Understanding & Overcoming School Refusal

child’s refusal to go to schoolSo, your child does not want to go to school. To a parent, this may seem like he or she is bored, or simply being lazy. However, for many children, it is a condition known as school refusal.

If your child is exhibiting these signs, it is important to understand their emotional distress before insisting they go to school. They could be fearful of a particular situation or even scared of certain people.

It’s a natural reaction to acknowledge their signs of school refusal while still continuing to encourage school attendance, but this could make matters worse.

This is not an uncommon issue. And fortunately, there is help and support for all of your child’s needs.

What Is School Refusal?

First, it is important to know what school refusal is not.

School refusal is not the same as a child that is truant. A truant child is one that has no feelings of fear associated with going to school. Rather, they are bored with school or angry about it. It is also not the same as separation phobia or social anxiety. These are different conditions as well.

What really defines school refusal is the link between attending school and experiencing emotional distress. These children do not want to go to school for one or several different reasons, but nearly always because there is a valid emotional distress present.

Understanding School Refusal Signs

It’s true that most every parent struggles with getting their children back into the groove of school after summer break.

For most children, the feelings of dreading school ease as the year moves forward.

However, for others, every day is a struggle. Mornings are an incredible battle in which you feel guilty forcing your child to go to school. Some may refuse to eat breakfast. Others won’t even get out of bed.

Perhaps, the most important factor to understand is that these signs of school refusal are not a direct reflection of your child being “bad.” It is not a behavioral problem at all.

This is actually a form of emotional stress. And, if your child is showing these signs, chances are he or she can benefit from help.

Signs of school refusal include:

  • Complaints of physical illness so bad they cannot go to school, but symptoms disappear after they’re allowed to stay home.
  • Frequent visits to the school nurse, but symptoms improve at home.
  • Evidence of separation anxiety from family members or other trusted adults.
  • Sudden mood and behavioral changes that often include tantrums.
  • Discussions of bad experiences at school including trauma, fear of people, bullying or a bad teacher.

If your child is displaying some of these school refusal signs, don’t immediately assume they are being difficult.

In fact, school refusal can manifest in real pain and discomfort. A child complaining of a stomach ache before school isn’t faking it. Rather, he or she may have so much emotional stress that they really do feel abdominal pain.

Helping Your Child Overcome School Refusal

Children showing signs of school refusal are not “bad” nor are they immature. Generally, they are bright children. Many of them have previously done well in school.

School refusal can impact children at any age but it is most common at kindergarten and then tends to resurface around ages 10 or 11.

As a parent, there are numerous things you can do to help your child overcome school refusal.

Don’t Ignore the Problem

Because school refusal is not a behavioral problem, you cannot ignore it and assume it will just go away.

At the same time, you can’t force your child to go to school as this can be traumatic. Forcing them to do something he or she is very afraid of is never going to result in a positive outcome.

Recognize there is a problem and then work to understand what it is.

Discuss Concerns with Those Who Can Help

Schedule a meeting with your child’s teacher and school counselor.

It is important to investigate what is happening at school that’s causing school refusal. Identify where the emotional distress is originating.

Teachers and administrators also should be able to help you understand what your options are for helping your child continue to receive the education he or she needs. In some situations, an IEP can help children to overcome educational limitations.

Meet with a Family Therapist

Do not delay in scheduling a meeting with a family therapist.

This is one of the most important steps to take for a child who is in the midst of an emotional battle and displays signs of school refusal.

Whether it’s a new struggle, or ongoing, family therapy helps to bring about adaptive strategies and solutions that can be used in a variety of situations.

Don’t Fight, But Listen

Your interactions with your child are critical.

No matter what has happened previously, sit down and talk to your child. Be supportive. Listen to what they are saying. Do not shame, embarrass, or otherwise demean him or her for not wanting to go to school.

Instead, talk through it and discuss their reasons. Sometimes, these go deeper beyond surface level and it might take some time for the full story to come out. Be patient and be ready to talk when they want to open up.

Work with Your Child to Find Solutions

As you discuss the causes of school refusal, find ways to deal with it.

For example, if your child is refusing to go to school because he or she is afraid of an encounter with another child, offer solutions. Use realistic strategies like role-playing and rehearse statements your child can use to help them through the situation.

Build a Friend Network

While having friends can help your child enjoy school, it also provides them with a safety net when you cannot be there.

For some children, it isn’t easy to build relationships and make friends. Work with other parents to create opportunities for one-on-one interactions. Over time, this can help your child to develop stronger bonds and more confidence.

Solutions for Handling School Refusal

School refusal does not offer a fast and easy solution.

Most children will need ongoing support and encouragement. However, once you can identify and recognize the origin of your child’s emotional distress can you begin implementing strategies to help get them through it.

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