How To Handle Children That Refuse School
If you’ve spent every morning for the last several weeks, trying to convince your panicked, anxiety-ridden child to go to school, only to see them immediately brighten up when they are allowed to stay home, then you might have encountered the term “school refusal” by now.
School refusal, a form of extreme anxiety, is caused by a number of factors, including long breaks from school or serious anxiety disorders. Symptoms of school refusal range in severity.
Such a complex and persistent situation likely leaves you wondering, “What can I do?”
The answer is twofold.
Helpful Strategies For Refusal To Attend School
Some “quick-fixes” will help your child in the moment and become more effective over time. While other “long-term fixes” prepare an environment in which your school-refusing child can re-enter school comfortably.
5 Morning “Quick-Fixes” For Refusal To Attend School
1. Eliminate Illness
School-refusing children often complain of stomach aches, headaches, or backaches. These symptoms usually go away if they are allowed to stay home.
Rule out legitimate sickness and check for signs of a fever, rash, swollen glands or other signs of illness.
Remind your child that in the absence of scientific evidence of illness, they’re well enough for school. Assure your child that a nurse is there to help with illnesses when needed.
2. Choose a “Safety” Strategy
Have your child choose a “safety” strategy to help he or she relax intense emotions. Deep breathing and calming music are effective ways to ease stress and anxiety.
When you see anxieties begin to build, remind him or her that it’s time to focus on the chosen safety strategy, and then practice it alongside your child. Take it a step further by helping them recognize how this makes he or she feel better.
3. Infuse Positivity
Sometimes children can feel like they’re drowning in overwhelming panic and anxiety.
Just as deep breathing relaxes tension, positive imagery can ease children out of their fears and negativity.
So, help your child focus on the things they like about school, like their favorite teacher, their best friend, or their favorite class. Even if your child likes only one small thing, such as a comfortable chair in the library, focus on it.
4. Be Firm but Gentle
Make it clear that your child is going to school, leaving no choice to stay home. You can accomplish this by making firm but gentle statements and avoiding open-ended questions.
For example, state, “What a great day it’s going to be at school! It’s time for breakfast.” Don’t ask, “How do you feel this morning?”
The statement firmly but positively says that school is the only option. It also gives your child a first, manageable task of eating breakfast.
On the other hand, the question allows your child to begin the day by focusing on their anxieties and begging to stay home.
5. Be Your Child’s Teammate
Some children are anxious about returning to school after a holiday break or a lengthy absence due to sickness or injury. They might fear to be in a large group again or feel overwhelmed about making up schoolwork.
But, as psychologist Rachel Busman advises, “It is important not to prolong time at home.”
In this case, be your child’s teammate and establish a reasonable re-entry plan with teachers.
For example, you might personally bring a younger child to the classroom 10 minutes before the rest of the class arrives. Or, work with older students’ teachers to determine a reasonable schedule to make up schoolwork and tests.
On tough mornings, remind your child that a plan is in place, and you’re there to help every step of the way.
5 “Long-Term Fixes” For Refusal To Attend School
1. Establish Healthy Routines
All children benefit from predictable schedules and sufficient sleep.
Examine your family’s commitments, and eliminate anything that is too much. Then, determine a reasonable routine, including morning responsibilities, going to school, afternoon and evening activities, and a good bedtime.
Ensure that your children get enough sleep so that they can wake up restored. Talk to your children about why this routine is important, and stick to it.
2. Access the Help of a Mental Health Professional
School refusal can be a symptom of an anxiety disorder, such as separation anxiety disorder or social anxiety disorder.
A mental health professional can evaluate this and recommend a proper course of treatment. While a mental health professional can provide therapy for your child and family, they can also teach you strategies to implement at home, which would be tailored to your child’s specific situation.
3. Meet with Teachers
School personnel can give you great insight into things going on that you might not know about.
You may learn that certain students are causing your child severe anxiety, or that your child suffers from extreme performance anxiety in class. Not only will you gain valuable insight, but you’ll also form a trusted team to address your child’s situation.
Once you establish a good treatment plan, enlist the school’s support in implementing the plan during school hours.
4. Create an Unattractive School Alternative
Make it clear that if children are allowed to stay home, they cannot play video games, watch TV, accompany you on shopping trips, or even sleep.
5. Consider Enrolling Your Child in a Behavioral Program Near You
Sometimes one of the best options for your child is to enroll him or her in a behavioral program or school refusal program near you. If the current school environment isn’t conducive to their current concerns relating to school, change can be a healthy and beneficial option to consider. This is especially true if your child has dyslexia or ADHD and is working to manage their symptoms associated with these conditions along with the difficulties of disliking or hating school.
Clinical psychologist Barbara Markway says, “You don’t want staying at home to be appealing… If your child does end up staying home and is not ill, have him read, study, sit upright at a desk, and so forth.”
The point is not to be mean, but to avoid reinforcing refusal to attend school with unnecessary amounts of sympathy, attention, and comfort.
Practice Patience When Dealing With Refusal to Attend School
There’s no denying that school refusal is a confusing, frustrating and exhausting situation for parents to manage.
But, you should know that there is a way to overcome school refusal.
Employing strategies like those described above is a great starting point. Asking for the help of a mental health professional and teaming up with the school will help even more. And, in the end, commitment, patience and time will lead the way beyond this rough road.
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