When your child refuses to go to school

December 6, 2012 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

Many of us can set our watches by the rituals that unfold on the home front each morning: coffee brewing, bathroom filling with steam, newspaper landing with a thud on the porch, the pre-teen lump under the blankets pleading for “five more minutes.”

But what if, after the headlines have all been read and the coffee mugs rinsed, the lump of blankets hasn’t shifted? What if no amount of cajoling and bargaining will catapult your child into motion?

In short, what do you do if you child refuses to go to school?

Maybe she claims to have a stomachache, headache, sore throat – or other elusive, untestable malady. Although she says she feels better later in the day, the symptoms stubbornly return the next morning. And the morning after that.

Your student might be grappling with an anxiety-based disorder known as “school refusal.”

The reasons behind school refusal can range from the trivial and temporary, such as a pimple or a tough exam – to something more serious, like fear of a school bully. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, between 5 and 28 percent of children exhibit signs of school refusal at some stage of their school careers.

New York State education law requires that all children, ages six through 16, attend school regularly.

So, yes, it’s the law. But it’s more than that. Research shows that children who miss school regularly have less time to ask questions and practice important skills. They also tend to score lower on state tests in English language arts, math, science and social studies. Students who attend regularly learn more and score better on tests, as well as develop good study habits that will eventually serve them well in the working world.

Missed school can harm more than just a child’s academic performance. Again, studies show unresolved anxiety can impair a child’s development and lead to a host of issues later in life, including substance abuse, depression and psychiatric treatment.

So, it’s not OK to let the teen lump just lie there.

How parents respond to the signs of school refusal behavior can have lasting effects not only on the child’s education, but on the entire family. When children stay home from school, parents often have to miss work, which can jeopardize their employment and, by extension, family finances.

Psychologists suggest parents who are dealing with reluctant students take the following steps:

Investigate. If a family doctor can find nothing physically wrong with your child, parents should consider getting a comprehensive evaluation from a mental health professional.

Work with school staff. Talk to the teacher about the problem. Ask if he or she has noticed anything unusual in your child’s behavior or interaction with other children at school that might be triggering the school avoidance behavior; a bully, school performance problems, trouble making friends, etc.

Take steps to get your child back to school, even if it’s gradually. If they return to the classroom for an hour one day, then two hours the next, etc., they’ll eventually realize there is nothing to fear.

Have a plan in place for when your child experiences symptoms while at school. Agree ahead of time, for example, that she’ll go to the nurse’s office for 15 minutes and then return to class if she feels better.

Play up the positive aspects of going to school: friends, favorite subject, playing at recess.

Make home less fun – at least on a school day. If your child knows video games and TV shows will be off-limits if he stays home, school might start sounding better.

Read more about school refusal:

Advice about school refusal from the American Academy of Family Physicians

Understanding the behavior, from the National Association of School Psychologists

What to do when your child refuses to go to school, by the Harvard Health Publications

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