It’s a scenario that plays out in homes before school all across the world.
“I don’t want to go to school.”
“I hate school.”
“I don’t feel well, I can’t go to school today.”
Every child goes through periods of not wanting to school. There can be many contributing factors including friendship conflict or bullying, academic problems or a general desire to be doing other stuff like watching TV, playing video games or hanging out with mates. Just the same as adults not wanting to go to work when it’s a beautiful day out or we are feeling tired, kids can feel that way too!
Despite their best efforts to get out of it, most children end up at school.
However, when a child’s unwillingness to go to school becomes persistent and outweighs their parents’ ability to make them attend, this becomes a problem.
What is school refusal?
School refusal or school phobia is different from absenteeism or truancy (wagging) and occurs when a child becomes severely emotionally distressed when taken to school or even at the very thought of school. Crying, tantrums, clinginess and/or running away before school can be signs of school refusal. Complaints of headache, stomachache or other illnesses are also common in these circumstances and may be symptoms of anxiety or stress.
There could be a number of contributing factors to a child’s refusal to attend school. Separation anxiety, conflict with teachers or peers, learning difficulties or even problems at home are just a few of the possible causes.
According to Monash University’s School Refusal Program, school refusal occurs in one to two percent of school children and is a difficult problem to manage for both parents and teachers.
Other than being detrimental to a child’s education, school refusal can lead to social and emotional problems, as well as having a negative impact on academic and vocational opportunities in the future.
What can parents do?
Some tips to help deal with school refusal include:
- Listen to your child and encourage them to share what’s going on for them. Do not dismiss their feelings or concerns.
- Remain calm to avoid exacerbating your child’s distress.
- Establish a clear routine for school drop off and pick up so that your child knows what to expect and what is expected of them.
- Reward your child for positive and appropriate behaviour in relation to school attendance.
- Get any physical complaints such as headaches and stomach pains checked out to eliminate any underlying physical causes.
- Talk to your child’s teacher about strategies and additional supports available to make your child feel comfortable at school. The teacher may also be able to help identify causes for school refusal.
- See a professional such as a psychologist or counsellor who is experienced in dealing with school refusal.
The Kids Matter website has great information for families and professional about school refusal, including a video.
The Monash program lists some useful books to help families dealing with school refusal:
- Aisbett, B (various) Living with It book series (books on anxiety and panic attacks). Harper Collins Publishers.
- Kearney, C (2007) Getting Your Child to Say “Yes” to School. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Rapee, R, Spence, S, Wignall, A and Cobham, V (2008) Helping Your Anxious Child: A Step by Step Guide for Parents (2nd Edition). Oakland, California: New Harbinger.
- Wever, C (1994) The School Wobblies. Sydney: Shrink Rap Press.