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Child Behavior: What if your child refuses to go to school?

For some children, the anxiety of starting school for the first time or beginning a new grade is excessive. These children may experience fear or even panic at the thought, and if this is the case, your child may be experiencing either school phobia or school refusal. If left unattended, your child might develop a severe disinterest or distrust in school that will debilitate their education.

School phobia vs school refusal

School phobia is a broad term, characterized by a child’s intense anxiety and fear directed at school itself. School refusal can be tied to academic or self-esteem issues. Separation anxiety, a more complex issue, may be behind school refusal. 

Possible causes of school phobia

  • A single negative experience in the past or current or ongoing negative experiences, i.e. teasing and bullying

  • A problem on the bus or fears of a bus trip itself

  • Fear of the school lavatory or changing for gym class in front of other children

  • It’s important to have your child express their fear to you or a professional, so the cause can be identified

Possible causes of school refusal

  • Afraid of appearing stupid in front of classmates

  • Doing poorly in test situations

  • Fear of being embarrassed

  • Separation anxiety. Some children have difficulty separating from parents for any occasion, and school is just another situation that demands separation
READ MORE: 5 tips for helping your child succeed in school

Family changes can trigger school anxiety

Any dramatic change or crisis in the family such as a move, a divorce, death or illness of a family member, or even the birth of a new sibling can trigger the genesis of school refusal. (However, it’s normal for children 6 and under to feel anxious about separating from parents and going off to school, but for those 8 and over, do seek treatment.)

The first question you should ask is “What’s happening that has created this level of stress for the child”? Some type of early response to the problem is critical. Untreated school refusal can result in a worsening of family distress, possibly spreading to their siblings.  Chronic school refusal can also result in a child developing significant academic gaps, lack of development in peer relationships as well as developing a pattern of generalized anxiety and avoidance that can continue into adult life.

READ MORE: What to do if technology is affecting your kids’ sleep

Every attempt should be made to return the child to school as soon as possible as keeping the child at home will only reinforce the problem and increase the dependency on parents. If the child is unable to attend class, he should be allowed to stay in the nurse’s or counselor’s office — somewhere in the school building where he feels safe.

What parents can do

The following guidelines have been helpful for parents of children experiencing school refusal:

  • Early detection and intervention is key, the longer the behavior occurs, the more difficult to treat

  • Don’t jump to change schools, teachers or classes

  • School attendance should be a non-negotiable issue. If a child sees he can manipulate the situation, the more he’ll try

  • Don’t make a day off from school a pleasurable event. Try and duplicate the school schedule

  • Mornings are the time you need to be firm and demonstrate extra determination

  • Above all, be optimistic with your child. With early identification and effective intervention, school refusal is a short-lived problem

Paul Schwartz, Ph.D. is a professor of psychology and education at Mount Saint Mary College.

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