What is school refusal?
What is looks like
Day after day your child complains of headaches before school. She stays home and feels fine by lunch. Yet the next school morning, the symptoms are back. Your child expresses extreme fear, tantrums, and refuses to go to school.
These may be signs of “school refusal.” It is more serious than just a slow-to-warm child who hesitates to leave you in the morning.
How often and when it occurs
According to Wanda Fremont, M.D. writing in American Family Physician, 1% to 5% of all children experience school refusal at some point in their school career. School refusal should be dealt with early, since it can have long-term effects on children’s educational, emotional, and social development.
School refusal is most common when a child first enters elementary school or during the transition to middle school – times of big adjustments. It can be associated with trauma or change at home; for example: moving, divorce, or a new baby. It is often accompanied by anxiety and/or depression.
How it differs from truancy
School refusal differs from truancy.
- With school refusal, children want to stay in the perceived safe environment of home with their parents. Children are usually willing to do their school work – just at home.
- With truancy, children do not want to stay home, they often do not do their school work, and delinquent behavior is frequently present.
So what is a parent to do?
Work with your child
- Listen to your child – Help him to put words to his feelings. He needs to express his emotions in a supportive, non-judgmental environment. Reflect back what you think your child is saying. “It sounds like you feel afraid about getting on the school bus.”
- Ask questions – and really listen to the answers. Gentle open-ended questions are best. “Do you like your teacher?” may seem like a reasonable question, but it forces the child to focus on the teacher, who may not be the problem.
Instead, statements such as “If you feel like sharing, I’d love to hear what you think about school” might get your child to open up about what is bothering her. The more she talks, the clearer she may become about the problem.
- Believe your child’s feelings – Since children, especially young children, may find it hard to put their feelings into words, it can be tough to believe them.
When your child is continually feeling sick and you have ruled out medical reasons, you may think he is “faking it.” But, it doesn’t matter if the stomachache is in his stomach or “all in his head.”
Your child is clearly feeling something – and that something hurts! Your child needs to know you believe in him and will work with him to solve this problem.
- Empower your child – Give your child as much control over the situation as possible. Ask her for ideas of what might help. Discuss strategies she can use at school if she becomes anxious or homesick.
- Teach your child deep breathing – This is calming. It is harder to focus on something negative when you are focusing on breathing.
Seek outside help
- Get a thorough medical exam – Rule out any possible physical conditions that could be causing or affecting your child’s behavior.
- Talk to your child’s teacher and/or guidance counselor – Build a partnership with school personnel to address the issue. They can give you feedback on things happening at school that might influence the problem, such as bullying or challenges with class work.
Together you can come up with a plan to help your child feel more comfortable in school and help integrate him back into the classroom.
- Consider family counseling – especially if there are issues or big changes within the family.
Set up home to promote attendance
- Make sure your child has enough sleep and a good breakfast – Dragging through the day tired and/or hungry could make anyone want to stay home.
- Establish a morning schedule – A predictable morning routine can take away some of the tension. It lets your child know what is expected and when. “According to the schedule, you should now be dressed and heading down for breakfast” sounds kinder than “Get dressed now.” Doing this routine with your child can give you more time together.
- Dawdling, dealing with stomachaches, or temper tantrums all take time, so build extra time in to the schedule to lessen some of the pressure. If your child is ready early, he can spend the extra time on a fun activity which you find acceptable.
Change your behavior
- Make sure being at home is not more fun than being at school. Why would any child want to go to school if she is having fun at home?
- Believe your child can get over the problem – If you don’t believe this, neither will your child.
- Model – Watch your own habits to see if your child is reacting to your fears or nervousness.
- Pay attention to the behaviors you want to see more of – Attention can be a great motivator. Unfortunately, children also consider negative attention to be rewarding. They may act out if they feel they are not getting enough positive attention (justified or not).
If possible, ignore negative behavior. If not, deal with negative actions as quickly and impersonally as possible. Save your emotional responses for “the good stuff.”
- Start small – If your child has been absent a lot, you probably need to gradually re-introduce her to school, beginning with the part that is least objectionable and building out from there.
- Get your child back to school as soon as possible – Most experts agree that keeping a child home makes things worse.
When your child is continually refusing to attend school, it may seem like there is no solution in sight. But with the ideas above and maybe some outside help, you can get your child back to school.
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