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  • Writer's picturePathways to Hope

What To Do When Your Child Refuses To Go To School

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

Many of us parents have been there. We are rushing to get our child(ren) off to school, we get to the school and our child has a big, emotional outburst and refuses to go into their classroom.

This is more common in younger children whilst they are still adapting to being away from the safety and comfort of their home and their primary caregiver, and many children will grow out of this as they settle into the school routine and become more familiar with their new surroundings and teacher/classmates. But for some children, school refusal is something that is more of an ongoing issue and can be a sign of an underlying anxiety disorder.

School refusal can affect children of all ages, from kindergarten right through to highschool.

Obviously the signs and symptoms will differ depending on the age. Your teenager is less likely to have a big emotional outburst, but may show some of the following signs:

  1. Complete refusal to attend,

  2. Attending, but leaving early,

  3. Starting late,

  4. Having a tantrum when they arrive at school,

  5. Attending, but experiencing a high degree of distress.

What causes school refusal? There are many things that can contribute to school refusal, some of those reasons can include:

  1. An underlying anxiety/depressive disorder,

  2. The child might be experiencing bullying at school,

  3. They may be involved in conflict at school with teachers, or other students,

  4. They may be experiencing issues at home that make them feel worried to leave,

  5. They could have acute stress/PTSD as a result of something that happened at school,

  6. They may struggle at school and have academic issues or issues with their teacher.

It is important to note that children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) have a higher rate of experiencing school refusal.

What are some symptoms of school refusal?

This will vary from child to child and will, again, vary with different age groups. Some symptoms include:

  1. Stomach distress (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach aches etc.)

  2. Headaches

  3. Fatigue

  4. Crying

  5. Tantrums

It is good to also have your child checked out by their family doctor if they are experiencing any of these physical symptoms, to rule out any potential health concerns.

How to help with school refusal: Many parents are unsure whether or not they should be “punishing” or “disciplining” their child when they experience school refusal, this will not work. School refusal is not something that can be disciplined out of a child, it is a form of anxiety that requires treatment.

One of the most effective forms of “treatment” is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT should be provided by a registered mental health professional who has received training in this modality. CBT teaches the client to confront and change negative thoughts/behaviours.

Something that has worked in our family is normalizing anxiety. We all have open conversations about anxiety as a human experience. When anxiety is appropriately managed it can alert us to danger, or help us perform in a situation. We discuss the parameters of anxiety and when it moves from being a helpful human reaction, to something that holds us back and interferes with our lives and the things we enjoy. It can help to share with your children times where you felt anxious and what you did to overcome that. If children can learn to name and acknowledge those anxious feelings it isn’t something that will sneak up on them and overwhelm them.

It is important to seek the help of a trained mental health professional when dealing with school refusal and anxiety disorders in children. The good news is, children generally respond very well to therapy and are quick to learn techniques to apply when they have future anxiety “episodes.”

Please note this article is not considered to be complete and is not designed to replace seeking the help of a trained professional. This article is for information purposes only.

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