School Refusal in Children

Jessica Conaway, MS
Licensed Mental Health Counselor
Play Therapist

Children have a tendency, every once in a while, to not want to go to school. School is not often thought of as an enjoyable experience and more often associated with work. This is normal part of development if it doesn’t occur frequently, if it doesn’t cause your child extreme distress, or cause chaos in your house hold. If these three situations present themselves then you may be looking at a situation of school refusal. The term “school refusal” used to be more or less synonymous with truancy, invoking a picture of kids hanging out on the street corner, or holed up in their bedrooms playing video games. But today the term is used to describe the avoidance of school due to internal distress, not necessarily due to defiance.

While it is true that some game-playing might well be involved, it’s important to understand that school refusal is not the same as playing hooky. It isn’t driven by the allure of having fun outside of school, but rather by an aversion to school itself. There are many reasons that this situation developed. I encourage parents to look at the motivation behind the behavior instead of immediately labeling the behavior defiant. If we get to the root cause of the struggle ie anxiety, bullying, learning disabilities, ADHD, or separation anxiety, then we can be able to provide your children with tools and coping skills that can help navigate their fear or anxiety responses and make school a more pleasurable experience for both you and them.

It is important to get the child back to school, because the longer the child is away the harder it is likely to be to go back. Try to deal with the cause if you can work out what it is from the ideas above. You need to believe that your child will get over the problem and let your child know that you believe that they will get through this. Try not to let them see that you are worried. Listen to your child and encourage them to tell you about their feelings and fears. Let them know that you can understand how they feel. For example say, “That feels really scary to you”. Don’t make fun of their feelings and don’t tell them that big kids aren’t scared because everyone is afraid sometimes. If you are not listening and understanding what they are saying, your child will find it hard to tell you when they are worried.

Check with the teacher what is happening at school. It is important that you develop a good relationship with your child’s teacher and that your child knows this. Parents and the teacher are the most important adults in your child’s life while they are at school. Check your child’s planner for school notes every day to know what is happening. Make sure your child knows that you will always come back to pick them up- tell her over and over again if you need to. Let the child know about the boring things you will be doing at home while they are at school. Be reliable and on time when picking your child up after school. Have a plan for times when you might have to be late. Sometimes it is helpful if the child says good-bye to you at home and a friend’s parent takes her to school. Sometimes parents can volunteer to help in the library or elsewhere in the school so the child knows you are near until they feel safe. Let the child take something of yours in her pocket to mind during the day. Give the child as much control over the problem as you can – ask them what they think will help and then try that.

If the problem still keeps on or if you or your child are getting very upset, extra help may be needed to help get things back on track again. We have great counselor on staff that would be happy to help your family. Please call 407-355-7378 to direct you to a counselor and receive a free consultation today.