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School Refusal: What Parents Can Do


It’s early morning, and you’re running late. That’s when you turn around to find that not only has your daughter unpacked her bag, but she’s nowhere to be seen. After a quick search, you find her in the laundry room, arms crossed, and completely dead-set against going to school. If this has ever happened in your household, then you already know what it’s like to deal with a child who is reluctant about going to school.

Turns out, there are many reasons why some kids try to avoid school. Each situation is different, of course, with various levels of frequency and severity. It can also happen at any age, from preschool through high school. But discovering the root cause behind the behavior is key to helping your child overcome it. Let’s take a closer look.

What Is School Refusal?

At some point, most kids will occasionally drag their heels and fuss about going to school. But school refusal is a bit different—and more intense. It is usually accompanied by significant emotional distress, which may not subside over time. Your child might hide, throw tantrums, intentionally miss the bus, express separation anxiety or claim to be physically ill. Regardless, the outcome is still the same: your child refuses to go to school.

About 2 to 5 percent of school-age children experience anxiety-based school refusal, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). It is most common between the ages of 5 and 6, and 10 and 11, as well as during significant times of transition.

Why It Might Happen

It’s important to remember that school refusal is widely considered to be a symptom of another issue, rather than a disorder itself. There could be both internal and external reasons why your son or daughter dreads going to school, such as:

  • Bullying—either your child is the victim of bullying or he or she is bullying others
  • Significant changes at home, such as a move, a new baby or a death in the family
  • A parent’s illness or injury
  • Performance anxiety related to grades, sports or social interaction
  • Generalized anxiety disorder or depression

How Parents Can Help

The first step to addressing the issue is to let your child know that he or she can rely on you and come to you for help. Talk about what’s wrong, and acknowledge just how upsetting it is. You may also want to call or meet with your child’s teacher, especially since he or she may be able to shed some light on the situation.

You can also help your child develop coping and relaxation methods, and encourage interests that help build self-confidence. To address any underlying issues, it may be necessary to schedule an evaluation with a mental health professional. This person can help identify the underlying cause and determine what treatments might help.

Above all, keep your child in school. If he or she is allowed to keep missing class, it will only add to the anxiety—not address it.

David Lowenstein, Ph.D. is a Psychologist and the Clinical Director of Lowenstein & Associates, Inc. in Columbus, Ohio. In addition to providing therapeutic services to individuals and families, he offers training and consultation to numerous associations, schools and agencies around the country. Additionally, he is a frequent radio and TV guest and a resource and contributing writer for numerous newspapers and magazines nationwide. Contact Dr. David Lowenstein at 691 South Fifth Street
Columbus, OH 43206 or by phone at 614.443.6155 or 614.444.0432.