School Refusal

What is school refusal?

School refusal refers to a set of behaviors associated with the avoidance of school. School refusal can occur in several forms, including absenteeism from school, chronically coming late or leaving early, or experiencing great duress while attending. School refusal is not an actual diagnosis; it can be thought of as a symptom of other circumstances that are going on in a child’s life.

A child’s school refusal may show up in a variety of ways including stomach complaints (that aren’t better explained by a physical issue), anxiety about attending school, avoiding or skipping school and acting-out behaviors that has caused removal from the classroom.

Why is my child engaging in school refusal?

When a child is actively avoiding school, it is important to approach the situation like a detective.

While it may feel like a simple issue of defiance, school refusal is usually a far more complex situation. Generally kids are rejecting school because of some underlying factors such as a learning disability which causes test anxiety or another academic performance concern.

Other kids may struggle with the social aspect of school; perhaps there is a situation in which they are being bullied or mistreated in some way, or perceive themselves as socially outcast.

When these issues are not problematic, it can be useful to explore other possible causes for school refusal. Is your child experiencing a secondary gain from avoiding school, such as staying home to play a video game all day, or spending time with a parent with whom they are craving a closer relationship?

Each child’s situation is as unique as they are, which is why a comprehensive assessment is such an important part of the treatment process.

How can we deal with school refusal?

A common mistake many parents make with school refusal is assuming the child is simply being defiant and issuing consequences that don’t make sense for what is truly going on.

Parenting is the most difficult job there is, and interpreting kids’ behaviors is at the top of the list of challenging tasks in the job description. You don’t have to manage this alone.

Communicating with the school is an important part of the treatment for school refusal. Developing a team around your child to help determine the underlying factors is a necessary part of making the changes needed for his or her school success.

Often, simple accommodations can be made to help your child feel more comfortable and confident in the school setting. Sometimes educating school staff about the specific needs of your child can help shift a seemingly “avoidant” child into one who feels understood, accepted and successful. Perhaps academic accommodations are needed, or maybe coping strategies to help manage difficult feelings as they arise. There are many possible adjustments that can be made to help your child feel successful at school.

If your child is struggling with an anxiety based challenge that is related to separation from you, individual and/or family therapy can help rectify those feelings and identify other ways to feel safe and connected without resorting to school refusal.

So, what can I do?

A good place to start with a child who is exhibiting signs of school refusal is to get an evaluation to determine what’s going on. It is necessary to obtain information from the child, parent, and school staff in order to get a full picture of what is happening and to develop a plan based on the underlying factors.

Some examples of how to help a child work through school refusal may be to treat underlying anxiety, set effective limits at home or request accommodations at school.  The Center for CBT offers treatment options that include the child, parents, and school as part of the solution. Your doctor will become the point person to keep all parties on the same page so that the end result is a cohesive team approach for your child.