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