Raising a child hard. It’s made more difficult when a parent’s basic expectations and hopes about their child’s behavior are let down. Parents assume that their kids will engage in certain standard habits, such as eating dinner, sleeping at night, playing with friends, and going to school. A child’s refusal to go to school can be especially perturbing for parents.
It causes a huge drain on a parent’s emotional health and time when a child constantly refuses to get out of bed in the morning, locks himself or herself in the bathroom, or runs away from school after lunch. Parents have to miss work and field constant calls from the school. They worry about their child’s future as well as suffer from the social embarrassment of having a child who doesn’t want to do what should be a basic thing.
Dealing with a child’s severe anxiety around going to school is an uphill battle. But it starts with understanding the problem and the anguish the child is feeling, which is at the root of this issue.
In this article, we’ll be explaining what fear of school is, why it happens, and the steps parents can take to reassure their kids and get them back on the right track.
What Is Beneath the Fear of School?
Fear of school, more commonly known as school refusal, refers to a child avoiding school due to extreme emotional distress surrounding attending class. School refusal behavior is defined as kids who:
- completely and illicitly miss school,
- attend but then leave school during the day,
- attend school only after severe resistance to go in the morning.
The prevalence of school refusal is relatively widespread. The behavior is one of the most common problems seen by clinical child psychologists. Around 1 percent of all school-aged children suffer from school refusal. The problem may affect up to 28 percent of youth at one time in their life. It affects boys and girls equally, and families of different racial groups and socioeconomic statuses. It affects children from primary school all the way to high school.
It’s important to note that children with school refusal are not delinquents. They are not sneaking behind their parents’ backs: Instead, they stay at home with the parents’ full awareness. They are not physically ill, although they may use fake or exaggerated physical symptoms as an excuse to miss school.
Rather, these children become so anxious at the idea of going to school that they refuse to attend. Thus, the way to help children deal with fear of school is via caring and teaching coping skills, rather than through punishment.
What Happens to Kids With Fear of School?
On the short term, school refusal is highly disruptive to the family’s life and can cause huge amounts of tension between child and parent. If a child has school refusal, it is likely that they are suffering from other anxiety disorders as well. They may experience symptoms related to high stress and anxiety such as panic attacks, headaches, or increased heart rate.
On the social side, the refusal to attend school can have devastating consequences. The relationship between parent and child is severely tested, as the parent struggles to manage work and other commitments with the child’s temper tantrums and mental illness.
On the long-term, school refusal is associated with increased risk for psychiatric issues later in life, poor social adjustment, and poor employment possibilities.
Why Do Kids Develop a Fear of School?
Fear of school may be due to a child’s set of internal psychological conflicts. For example, they may have developed severe separation anxiety and their unwillingness to separate from parents is the reason why they will not attend school. They may be using school refusal as a tactic to elicit attention from parents, who then will spend more time with them as they try to deal with the anxiety associated with separation.
Children may suffer from social anxiety, which is when a person’s fear of being judged by others is so extreme that they rather not meet anyone at all. Some children have a genuine school phobia: Their fear of school is irrational and can’t be linked to a specific cause.
Often, children’s fear of school might arise from real experiences. In this case, their unwillingness to go to school can be understood rationally. For instance, it may be the child was bullied at some point in their school experience and that they have not yet been able to get over the fear of being bullied again. It may be that school safety is or has been an issue in the child’s life, and this has triggered anxiety about going to school.
If a child has a difficult home environment for whatever reason, like having a sibling who is ill, their fear of going to school may be linked to fear of what might happen when they are away. They may be afraid that if they go to school for several hours, something might happen while they are away without their knowledge.
School refusal, in order words, is not just a kid acting out. Pinpointing the reasons why a child is avoiding school might be a complex process, which makes helping them challenging. In the next section, we’ll discuss a few ways parents can help kids with a fear of school.
How to Help Kids With a Fear of School
Given the serious outcomes of school refusal, helping kids deal with fear of school effectively is very important. It’s necessary to approach each child’s school refusal as a unique case: As we outlined above, the reasons why a child has a fear of school can be complex and should be understood as nuanced.
First thing first, if your child is facing a threatening situation at school, such as bullying or other types of violence, or if the child does have a disruption in the home environment, this needs to be resolved first. You may find that once you resolve these issues, your child will be happy to go to school again.
Secondly, if your child is having severe mental health problems, such as panic attacks, this isn’t something that you can treat on your own as a parent and you’ll need to consult a professional to move forward.
However, if external factors are relatively absent and your child’s distress is not overly severe, you can take the following steps in trying to treat school refusal. The information below is based on Dr. Christopher Kearney’s book “Getting Your Child to Say ‘Yes’ to School: A Guide for Parents of Youth with School Refusal Behavior” which you can read if you want an exhaustive guide on helping your child.
Step 1: List Fears
Sit down with your children and have a frank but gentle conversation as to why they do not want to go to school. Ask them to list them, and do not be judgmental. Let the child list everything that they do not enjoy about school and encourage them to be open with patience and kindness.
He may be worried about doing poorly in social or academic situations. Or she may be worried about mild teasing common among children, or about not being able to make any friends.
It may be that a child is not distressed about going to school, but dislikes having to leave their parents or siblings for the day. A child may not say this directly, but can allude to wanting to go to the parents’ work or may repeatedly feign illness so that the parent will be forced to stay at home and care for them.
Step 2: Teach Kids New Thinking Patterns
You need help your child think more realistically in social and school situations. For example, your child might worry that “everyone will laugh at me during my show and tell.”
Having this thought is okay as long as your child takes a step back, thinks about the thought, and comes up with a more realistic thought, such as, “Some kids might laugh, but most kids will just listen to me.”
Don’t ask a child to block their negative thoughts with positive ones; instead, teach them to process negative thoughts in a more constructive way.
If you have a child who is refusing school because of seperation anxiety, the first thing you have to do is set up a structured morning routine. Sit down with your child and outline how the morning is expected to go, and promise rewards for following the routine.
This can include promising to spend time with the child so that the child’s need for attention is fulfilled. You can also offer up other tantalizing rewards, such as more screen time or special snacks. You can even set up a morning routine with extra buffer time so that the child can do something fun with you before they go to school (on the condition that they follow the routine).
It’s important to ignore negative attention-seeking behaviors and reward positive ones. For example, ignore your child’s feigned illness and gently push them to continue going through the morning routine, and lavish them with attention and love when they are following the routine. Smile and pat them on the back for eating breakfast on time — ignore fake tummy aches.
Step 3: Encourage Kids to Develop Their Anxiety-Coping Abilities
Kids have a hard time managing strong emotions, and this is at the root of a lot of behavioral problems. Teach kids emotion management, such as through meditation and breathing exercises, to help them gain control over anxiety, anger, desire for attention, and more. Try to practice some kind of mindfulness activity once a day with kids.
If your child is old enough to use a phone, consider getting them Spire. Our tool measures your child’s breathing rates and send notifications when it detects that their body is entering a state of stress. Spire is a great way to teach kids about when their emotional states are going overboard and train them to take breaks during the day and gain control.
Happy School Days Are on the Horizon
As they say, parenting is the toughest job in the world. Dealing with a child who is refusing to go to school can add enormous amounts of stress to that job, and can damage the well-being of the child.
By understanding where school refusal arises from, and by taking steps to enhance your child’s ability to think through the problems in a more constructive way, they’ll be back to school in no time.