Managing Your Child's Refusal to Go to School

  • If your children are like others, they may experience a case of the jitters as the school year begins. This is a common and normal reaction. Feeling tense and anxious about homework, making friends, and meeting new teachers can make some children even fear going back to school. But most adjust well as soon as they settle into a routine.


    Some children, however, can't seem to calm down and, in extreme cases, even refuse to go to school at all. These children may have school refusal. Like other anxiety-based disorders, school refusal can interfere with your child's academic, behavioral, emotional, and social development. And, like most other disorders, it can and should be treated.

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    Refusing to attend school
    School refusal describes a child who refuses to go to school on a regular basis or has problems staying in school. Be concerned if your child complains regularly about feeling sick on school days or asks to stay home from school with minor physical complaints, such as stomachaches or headaches that are not related to a physical illness.


    Children with school refusal may complain of physical symptoms shortly before it is time to leave for school or repeatedly ask to visit the school nurse. If allowed to stay home, symptoms usually disappear quickly, only to reappear the next morning. In extreme cases a child may even refuse to leave the house.

    Common physical symptoms include headaches, stomachaches, nausea, or diarrhea. But occasionally children will have tantrums, separation anxiety, and defiance, too.

    Reasons for school refusal
    Starting a new school year, like moving and other stressful life events, can trigger school refusal. Other reasons may include fear that something will happen to a parent, fear about not doing well in school, or fear of a teacher or another student.


    How you can help
    Ask your pediatrician to recommend a mental health professional who works with children. Have your child evaluated to reveal the reasons for your child's school refusal and determine the best course of treatment.

    Many treatment options are available, including different types of talk and play therapy and a variety of medications. Learn more about finding help for children and treating anxiety disorders in children with medication.

    Meanwhile, do your best to keep your child in school. Missing school reinforces anxiety rather than alleviating it. These tips will help you and your child develop coping strategies for school anxieties and other stressful situations.

    • Encourage your child to talk openly and honestly about feelings and fears, which helps reduce them.
    • Try to elicit from your child the positive aspects of going to school: being with friends, learning a favorite subject, and playing at recess.
    • Arrange an informal meeting with your child's teacher away from the classroom.
    • Meet with the school guidance counselor for extra support and direction.
    • Try self-help methods with your child. A good self-help book will provide relaxation techniques. Be open to new ideas so that your child is, too.

  • • Encourage hobbies and interests that help build self-confidence.

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    • Help your child establish a support system: other children as well as family members or teachers who are willing to talk with your child should the occasion arise.
    • Read more about school refusal or avoidance.



    The Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) provides information and checklists for parents to find help for their children, as well as how to find a therapist who treats anxiety disorders.


    PLEASE NOTE: The Anxiety Disorders Association of America does not endorse or promote any specific medications or treatments.

Published On: September 16, 2009