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School Refusal: What to Do If Your Child is Avoiding School

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Does your child repeatedly ask to stay home from school when feeling anxious or afraid? Do anxiety and worry cause your child to skip classes or avoid doing homework? School refusal is a growing problem in the US, affecting up to 5% of children. 

What is school refusal?

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), school refusal is a problem behavior that occurs when a child refuses to go to school on a regular basis or leaves early due to problems staying in school. School refusal can result from several issues related to anxiety, such as fear that something bad will happen to a parent while the child is away, fear of failure, or fear of other students (e.g., bullying). As a parent, it’s important to note that school refusal can manifest in many ways!

What can you do if your child is avoiding school? 

You can start by trying to understand what’s driving the school refusal. What triggers do children avoid by not going to school, and what is gained by staying home? 

For example, are they avoiding school because of social fears? Academic concerns? Or maybe fears of being away from parents? Can they stay cozy in their pajamas in bed all day if they stay home? Understanding the triggers and reinforcers can help create a plan of attack. Some questions to ask your child to understand the root of the problem are: Do you feel anxious? Are you sad? Is there any bullying going on? When do you start to feel these things?

Ok, so what’s the plan of attack? First, you want to make sure to address the underlying reason for the avoidance. For example, if school avoidance is being caused by social fears, you might take your child to a therapist or family counseling center to address these fears.

Simultaneously, you want to make home boring during the school day. This sounds like odd advice, but stick with me! The more comfortable home is during the day, the harder it will be to get your child back to school. So you want to remove access to technology and other preferred activities and give the child who stays home less of your attention. During the week, your child’s options should be to do schoolwork, do nothing, or go to school

With home no longer a cozy option, it can still feel overwhelming for children to face their fears at school. So it can be helpful to enlist the support of school personnel and possibly a therapist to build a step-wise plan for your child to return to school. You could, for example, practice driving past the school, then entering the building, then staying for half a day. Empathize with how challenging these steps feel and encourage your child to continue moving forward. 

Once you see positive steps in the right direction (for example, starting to attend half days at school), it’s important to praise your child’s effort! You can also consider providing tangible rewards for brave steps forward.

How can I help my child’s anxiety?

If children are avoiding school due to anxiety, there are a few steps to help them feel less anxious:

  1. Empathize, then encourage. Let children know they are not alone in their feelings, and then encourage them to take small steps to address their fears.
  2. Refocus your attention on brave behaviors. It’s easy to get stuck focusing on your child’s anxious avoidance behaviors. The behaviors you give attention to are the ones that grow. Refocus your attention on your child’s brave steps forward, “watering the roses and not the dandelions.”
  3. Call for reinforcement when needed. This can be your child’s school, therapist, pediatrician, neighbors, friends, or family members!

Additional Resources:

If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialists can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

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By: InStride Health

About InStride Health: Co-founded by the clinicians who co-developed the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program (MAMP) at McLean Hospital, the nationally recognized program for children and adolescents with moderate to severe anxiety and OCD, InStride Health offers technology-enhanced mental health treatment. Through this innovative care model, InStride is leading the way by providing much-needed, insurance-based access to treatment that works for kids, teens, and young adults with moderate to severe anxiety and OCD. Driven by the belief that children and families living with mental health struggles deserve better access and outcomes, InStride is more than a continuum of care—it’s a pathway to a healthier life and hope for a more promising future.

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