Tips for Handling School Avoidance

It's normal for all children to experience some initial back-to-school jitters, particularly if the child is starting kindergarten or changing schools. However, getting some kids to school can be a daily struggle. They may outright refuse to go, become extremely emotional and upset, or even physically ill. Some might also complain of vague, non-specific ailments, such as a stomachache or headache, which appear just before it is time to leave for school.

According to our experts at  Bradley Hospital, school avoidance, or refusal, is actually more common than parents might think, occurring in about five percent of children. Although it can happen at any age, it's most common in children ages 5 to 7 and 11 to 14 - the time when many children are transitioning to elementary and middle school.

"School avoidance is not the same as truancy or playing hooky for a day," says Greta Francis, PhD, a child psychologist and Bradley Schools clinical director. "Many kids who avoid school have physical complaints that are triggered by anxiety."

Francis adds that it is important for parents to understand the events that occurred in the child's life around the time that he or she began avoiding school. "These behaviors may be a child's way of communicating an emotional struggle with issues like being teased at school," she says. It is also helpful for parents to look for any patterns in school avoidance. For example, some kids are very anxious about changing clothes for physical education class so they begin to avoid school on days when they have that particular class.

Francis points out that there are a number of reasons why a child might refuse to go to school, including:

  • Stressful family events, such as an illness, move or divorce
  • Separation anxiety, particularly in younger children
  • Social anxieties and worries, including bullying and teasing
  • Academic struggles stemming from ADHD or a learning disability
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Classroom or academic pressure

If a child is allowed to stay home, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends not providing any special treatment - whether it is video games or a special snack. Parents should also remind the child that if he or she misses school that day, then sports practices, parties or other after-school events will be cancelled.

Overcoming school avoidance

mom and daughterIf school-related anxiety is causing school avoidance, there are some ways parents can help, including:

  • Talk about the reasons why he does not want to go to school. Consider all the possibilities-psychological, social and academic-and make suggestions to help get the conversation rolling.
  • Acknowledge the child's anxiety and offer reassurance, support and understanding. However, tell him there is absolutely no choice when it comes to going to school.
  • Seek help and support from school staff, since they will have had experience with school avoidance issues. Teachers may also have some insight into what is causing the child's anxiety, such as bullying or academic troubles, and may have suggestions for how to make the classroom more comfortable.

Try to be especially firm on school mornings, when children complain most about their symptoms. If the child becomes upset, remain calm, let the tantrum play out, and then resume getting ready for school. On the flip side, make sure to praise and point out the child's successes, even if they're small, such as being able to get dressed in the morning. It is really important to encourage the child to cope with their distress.

School avoidance or real illness?

When a child is complaining of a headache or stomachache, how can parents tell if it is due to a true physical illness, or if he just does not want to go to school?

"A child who is truly sick will have a fever, or other symptoms like a runny nose or swollen glands," says Francis. "Your child's pediatrician is the first place to start. If there doesn't seem to be a medical explanation for your child's symptoms, it's time to take a closer look at other pressures or stresses that could explain this behavior."

While parents can try to manage school avoidance on their own, Francis says that if it lasts for more than a few weeks, it may be best to seek help from a mental health professional such as a clinical child psychologist or child psychiatrist.