Understanding School Refusal & How To Best Support Your Child
By: Laura Miller, LMSW
As the leaves begin to turn, it’s undeniable that colder weather is upon us. However, it may be harder to believe that your child is already well into their first couple of months of school. The beginning of the school year is a difficult and stressful time for students and their families, and with so much additional stress this school year, your child’s transition back to school may not have been as smooth as past years. In fact, school refusal occurs in five percent of school children, peaking at ages five to seven years old, and then again at eleven and fourteen years old. The term “school refusal” refers to an individual’s difficulty to attend school often due to emotional distress. Keep reading to better understand school refusal and ways to support your child.
School Refusal Symptoms
Most often, school refusal is associated with anxiety symptoms such as fears related to separation from parents, tests, peers, teachers, or difficulty with transition itself. Many children will express a desire to go to school, however when the time comes for drop off or to get on the school bus, they may become frozen and refuse to attend school. Many children also experience somatic symptoms such as headaches, abdominal pain, shakiness, dizziness, or nausea. These symptoms may be present in the morning as the child gets ready to attend school, and then later disappear if the child stays home.
Identify the Anxiety
It is critical to remember that at the root of your child’s refusal, there is likely anxiety. Talk to your child in a calm and neutral way to better understand what may be getting in the way of attending school. You might begin the conversation by offering the hypothesis that your child may be anxious- (after all, it would make sense to avoid a situation that causes them stress!) You can then discuss with your child different situations that may be contributing to your child’s anxiety. Encourage your child to talk about their feelings, but try to avoid asking leading questions such as, “Are you anxious about not doing well in Math?” Leading questions can feed children’s anxiety, so stick to open-ended questions when possible; “How are you feeling about Math?”.
Validate the Anxiety and It’s Resulting Challenges
There are many situations that may be increasing your child’s anxiety and result in your child’s desire to avoid school. Not only does having a better understanding of your child’s anxiety help to later inform a treatment program, but it also gives the opportunity to validate your child’s anxiety and how difficult it is to tolerate their distress in school. It’s important to distinguish that validation doesn’t always mean agreement. You don’t want to belittle your child’s fears, but you don’t want to amplify them either. Simply listen, be empathetic, and help your child understand what they are anxious about. You want to send the message that you understand that your child is scared and that you here to support them.
Build Support in School
Typically, school refusal is a gradual process, usually beginning with vague complaints related to school and a reluctance to attend, and then later progressing into total refusal. This gradual progression of symptoms, heightens the need for parents to be critically aware of their child’s feelings toward school so support can be provided as needed to reduce the likelihood of total refusal. After discussing your child’s fears, collaborate with your child’s school to develop assistance and support for your child. You may need to develop an action plan in which a school employee accompanies your child into the classroom, or you may choose to discuss accommodations such as your child being able to take a break from class if he or she feels panic. Discuss the determined action plan with your child so they know what to expect and understand that there is support in school.
Discuss With Your Child Why Avoidance Doesn’t Work
Validate for your child how challenging facing their fears are, however emphasize that avoidance of school is not a viable long-term solution, and that both you and school employees are here to support them as they tolerate their distress. You can’t promise to
your child that their fears are entirely unrealistic, that there is no possible way that they might not do as well as they had hoped on a school assignment. However, you can express your confidence that your child is going to be okay regardless of the outcome, and that they will be able to manage the distress and face their fears.
...And What They Can Do Instead
You and your child can also discuss ways to tolerate and more effectively cope with their anxiety, rather than avoid it. The goal here isn’t to eliminate your child’s anxiety entirely (i.e. allowing them to stay home from school), but rather to help your child manage their anxiety in school. In fact, allowing your child to stay home from school will actually reinforce your child’s anxiety. Let your child know that you understand the hard work that it takes to tolerate the anxiety, and then focus on strategies your child can use to remain calm; taking deep breaths, imagining themselves in a calming place, or using positive self-talk such as, “I can do this, and I can ask for help if I need it.”
This is a unique and stressful school year, and in some cases, your child’s school refusal may look like refusing to turn on the computer to attend school. Distance learning because of the coronavirus pandemic has been stressful for many kids, and if you’re seeing school refusal this year, you are certainly not alone. Many kids are having trouble focusing, which might contribute to school refusal. Refusing to do their work, may be your child’s way of communicating that this new style of learning is difficult for them. Discuss with your child how they’re feeling about remote learning, and encourage them that although both new and difficult, you and their teachers are here to help. You may also want to check out these tips for keeping your child engaged in at home-learning.
Further, help your child handle their own anxiety by also letting them see how you cope with anxiety yourself. Model for your child that you too can identify things that you are anxious about, manage it without avoidance, and then feel really good about getting through it! Additionally, you can also model for your child asking for help; don’t hesitate to ask for more support from your child’s school or from other mental health professionals as needed.