School refusal, school avoidance or school phobia are terms used to describe the signs of anxiety a school-aged child has and their refusal to go to school.
Reasons for School Avoidance
Research and experience teaches us that children and teens avoid school for four main reasons:
- To avoid negative feelings. Children may not know how to solve a problem at school. They can be upset about school work, tests, friends, gym, and expectations. We help these children to improve their sense of independence and self-confidence.
- To avoid social problems. Children may feel judged by self and others. They may feel confused about their ability to make and keep friends. We help these children to improve social abilities and self-esteem.
- To bring attention to a problem. Children may be asking for help through behaviors that cause attention. They may be upset about family, school or friend problems. They may be expressing concern about their family’s future. They may be trying to keep their family healthy, happy, and together. We help these children by helping their family deal with problems that upset the child.
- To enjoy time away from responsibility. Children may experience more rewards by staying home. They may want to stay home to sleep, use electronics, eat snacks, or dress differently. They may believe that adults will excuse their assignments and responsibilities during the school absence. We help these children by helping their families organize expectations for the child.
Ways to Help
We recommend that families follow these ideas to help children cope with school avoidance.
- Communicate with your child’s school team to share observations, ideas, and develop a plan.
Plan and follow a routine at home. Create routines for the morning, afternoon and evening, include times for meals homework, and bed time, use written or picture schedules as needed, and practice all routines as calm habits.
Prepare items the night before. Pack backpacks with homework or lunch if needed.
Plan shower/bath time as part of the evening routine to save time in the morning. Lay out tomorrow’s clothes and shoes near the bed.
Wake up earlier to have extra time. Plan 10-minute goals for hygiene, dressing, breakfast, and final leaving. Notice how you child usually stalls, then solve those problems to avoid future delay. Remain calm if you child tries to move slowly. Act like everyone will leave on time.
Give simple directions without explanation. Keep conversation at a minimum. Speak calmly in a neutral tone of voice. If your child tries to argue, repeat your expectation in a calm voice. Do not criticize, lecture, or explain.
Ignore complaints about headaches or stomachaches. Remember that anxiety can cause people to feel sick. Stay calm and keep planning to go to school even if your child throws up. Tell your child that people can throw up when they are worried or upset and remind him/her that school, your family, and child created a plan with many coping skills for being at school. Stay calm and expect your child to be ready on time.
Keep your child home for a rash or fever above 101 ͦ. Remember that you are helping your child learn about school responsibilities; therefore reduce the rewards and entertainment opportunities of staying home (no screens or electronics) and encourage your child to earn privileges for going to school (family time, favorite activities, electronic time, etc.).
Call your school team, resource officer, or local police if you need more help. Your child will learn that you expect him/her to go to school.