When Kids Avoid School

Greta Francis, PhD

Was your child one of those students with back to school jitters? Many children experience that nervous feeling at the start of a new school year. Soon, most settle into the routine.

Some children, though, may put up a daily struggle to avoid school. School avoidance is more common than parents might think, occurring in about five percent of children.

Although it can happen at any age, it is most common in children ages 5 to 7 and 11 to 14 -- times of transition into elementary and middle school.

School avoidance is different from truancy or playing hooky for a day. Children may outright refuse to go, become emotional, or even have physical symptoms. Some may complain of vague, nonspecific ailments, such as a stomachache or headache, which appear just before it is time to leave for school. If anxiety is the trigger, it may cause physical complaints as well.

The causes

Some of the common reasons children might refuse to go to school include:

  • stressful family events, such as an illness, move or divorce
  • separation anxiety, particularly in younger children
  • social anxieties and worries, including bullying and teasing
  • academic struggles stemming from attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or a learning disability
  • anxiety or depression
  • classroom or academic pressure

What parents can do

It is important that parents understand the events that occurred in the child's life around the time that he or she began avoiding school. These behaviors may be a child's way of communicating an emotional struggle with issues, like being teased at school.

It is also helpful for parents to look for any patterns in school avoidance. For example, some kids are very anxious about changing clothes for physical education class, so they begin to avoid school on days when they have that class.

If a child is allowed to stay home, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends not providing any special treatment – no video games or a special snack. Parents should also remind the child that if he or she misses school that day, then sports practices, parties or other after-school events will be cancelled.

When anxiety is to blame

If school-related anxiety is causing school avoidance, there are some ways parents can help, including:

  • Talking. Ask your child the reasons for wanting to avoid school.  Consider all the possibilities, whether psychological, social, or academic. It may be helpful to offer suggestions to help get the conversation rolling.
  • Acknowledgment. Be sure to recognize your child's anxiety and offer reassurance, support and understanding. However, it is best to be firm when it comes to attending school – there is no choice.
  • Get Advice. Seek help and support from school staff, since they will have had experience with school avoidance issues. Teachers may also have some insight into what is causing the child's anxiety, such as bullying or academic troubles, and may have suggestions for how to make the classroom more comfortable.
  • Seek Help. If school avoidance lasts for more than a few weeks, it may be best to seek help from a mental health professional such as a clinical child psychologist or child psychiatrist.

School avoidance or real illness?

When a child is complaining of a headache or stomachache, how can you tell if it is due to a true physical illness, or if your child just does not want to go to school?

A child who is truly sick will have a fever, or other symptoms like a runny nose or swollen glands. Your child's pediatrician is the first place to start. If there doesn't seem to be a medical explanation for your child's symptoms, it's time to take a closer look at other pressures or stresses that could explain this behavior.

Things to remember:

  • Try to be especially firm on school mornings, when children complain most about their symptoms.
  • If the child becomes upset, remain calm, let the tantrum play out, and then resume getting ready for school.
  • Take opportunities to praise and point out your child's successes, even if they're small, like able to get dressed in the morning. It is important to encourage the child to cope with their distress.

If you have concerns about your child’s behavior or well-being, we can help. For more information and additional resources for parents, visit our website.

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