School Phobia: What to do when your child is afraid to go to school

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It's that time of year again.   Most children and parents are gearing up for a new school year.   But some children will have an especially hard time of it because they have what is called school phobia, school avoidance, or school refusal.   The literature    states that school phobia affects up to five percent of school age children.   Although one might think this would be due to a younger child's separation issues, the majority of children who have school phobia are between 8-13 years old. And according to organizations like Phobics-Awareness, children who have ADHD and/or Asperger's syndrome are particularly vulnerable to developing this phobia.

Unfortunately this is not an issue which gets much understanding from the public or from school personnel.   I viewed one forum which discussed school phobia where a principal's advice was for the parent and child dealing with school phobia to "just suck it up."   For the child who has this, it is not something they can simply be talked out of nor can the behavior change overnight.   This is a very real fear which produces great anxiety and even panic for the child.

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D. explains school phobia in a way most of us can understand:

"Think about it. For some kids, going to school is like confronting a vicious dog every day. For them, school is a place where they can't succeed, where they feel bad about themselves, where they constantly fall short of adult and peer expectations. For them, every math lesson is another opportunity to show how stupid they are; every group project an occasion to disappoint their classmates; every test, quiz, and question-and-answer session a chance to be humiliated again. Day after day, year after year, they are thrown into the situation they fear most."

Why do some children develop school phobia?

Here are some of the possible reasons cited in the literature:

  • The child is being bullied
  • They have moved to a new area or have changed schools
  • They have experienced a loss
  • Feeling unpopular with peers and that they have no friends
  • Experiencing academic failure
  • Sensitive to the loud noises (bells ringing, fire alarms), crowds of children, or other sensory stimuli the child deems as frightening.
  • Having problems with teasing or threats on the way to and from school.
  • Changes in home life or structure including the arrival of a new baby, divorce, or illness of a parent

Another reason children may fear going to school as reported by the American Psychological Association is the use of disciplinary methods which are punitive in nature and attack the child's self esteem.   Unfortunately for some children, school can be a very unpleasant experience.

What are some of the signs that your child may have school phobia?

  • Your child complains frequently of such ailments as headaches, stomach aches or fatigue.
  • Clinginess and tantrums especially in the morning before going to school
  • Trouble going to sleep and having nightmares
  • Fears about the safety of family members
  • Panic attacks when it is time to go to school

How can a parent help their child who doesn't want to go to school?

  • Although your child's fear may seem irrational, quite often there are some very real reasons why a child may wish to avoid school. It is important to talk to your child to see from your child's perspective, what they may be experiencing and why.

  • Get perspective and guidance from your child's teachers and school staff as soon as this problem begins. You will need to get a well rounded view of what is actually going on in your child's school environment.

  • Get your child a physical to make sure that there isn't some underlying medical cause for his or her ailments.

  • Get involved with your child's school. Go to school activities and volunteer to learn more about the school.

  • Ask for assistance from the school. For example if your child becomes overly anxious at school he or she may be allowed to visit the nurse or counselor's office to regroup and feel safe before returning to the classroom.

  • Enlist the help of one of your child's school peers. The teacher can assign a buddy to walk with your child to his or her classes. Get to know the parents of other children in the class and invite some of your child's classmates over for a pizza party or a movie. The more your child feels accepted and supported by his or her peers, the more likely they will feel less fearful about school.

  • Try to find the underlying cause of your child's anxiety if you can and work to develop an individualized plan with the school to help your child to overcome his or her fears.

  • If the problem is extreme then it may be time to enlist the help of a child or family therapist.

There are no easy answers when it comes to helping a child who has a school phobia.   As with any phobia it will take time for the child to overcome their fear.   It is best to address such a problem early on before it grows to a point where you cannot get the child to go to school at all.   Take the time to listen to your child.   Early identification and treatment of this issue will increase your child's chance for success at school.