  • Telling your child’s friends or peers about their school anxiety.
  • Shaming or punishing your child for not going to school.
  • Threatening your child for not going to school.
  • Making fun of your child, or allowing siblings to make fun of your child, for not going to school.
  • Assuming the issue will work out on its own.

Children who refuse school need help, and a few sessions with a counselor are often all it takes to get things back on track.

More from Joel L. Young M.D.
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