School Refusal Fact Sheet

According to the ADAA, as many as five in 100 school-age children refuse to attend school.

What happens when that child is yours?

School refusal can happen for a variety of reasons and presents challenges for both you and your child. Since school participation is important for your child, it’s necessary to understand the facts about school refusal.

Use this school refusal fact sheet to help you and your child identify, manage, and relieve school refusal.

What is School Refusal?

School refusal occurs when your child experiences distress about school attendance or is unable to attend school. Every morning, your child may cry, get sick, yell, scream, or fight. It’s a daily battle that’s exhausting, frustrating and troubling.

The condition is driven by an anxiety and isn’t caused by a specific phobia or behavior choice. Often, a child who struggles with school refusal also experiences social anxiety, separation anxiety or depression.

An undiagnosed learning or reading difficulty or disability may also contribute to school refusal.

Chronic school refusal can cause your child to experience:

  • Poor grades
  • School dropout
  • Future employment challenges
  • Delinquent behavior
  • Fatigue, sleep problems
  • Stomach ache, nausea, abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea, irritable bowel
  • Moodiness, clinginess, tantrums
  • Fear of leaving parents or home
  • Isolation, loss of social interactions

As you can see, school refusal has impactful consequences and should be viewed as a concern by both you and your child.

Who is Prone to School Refusal?

Statistics indicate that one in four children will refuse to attend school in some form during their academic career.

School refusal affects boys and girls equally, and children across the world experience this condition.

It can peak at any age or grade level and may be prompted before entry into a new school, like middle or high school. However, your child could refuse to attend school at other times, too.

Why Does a Child Refuse to Attend School?

When you understand why your child refuses to attend school, you can take steps to address his or her challenges. Typically, school refusal stems from six specific roots.

  • Escape stressful school situations.
  • Evade unpleasant social or performance situations.
  • Avoid anxiety
  • Cope with changes or traumas at home
  • Seek attention

Keep in mind that school refusal differs from truancy (absence from school without permission). Truant children often create a complex scheme that allows them to skip school. This behavior often stems from a delinquency or a poor behavior decision, not anxiety. Typically, older children choose truancy, but school refusal affects kids of all ages.

What Steps can you Take if Your Child Exhibits School Refusal?

While you must take school refusal seriously, whether it occurs once or often, you can also give your child the help and tools he or she needs to cope with school and better handle the challenges.

1. Gain a professional diagnosis as soon as possible

Watching your child struggle with school refusal is heartbreaking, but school refusal is highly treatable. That’s why it’s important to get a diagnosis as soon as possible.

A psychologist can provide an accurate diagnosis and determine if ADHD, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, or depression contribute to your child’s school refusal.

2. Identify the root cause of school refusal

Talk to your child, school, and doctor to discern why your child refuses to attend school. You can then address the root cause/s and facilitate your child’s return to school.

3. Take your child’s concerns seriously

Listen carefully to your child’s feelings, thoughts, and concerns. Then offer reassurance that you care about his or her safety and well-being.

4. Schedule a visit with your pediatrician

Rule out a medical condition that may cause stomach disorders, fatigue or other physical symptoms your child demonstrates.

5. Consult with other professionals

A psychiatrist may prescribe helpful medication, and a pediatric neurologist can address an underlying neurological trigger or comorbid disorder. Additionally, an education expert can diagnose a learning disability.

6. Remain firm but calm

The situation requires understanding, not anger, as you determine the cause of the school refusal and address your child’s needs.

7. Cooperate with the school

Together, you can address your child’s concerns and create a positive resolution. The school could also provide beneficial supports that encourage your child’s success.

8. Offer incentives

Allow your child to earn privileges for attending school, but remove incentives or free play if your child stays home.

For example, offer the opportunity to earn extra video game time on the days he or she attends school, but don’t allow electronics access when he or she refuses to go to school.

9. Be flexible

Perhaps your child can attend school for one or two classes, then come home to complete the rest of the day’s coursework. Maybe a private school setting with smaller class sizes would help.

Investigate options as you maintain flexibility while helping your child achieve success in school.

10. Remove pressure to perform

Sure, grades can affect your child’s future college choice, but keep the big picture in mind. It’s better for your child to attend school and do his or her best than to feel such intense pressure to get all A’s, thus increasing school anxiety.

Understanding School Refusal

School refusal affects your child now and into the future. Fortunately, there are many options to help ease your child’s anxiety and encourage him or her to engage and participate in school.