School Refusal

Research shows that although some children may be truant from school for reasons that are mostly about defiance and rule-breaking, the problem has a lot more to do with a child being anxious, depressed or otherwise struggling with attendance. And that being out of school – although it may feel easier and preferable – is not something that makes them happy. A child is a lot more likely to refuse to attend school because something either scares them or makes them unhappy than because they just cannot be bothered doing what’s expected of them.

The first thing to do is to try to understand what is driving their refusal to school. Is there something happening at school that is challenging? School can be a huge challenge for a child with social anxiety. For example, school is a social jungle full of constant judgment and evaluation and daunting interactions with peers and teachers. For a child with separation anxiety, school is the longest separation in the day, and the fears of not being reunited with parents at the end of the day can make the entire school day an ordeal.

The same goes for the other anxiety problems such as generalized anxiety, agoraphobia, as well as obsessive-compulsive disorders. They can all be major obstacles to attending school. Even for a child who doesn’t struggle with an anxiety disorder, attendance can be really hard.

Everyone has to go to school; yet, going to school is sometimes very difficult. Think about the things that can make school a great experience for kids. If kids really great at academics like reading, writing and math, they can be full of rewarding experiences, like being praised and getting good grades, or if they’re really good at making friends and having social interactions, kids excel as well. School can be full of fun times with peers and the child can enjoy being popular or well-liked. Being great at sports is another thing that can make school enjoyable as a kid wins the admiration of others.

Getting kids back to school is important, and it’s critical to helping kids advance to the point where they will have more options and more choices about how to spend their time. It also makes sense to acknowledge that school really is hard for a lot of kids and to spend some time and effort trying to figure out what is keeping a particular child from going to school, who’s going to help to better address the problem and who is going to be more empathic.

In SPACE Training, we have developed a six-step plan that any determined parent can implement.

  • Step 1: Stop nagging about going to school.
  • Step 2: Limit access to items during school hours.
  • Step 3: Set clear expectations.
  • Step 4: Get buy-in from your child’s school.
  • Step 5: Recruit help from friends and supporters
  • Step 6: Involve your child’s parents and friends.

If you’re a parent trying to overcome this problem and your own child, give yourself the best chance of success by doing the whole plan and not just picking the parts that you like the best or that seem easiest to put into action.

(Based on School Refusal by Eli Lebowitz)

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