School Refusal Vs. Truancy

Example of truancy from group of kids vs school refusalMorning after morning, you might fight the same battle with your child. Perhaps the battle involves tears, tantrums, tugs of war, or complaints of physical ills.

As a parent, you are exhausted. Getting your child to school in the morning has become surprisingly hard.

You watch your child experience physical pain or illness, and your child might even panic about a class presentation or another group of kids.

At the end of your rope, you have trouble understanding what’s going on. Whether your child is little or adolescent, his or her refusal to go to school seems like defiance mixed with something more.

You might wonder, Is my child being truant?

The Difference Between Truancy and School Refusal

When your child persistently refuses to go to school, it’s not unusual to consider truancy, but it’s important to recognize the difference between truancy and school refusal.

What Is Truancy?

Truancy is repeated absenteeism that is not rooted in anxiety.

Truant children often go to school but then leave to engage in other fun activities behind their parents’ backs. Their absences are unexcused, and the activities that they pursue during school hours may, or may not be, illegal.

What Is School Refusal?

School refusal, on the other hand, is “anxiety-based absenteeism”.

Leading scholar Christopher A. Kearney describes it as a “pernicious problem” that leads kids to avoid anxiety-evoking situations at school or to seek more comforting, pleasurable situations at home.

How Anxiety Plays A Role In School Refusal

The key to understanding the difference is the presence of anxiety.

A truant child does not avoid school because of anxiety or fear; rather, he or she will often leave for school willingly, but then cut class or avoid school altogether, in favor of partying, going to the mall, or using substances instead.

The truant student has a calculated plan to miss school and engage in more enjoyable activities.

Parents are usually unaware that their truant child isn’t at school until the school notifies them of an unacceptable number of absences. Each school or district has different rules and consequences regarding truancy, and they are usually clearly listed in the school handbook.

School-refusing students experience a deep-seated anxiety about going to school. This anxiety prompts physical pains, such as headaches, stomachaches, and backaches. Irrational fears can make them feel paralyzed, incapable of leaving the house.

In this case, school-refusing students don’t plan to stay home, but their anxieties become so overwhelming that going to school feels impossible.

Parents either allow their school-refusing child to stay at home, or they are called to come to school and bring home their child, whose anxieties are interfering with his or her ability to stay at school all day.

Helping A Child With School Refusal And Truancy

If your child is being truant, it’s important to intervene immediately.

Any protracted absence can have serious implications on your child’s academic record.
The older your child is, the more likely that prolonged truancy will lead to illegal behavior. Persistently truant students have been known to eventually drop out of school, too.

Also, adolescent truants are often dealing with personal issues and need their parents’ support and guidance.

Examine your child’s academic and social circles, and work with the school to get your child back on track. It might be a hard road, but in the end, it will be worth it.

School refusal can also lead to protracted absences, which can have similar negative effects on your child’s record. Helping your child reduce anxiety and get back into school as quickly as possible is important.

While school refusal can sometimes be resolved with simple at-home intervention strategies, parents should note that it can be linked to anxiety disorders, such as separation anxiety disorder or social anxiety disorder. Mental health professionals can evaluate this and recommend helpful therapy.

Steps For Coping With School Refusal

You are your child’s best advocate, so show your child that you will be his or her teammate as you try to overcome this challenge.

Begin helping your child with these steps:

1. Talk openly and listen

Your child might have anxieties and fears based on a perceived threat at school, such as a group of kids or a type of activity.

Show your child that you are willing to listen and be supportive, and your child will be more inclined to share the things that make him or her anxious. Then you can work together toward a solution.

2. Prepare the night before

Sometimes the mere process of the morning routine is too overwhelming.

So, each night, lay out clothes for the next day, make lunch and pack a backpack. Then, make a checklist of anything that needs to be done in the morning. This will help your child feel more prepared, organized and calm.

3. Breathe deeply and relax

Breathing deeply is very effective in calming anxieties and restoring the body. If your child begins to spin up in the morning, practice deep breathing together.

4. Get a little help from your friends

If your child has a good, trusted friend, arrange for the two to ride the bus or walk to school together. That way, your child can rely on the support of someone familiar and comforting when he or she faces the difficult experience of walking into school.

Related: Parent’s Guide To Treating School Refusal Symptoms

Understanding The Difference Between School Refusal And Truancy

It’s easy for parents to slip into the mindset of “he’s just being difficult” and “get over it and go to school” when they’re faced with a school-refusing child.
But, while chalking this behavior up to a difficult phase or truancy might be common, it’s not helpful. In fact, it can set your child back.

If your child is showing signs of school refusal over a long period of time, your child needs your help. Lead the way by arming yourself with knowledge. Know the difference between truancy and school refusal, and know what school refusal really is and how you can help.

Implement effective at-home strategies and get help from your child’s school and a mental health professional.

Read more from a leading scholar on school refusal, Christopher A. Kearney, by visiting his website.

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