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 lazy. However, for many children, it is a condition known as school refusal.

If your child is exhibiting school refusal behavior, it is important to understand his or her emotional distress before insisting on going to school. Your child could be fearful of a particular situation or even scared of certain people.

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

School refusal behavior 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 truancy. A truant child is one that has no feelings of fear associated with going to school. Rather, he or she is 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 valid emotional distress present.

Understanding School Refusal Signs

Many parents struggle with sending their kids to school from time to time. Getting children back into the groove of school after summer break is a common time for such a struggle.

For most children, the feelings of dreading school go away as the year moves forward. Parents eventually feel more relaxed, too, and they settle into the rhythm of the school year.

However, for others, this challenge doesn’t get easier. Every day is a struggle, and in some cases, things get worse.

Parents with school-refusing children experience mornings as an incredible battle. Some kids may refuse to eat breakfast. Others won’t even get out of bed. Many complain of physical aches and pains. Parents often feel guilty about forcing their child to go to school.

Perhaps the most important factor to understand is that school refusal behaviors are not a direct reflection of a child being “bad.” It is not a behavioral problem at all; that is, it cannot be solved by punishment or compulsion.

School refusal is actually a form of emotional stress, manifested by physical pains and emotional outbursts. And, if your child is exhibiting school refusal behavior, chances are he or she can benefit from help.

Signs of school refusal include:

  • Complaints of physical illness so bad that your child cannot go to school, but symptoms disappear after he or she is 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 that your child is being difficult. Give the situation your due diligence and rule out real illness.

There are many real illnesses your child could have that haven’t been diagnosed officially. 

For example, a child with anxiety could be experiencing similar symptoms in various areas of life, not just school.  Or, anxiety could amplify when it’s time to go to school because of the nature of school stressors and potential stressors. A child with anxiety might benefit from treatments directly related to anxiety or enrolling in an anxiety program. 

The same is true for a child with learning disabilities such as ADHD or dyslexia.  These are real illnesses that could be causing school refusal symptoms. You might consider enrolling your child in a private school for kids with learning disabilities, an ADHD private school, or something similar, depending on the condition. Addressing illnesses that bring along these symptoms similar to school refusal will help your child in school and in life. 

Once illness is ruled out, understand that your child needs your help to overcome this challenge. As your child’s parent, you can take charge by implementing helpful intervention tactics and forming a network of support that will assist your child in the best way possible.

Helping Your Child Overcome School Refusal

Children with school refusal behavior are not developmentally delayed, disobedient or 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.

Your child’s understanding of this situation is limited. He or she feels physical pain and senses anxiety. But your child probably can’t fully grasp his or her anxiety or begin to work through it. So, he or she will focus on the physical pain or discomfort.

By intervening in a supportive way, you can help your child understand the cause of his or her anxiety, and work to overcome it in a healthy way.

There are numerous things you can do to intervene.

Don’t Ignore The Problem

When parents first encounter school refusal behavior, their initial instinct is often to ignore it and assume it will go away. Others might force their children to go to school, assuming they will “get over it.” Understanding school refusal can allow parents to better manage the situation.

Both instincts, while natural, won’t help. School refusal is real emotional distress, which will not disappear on its own. Children need to learn cognitive and social skills that will help them move past it. Forcing a child into school can be traumatic, as it thrusts a child into something that he or she fears tremendously.

Recognize there is a problem, and then work to understand what it is. Your child needs to know that you are supportive and trustworthy.

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 your child is saying. Do not shame, embarrass, or otherwise demean him or her for not wanting to go to school.

Instead, talk through it. It’s likely that your child will have a hard time articulating his or her emotions, so gently ask questions that help identify the root of the problem.

Avoid “yes or no” questions. Ask your child to describe situations at school. Who does he hang out with at recess? What does she talk about with her friends? What’s her favorite class? What has been the hardest thing in class recently?

Sometimes, things go deeper than surface level and it might take some time for the full story to come out. Be patient and be ready to talk when your child wants to open up.

Related: How To Handle Children That Refuse School

Organize Your Home Environment

Help your child overcome school refusal more easily by creating an organized, structured and calm home environment. Give your home routines a hard look, and eliminate any activities that seem extraneous. Too many activities or responsibilities can put unneeded pressure on kids and overwhelm them.

Develop a well-ordered routine and follow it strictly. Schedule a reasonable amount of extracurricular activities, and then label time for leisure, homework, dinner, and bed. Adding order to your child’s life, as well as enough sleep will lay a solid foundation for other intervention strategies to work.

Work With Your Child To Find Solutions

As you discuss the causes of school refusal, find ways to reduce anxiety and create an environment of calm.

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

You can also help your child practice breathing exercises that will calm anxious feelings. When your child grows anxious in the mornings, pause, sit down with your child and breathe deeply until he or she relaxes.

Build A Friend Network

Having friends can help your child enjoy school, and it also provides him or her 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.

For example, arrange for your child and a friend to ride the bus together or walk to school together. Arriving at school with a trusted buddy might take the edge of anxiety off your child.

You can also organize play dates or after-school activities in your home with your child’s friends, where they can interact in an environment where your child feels safe and comfortable. Over time, this can help your child to develop stronger bonds and feel more confident.

Discuss Concerns With Those Who Can Help

It is important to investigate what is happening at school that’s causing school refusal behavior. Schedule a meeting with your child’s teacher and school counselor. This meeting will help you identify where the emotional distress is originating.

Ask how your child is behaving in school. How is he performing academically? Is she sitting with friends at lunch? Does he engage with other students at recess or during free time? How does she react when she has to talk in front of the class? Get specific, so that you have the best insight into your child’s school experience.

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.

Teachers and school administrators can also make accommodations to help school-refusing children gradually ease back into school.

Meet With A Family Therapist

Do not delay in scheduling a meeting with a family therapist, particularly if your child’s symptoms are severe. 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.

Bringing your child to a therapist might seem scary or daunting, but therapists have access to resources and a wealth of expertise that can help your child where you and the school cannot. 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.

A therapist will thoroughly assess your child’s situation, making sure to understand your child’s experiences in school and at home. Therapists can provide proper treatment for your child’s individual case, and also help your child understand his or her anxiety and learn effective coping strategies. Many children respond positively to this.

Therapists are also able to diagnose a comorbid disorder, such as separation anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, or depression. While school-refusing kids don’t always suffer from an anxiety disorder, many do. In this case, a therapist is an important resource to help with treatment.

Acknowledge Successes

Overcoming school refusal will take time, diligence, and patience. Along the way, you will notice your child make progress. Be sure to acknowledge this, and praise your child when it happens.

Knowing that you see even “baby steps” in the right direction will give your child needed morale boosts. Plus, little bits of praise might lead to more progress. Praise can contribute to your child’s sense of confidence that he or she has the power to get past this struggle.

Solutions For Handling School Refusal Behavior

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 him or her through it.

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