If any of you have had your child refuse to go to school, either now or in the past, you know how frustrating and challenging this can be. And what can simply begin with your child not wanting to go to school or not feeling well once a week, can rapidly deteriorate into weeks, months, or even years of school refusal. Over the past few years, I (Lori) have worked with a number of families facing school refusal, and I can tell you that the situation is hard on everyone – the child, the parents, and the school staff. And once in a pattern of refusal, it can be very hard to work your way out. But I want to encourage you that it is possible! So, let’s first jump into finding out why it is happening.
Why is My Child Refusing School?
This is a difficult question and varies from child to child. There can be a number of reasons for your child not wanting to go to school, so we will discuss some of the most common:
If your child is refusing to go to school, there is a very good chance they are experiencing anxiety. Many times children will not vocalize that they are worried, but they may experience headaches, vomiting, stomachaches, or other physical symptoms associated with anxiety. So, if your child is saying they feel sick, that might actually be the case. However, it may not be due to an illness and rather due to anxiety. When a child is experiencing anxiety, their body gets a heavy shot of adrenaline, which causes them to either fight or flee the situation that is causing the anxiety. So at school, you might see children running away from campus or fighting parents/school staff. I have seen many children labeled as oppositional or defiant, when in reality these children were experiencing panic/anxiety. There are different types of anxiety, and it can be helpful to identify the type in order to effectively help your child.
- Separation anxiety: One study found that 80% of children with school refusal had a diagnosis of separation anxiety. If your child is refusing school, separation anxiety is a likely culprit. In my own personal experience, every child I have seen in the past with significant school refusal was in part refusing due to separation anxiety. How do you know if your child has separation anxiety? Children with separation fears will have difficulty saying goodbye to parents, fear that their parents will leave and not come back/die/get hurt, check frequently to see where their parents are in the house, follow their parent around the house constantly, and avoid separating from a parent.
- Social anxiety/performance fears: Children with social anxiety show a great deal of anxiety in situations with peers or authority figures. They may be afraid of being made fun of or embarrassing themselves when talking to friends/teachers, taking tests, or giving presentations. This type of anxiety often develops from negative experiences with peers (bullying or teasing) or negative learning experiences (more on that below).
Children who are suffering from depression can also experience physical symptoms making it hard to go to school. For instance, children might sleep a lot or having trouble waking, not get very much sleep, eat too much or too little, or generally just feel fatigued/unwell. When we think of depression, we often mistakenly think of kids feeling sad or crying frequently. Though this can be the case, often when kids are depressed it manifests in a lot of irritability, anger, and meltdowns/rages.
3) Specific Learning Disorders
Sometimes, children have underlying learning disorders that are causing school to be very hard. They might be working twice as hard as their peers only to still find themselves falling behind and failing tests and assignments. This can lead to a lot of shame, embarrassment, and anxiety in general. If your child is struggling with schoolwork, it might be time to evaluate to see if there is a specific learning disorder (dyslexia, dygraphia, or dyscalculia). If your child is not receiving needed accommodations or interventions at school, then the anxiety will likely continue. And if your child is already diagnosed with a learning disorder, it may be that their current supports at school aren’t quite enough.
Many times our kids come home complaining of being called names or kids doing mean things to them. Sometimes we brush it off and just say it is “kids being kids”. But for most kids, this is causing a lot of distress and anxiety, and they might start to fear social interactions. If your child is complaining of teasing from peers, talk to the teacher/principal so the issue can be addressed immediately. If it is happening to your child, more than likely it is happening to others.
When it comes to school refusal, it can be easy to say that the child just wants to stay home to not have to do work and get extra video game time. And though fun activities at home in lieu of school can certainly contribute to a child refusing, it is almost never the primary reason. So if your child is not wanting to go to school, make sure you dig a little deeper. Try to ask questions, so you can better understand how to help and support your child.
If your child is currently refusing school and you are not sure how to address it, don’t worry, we will be addressing that in another post. In the meantime, check out some of our other posts on how to help your child with worry thoughts and behaviors and our Free Kids Relaxation Guide!
Have a wonderful week!