School Refusal or Avoidance

It is estimated that 2-5% of children experience some form of school refusal or avoidance during their school years. School refusal could be demonstrated in various ways, including significant separation anxiety from a parent, fear of being in a crowded place, social anxiety, bullying, academic difficulties, and low self-esteem. Additionally, significant life changes may also increase the severity of a child’s school refusal. Common changes that many children experience include: a new sibling, moving to a new area, a parental separation or divorce, or the loss of a loved one. When children refuse to attend school, parents often feel helpless and find themselves becoming frustrated and worried. Siblings are also impacted, as they may witness his or her sibling’s tantrums, meltdowns, anger outbursts, and their parents’ frustration. 

School Hallway
School Avoidance by Children

School Avoidance Symptoms

School refusal or avoidance can occur at any age, but it has been found to be more common in elementary age children. The following are common behaviors that children of all ages experiencing significant school refusal symptoms often display:

  • Become emotional when school is mentioned
  • Refusing to get out of bed on weekday mornings
  • Difficulties falling asleep the night before a school day
  • Refusal to get into the car before school
  • Frequent visits to the school nurse
  • Somatic complaints, such as stomachaches, headaches, and nausea
  • Calls to parents asking to be picked up from school early 

How Can I Help My Child?

What do I do if my child is refusing to attend school?

  • Seek professional help. School refusal is often a symptom of a more significant problem. Meeting with a professional, such as a child psychologist, can help the child and parents uncover an underlying problem that the child may be facing. For example, a child may have significant academic difficulties and may avoid certain subjects instead of asking for help. It is often also common for children to avoid reporting significant bullying due to fears of being bullied more or being ostracized by peers. A child psychologist can provide the child with a safe environment to identify significant problems that they may be facing, while providing parents with the appropriate psychoeducation to effectively communicate with their child.
  • Meet with the school director, teachers, and guidance counselors to discuss triggers to the child’s behaviors. Parents should be able to express any concerns they have with their child’s school and set up an appropriate plan to help the child better adapt to the school. 
  • Slowly reintroduce the child to the school environment. If the child has missed a significant amount of school, it may be necessary to reintroduce the child to his or her classroom, cafeteria, school library, and any other important areas of the child’s school. During this time, the child can ask any questions or identify any emotional reactions they may experience. 
  • Encourage the child to participate in various school activities. Joining sports or school clubs can help your child build a more secure social support system in school and help increase his or her confidence around peers.

School refusal is difficult for both parents and children. Contact Miami Psychology Group for individual child therapy and family therapy services if you believe your child is refusing or avoiding school.