What to Do When Your Child Refuses to Go to School
It’s always difficult to hear your children yelling or sobbing that they don’t want to go to school. You may be even more sensitive to their reluctance and anxiety because of what an unpredictable place school has felt like for the past two years.
So, what do you do when you have scrambled to get all your kids’ school supplies and clothes ready for school only to find that you now must coax them to get there? How do you coach 50 pounds or more of pure resistance to leave the house?
It often seems easiest to pick the path of least resistance. If they tell you they have a sore throat, you may wonder if they really are coming down with something and rationalize keeping them home—especially since sending even slightly sick children to school is frowned upon these days.
But there are negative consequences to giving in to your children’s requests to stay home.
First, their anxiety about going to school is not likely to diminish and may actually get worse. This is because staying home with you, especially for young children, is comforting and highly valued. Many kids don’t get a lot of one-on-one time with their parents, whether due to their own activities or their parents’ busy schedules.
As a result, staying home from school will be very rewarding for your children because they see it as special Mommy or Daddy time they wouldn’t normally get on a school day. After a taste of that, what do you think they are going to choose in the future: going back to school or being with you?
While your children may feel better at home than at school, the social cost of their avoiding school is a clear disadvantage. Many educators and school psychologists like me have seen children struggle with socioemotional challenges like turn-taking, not getting their way, a chilling word from someone, social comparison when a classmate can read a passage more quickly, or a teacher with an unfamiliar teaching style.
All these normal situations are moments for learning and growth, but they can’t happen if your child isn’t at school. Practice makes perfect, and when your children have significantly less time to practice, their skills are less well-developed.
A parent whom I have known for years recently told me that even though it was hard for her at the time, she is glad now that her daughter had some difficult stretches in elementary and middle school because without them, she would be too fragile at college without her parents to help her navigate tricky but common situations.
Many children have missed out on social practice in the past couple of years due to fewer in-person interactions, and what practice they have had has often been with social distancing or masked peers. Both of these safety modifications altered interactions that kids previously experienced, changing their ability to learn from facial cues and physical contact.
School refusal can be a symptom of diagnosable issues, like anxiety. Many children who display school refusal are also anxious and have separation anxiety, social anxiety, or generalized anxiety. Separation anxiety is more common in younger children who worry about leaving their parents or caregiver.
Social anxiety or performance anxiety tends to occur in older children who worry about how their peers will judge them. And generalized anxiety disorder occurs when people worry about multiple situations, which for children, often includes their performance in the classroom.
One thing we have learned about anxiety is that avoiding situations that make us anxious only makes our anxiety stronger. It doesn’t teach us that we can tolerate unpleasant feelings or that what we fear most will probably not happen.
However, people can learn to alter unpleasant feelings in situations that make them anxious by using self-talk, breathing exercises, and distraction to get a handle on their anxiety.
So, what can you do as a parent?
First, reach out to your pediatrician if your children are sharing physical complaints. You want to rule out any medical reason for their symptoms. This is not to say that anxiety doesn’t sometimes manifest itself in physical symptoms, but you want to make sure you don’t overlook a medical issue by assuming the physical complaints are due to anxiety.
Next, connect with the school so that teachers and administrators know what’s going on and so you can partner with them to develop a plan that will be successful for your children.
A cognitive-behavioral plan is commonly employed. This strategy focuses primarily on your children’s cognitions (thoughts and worries) and behavior (avoidance). It teaches children that their anxiety is a warning signal to them and that they can learn to tamp down the intensity of their body’s warning signals.
They are given techniques to practice that help them manage the intensity of these physical symptoms and begin to realize that they can tolerate a certain amount of anxiety. They are also taught how to challenge the thoughts they may be having that increase their anxiety and that are often inaccurate assessments and exaggerations of the truth.
For more in-depth guidance there are some excellent programs and books. A research-based online program called Coping Cats was developed by Phillip Kendall and Muniya Khanna and has been proven highly effective, and its price is lower than that of most single therapy sessions.
There are components for both children and parents, and you purchase access to the program for different lengths of time. There is also an excellent book written by Tamar Chansky, Freeing Your Child from Anxiety. Strategies recommended by both sets of clinicians target coping, teach how to challenge negative self-talk, and encourage positive self-talk that reflects upon past experiences of success. Parent training, goal setting, and rewarding the child for effort and goal attainment are also often part of a plan.
With younger kids, your approach can be less gradual, in part because theirs is more likely general anxiety about separation that can likely be addressed with a few days of school success. For the older child, for whom it may be more likely that a particular event is at the root of the avoidance, gradual re-entry may be the best strategy.
The plan may be for the student to be present for shortened days or with lower work demands or with additional academic support if the anxiety is connected to or associated with performance anxiety.
The bottom line is that even if it seems easier in the short term to let your child stay home from school, the long-term effects of reinforcing their avoidance can have a lasting negative impact on their social and emotional development as well as on their academic achievement.