What to do when your child refuses to go to school

August 19, 2016 | by Laura Koehler, Psy.D.

“I don’t wanna to go to school.” This is a plea many parents hear from their child at the beginning of the school year. All you want is your child to get dressed, eat breakfast and happily skip off to school. Instead, mornings have become a battle as your child refuses to leave the house.

It’s common for a child to feel nervous about returning to school. Sometimes back-to-school anxiety resolves itself pretty quickly once kids get back into the typical routine. But other times, anxiety lingers.

A child who refuses to attend school is often struggling with intense emotional difficulty. Anxiety-based school refusal affects two to five percent of school-age children. It usually happens around ages 5-6 and 10-11, and at times of transition, such as entering a new school.

How does school anxiety show itself? Shortly before it’s time to leave for school, your child may complain about physical symptoms like headache or stomachache, or even have tantrums or experience panic attacks. These symptoms usually disappear quickly if your child is allowed to stay home. At school, your child may repeatedly ask to visit the school nurse.

Other signs that your child may be experiencing school anxiety include:

  • Intense physical sensations, like stomach aches
  • Asking to stay home from school
  • Leaving class to go to social worker’s office/bathroom/school nurse
  • Unwilling to engage in school-related activities (homework, clubs, sports)
  • Struggles with concentration/focus/retrieving information
  • Opting out of hobbies/interests
  • Withdrawing from friends/family

Your child may be very open about their level of distress regarding attending school and ask you to call school and report them as “sick.” If you give in, you may truly believe you’re acting in your child’s best interest. In reality, the anxiety may increase.

Missing school reinforces fear and anxiety rather than alleviating it. Through avoidance, your child lowers their ability to tolerate distress, and it will become increasingly more difficult to go to school. Serious educational or social problems can develop if your child’s anxiety keeps them away from school for any length of time.

Your child needs to learn that avoiding problems is not a healthy long-term solution. As a parent, you can take this opportunity to help your child learn how to manage difficult situations — a skill they will need in adulthood.

Here are some ways to help your child develop strategies for coping with school anxiety:

Validate and re-direct. Encourage your child to share feelings and fears. Be empathic and reassuring. Validate your child’s distress, but do not allow him/her to dwell on the issue. Instead, gently shift the conversation to another topic (e.g. hobbies, friends).

Get the school involved. You’ll need the support from your child’s school. Arrange a meeting with your child’s teacher and the school guidance counselor. Together, you can come up with a plan. For example, a school staff member may need to temporarily escort your child to their classroom in the mornings.

Encourage hobbies and interests. Activities and social interaction build self-confidence and are good distractions. Help your child establish a support system by encouraging your child to participate in his/her favorite activities with friends and family.

Help your child practice self-help methods. Try stress management and self-soothe techniques with your child, such as calm breathing exercises, mindfulness and relaxation techniques. Coach your child on ways to handle stressful situations at school through role playing.

Get more strategies to help ease your child’s back-to-school jitters.

Over time, if your child continues to struggle with school anxiety, seek help. Talk with your child’s pediatrician, who may refer you to a behavioral health professional. 

Learn about school refusal treatment programs at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

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