What is School Refusal?

Provide support to a child who is refusing to go to school.
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Previously referred to as school phobia, school refusal is a term used to describe the wide range of reasons children refuse to go to school. While anxiety is at the root of some children’s school refusal, others may refuse to go to school due to social issues.

The statistics on school refusal vary slightly among studies. But most of the research indicates school refusal occurs in two to five percent of school-age children.

School Refusal Vs. Truancy

School refusal is often confused with truancy, but they’re not the same thing. Students who are truant hide their absences from their parents. They may get on the bus as if they’re going to school, but then spend the day with friends. Or they may skip classes throughout the day.

School refusal involves emotional distress. Children may beg to stay home, or may complain of physical illness in an attempt to avoid school, but either way, their parents are aware of their non-attendance.

Signs of School Refusal

Sometimes, a child’s desire to avoid school gets worse gradually over time. At other times, a child who normally likes school may suddenly refuse to attend. Both parents and teachers should be on the lookout for signs of school refusal:

  • Physical complaints. Sometimes kids will report headaches and stomach aches before school or throughout the school day. Frequent trips to the nurse’s office are often a sign of emotional distress.
  • Frequent absences. School refusal doesn’t necessarily mean a child stops going to school altogether. Sometimes it involves missing a day or two per week, or a few days per month.  
  • Patterned absences. Children may refuse to go to school when anxiety-provoking events occur. Exams, gym class, and class presentations may cause some children to be absent.
  • Frequent calls home during the day. When school refusal stems from separation anxiety, a child may want to call a parent throughout the school day.
  • Asking a parent to stay home. Children with school refusal may use a variety of tactics to avoid going. Begging and pleading, crying, and temper tantrums are common school avoidance strategies. Sometimes children make excuses about why they don’t need to go to school as well, such as, “We’re just watching a movie today so there’s no reason for me to go.”

How to Address School Refusal

It’s important to address school refusal at the first warning sign. Waiting to see if the problem gets better on its own is more likely to lead to bigger problems.

The more time your child misses from school, the more difficult attending may become. And if your child is experiencing a mental health issue, like depression or anxiety, it’s likely to get worse without treatment.

Tackle school refusal problems from a variety of angles. Talk to your child’s pediatrician to rule out health problems and to determine if a mental health evaluation is necessary.

Meet with school administration to find out what steps can be taken to address any issues that may be occurring at school, such as bullying or academic problems.

A team approach can help support your efforts in getting your child to go to school.

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