Anxiety Insights

School Refusal

When Kids Won’t Go to School

Although most children will refuse to go to school occasionally or play hooky, “school refusal” is when a child refuses to go to school or stay at school on a regular basis. Often the child complains of physical symptoms such as a stomachache or headache in order to miss that day of school, arrive late, leave early, or spend a lot of time in the nurse’s office. It’s important to follow up with the child’s pediatrician to rule out a medical condition. However, in many cases “school refusal” can be a symptom of an anxiety disorder such as social phobia or separation anxiety.
Anxiety: School RefusalStarting kindergarten, changing schools, and stressful life events can trigger school refusal. Or, the child may have fear of failure, fitting into a social group, a particular teacher or of another student. School refusal commonly takes place at ages five to six, ages ten to eleven, and when transitioning to junior high or high school.

Getting a comprehensive evaluation from a mental health professional will help to identify the anxiety disorder(s) the child is facing and help determine the best treatment. In the meantime, the child should be kept in school since missing school reinforces anxiety rather than lessens it.

Coping Strategies for School Anxieties

  1. Expose your child to school in small degrees, increasing exposure slowly over time. Eventually this will help them realize there is nothing to fear and that nothing bad will happen.
  2. Talk with your child about feelings and fears, which helps reduce them.
  3. Emphasize the positive aspects of going to school: being with friends, learning a favorite subject and playing at recess.
  4. Arrange an informal meeting with your child’s teacher away from the classroom.
  5. Meet with the school guidance counselor for extra support and direction.
  6. Try self-help methods with your child. In addition to a therapist’s recommendations, a good self-help book will provide relaxation techniques. Be open to new ideas so that your child is, too.
  7. Encourage hobbies and interests. Fun is relaxation, and hobbies are good distractions that help build self-confidence.
  8. Help your child establish a support system. A variety of people should be in your child’s life—other children as well as family members or teachers who are willing to talk with your child should the occasion arise.