As a parent, the stress of facing repeated mornings of your child crying and refusing to go to school can be incredibly overwhelming. Some days you may feel empathy and want to keep your child safe at home. But other days you totally lose your cool and desperately want to pick them up and force them in the car in their pajamas. It can be hard to know what to do when your child refuses to go to school and how best to handle the situation.
In our last post, we covered several reasons why your child might be refusing to go to school. If you missed it, check it out here. This week, we are diving into our top 10 strategies to consider if your child is refusing school.
1) Validate Emotions
Always start with validating your child’s emotions. Let them know that it’s ok to be worried or afraid. It happens to everyone, including you. Anxiety thrives and grows when it is hidden. Talking about it gives it less power in your child’s life. Your child needs to know that their emotions are valid and normal.
2) Have Firm Boundaries
It is also important to have firm boundaries about going to school early on to prevent school refusal from getting worse. Anxiety grows stronger through avoidance. As painful as it feels to send your child to school crying or anxious, know that the anticipation of separating from you is the WORST part and those heightened feelings usually does not last long.
If your child is in a pattern of consistent school refusal, try to make home life as boring as possible. If you child is refusing to attend school, you do not want to complicate the problem by making home much more fun than school. Fun activities, including screen time (video games, television, YouTube), should only be used minimally (e.g., when your child finishes their schoolwork at home).
3) Consider an Evaluation
If your child’s school refusal has gone on for weeks, months, or years, then it is time to schedule an evaluation to pinpoint the causes for your child’s refusal (remember: it is often anxiety, depression, learning differences, etc.). This information will help you know exactly what supports your child needs to successfully transition back to school or to attend school consistently.
In a school evaluation, they will often do a functional behavior assessment (FBA) to determine why your child might be refusing and to develop a positive behavior support plan to help your child. If your child has had significant absences due to school refusal, we strongly recommend that you write a letter to your school requesting an evaluation (see our school testing guide for a sample letter).
4) Find a Therapist
Once you have a clear idea about why your child is refusing to attend school, it is important to find a therapist who can work with you, your child, and your school team to make a plan to help your child get back to school. We strongly recommend finding a therapist who specializes in anxiety and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of therapy teaches parents and children how to manage their worry thoughts and face their fears.
5) Work Closely With Your School
It is essential that you are in constant communication with your school team and have a good working relationship with them. It is important for everyone to be on the same page. Let the school staff know how they can support you when your child arrives at school. It is often helpful to have a point-person at the school who you can contact regularly. It is often best if this is a counselor or administrator, as your child’s teacher is often with other students throughout most of the day.
6) Teach Relaxation Skills and Talk Back to Worries
When your child is anxious, they get a rush of adrenaline and their body goes into fight or flight mode. Help your child identify where they are feeling worries in their body (e.g., stomach ache, racing heart, fast breaths, dizzy, shaky, sick or vomiting). Then explain to them that those feelings are anxiety. Those feelings are awful and unpleasant, but the feelings won’t hurt them. You can get started on teaching your child techniques to manage that fight or flight response using our Free Kids Relaxation Guide.
I also love having kids give anxiety a silly name and teaching them to talk back to their anxiety. For instance, my daughter calls her anxiety her “Worry Bully”. Check out this post for more details on how to teach your child to talk back to their worries.
7) Modify and Accommodate
If your child has had an evaluation, you will hopefully have a better sense of how to support your child at school. If your child has learning differences, then your child might get extra interventions. Assignments might be modified to be easier or more challenging depending on their needs. For instance, if your child is anxious about reading out loud or talking in front of the class, your child might receive accommodations for these activities to minimize their anxiety.
8) Take Steps Up the Fear Ladder
Remember how anxiety grows bigger through avoidance? That means the way your child will overcome school refusal is by doing the thing that they fear – going to school. It is important for your child to create a worry ladder. If your child has been out of school for a long time, you will start small. For instance, your child might only be going to school and sitting in the parking lot. And then maybe going to school and sitting in the front office. To learn more about how to create a fear ladder, check out this blog post.
9) Give Lots of Praise and Rewards
It is so hard for your child to take small steps to face their fears. That panic feeling that comes with anxiety is no joke. And when your child ignores those false alarms and sits with their anxiety, it is a HUGE accomplishment. It is important to make a plan so that your child can earn really fun rewards when they stick with it and take those small steps to face their fears.
10) Expect Setbacks
Remember that the process of helping your child overcome school refusal is not linear. Expect two steps forward and one step back. Your child might have days where they feel brave and able to face their fears. And then your child might have days when it is just overwhelming and they take a step back. That is OK and to be expected. Hang in there, be consistent, validate your child’s feelings, and try again tomorrow.
I hope you have an amazing week!