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Parenting Plus April 29, 2011

When a Child Refuses To Go to School

Twenty-eight percent of children across the United States refuse to go to school at some time during their school years. In a recent survey of new applications at North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center, we found increasing numbers of children who refused to go to school. This was further validated at a meeting that the Guidance Center hosted for counselors, social workers and psychologists from public and private schools throughout Nassau County.

School-refusal behavior is identified, according to the NYU Child Study Center, in boys and girls from 5-17 who: (1) are entirely absent from school, and/or; (2) attend school initially, but leave during the course of the school day, and/or; (3) go to school following crying, clinging, tantrums or other intense behavior problems, and/or (4) exhibit unusual distress during school days and then plead for future absenteeism. 

Naturally, the meeting with local school personnel led to speculation on what causes children to refuse to go to school. To no one’s surprise, bullying topped the list. Nevertheless, although bullying is one cause, other issues such as a transition from one school to another, an illness or death in the family, or school-performance problems also trigger school refusal.

A few things to consider when school-refusal is a problem in your home:

1. Do your best to get your child to school every day. The more a child is allowed to stay home, the harder it will be to get him or her out of the house.

2. You may think that your child is not being honest about feeling poorly in the morning. Try to remember that anxiety can lead to physical symptoms like aches and pains or nausea. 

3. Talk to your child and school personnel to see if you can discover what is leading to his or her avoidance of school. It could be bullying or academic problems or social isolation and trouble making friends.

4. Consider consulting with a school guidance, social work or community-based mental health counselor, especially if every morning is a battle.

5. If there are troubles at home, like a divorce, death in the family, new sibling, or a recent relocation, don’t ignore them. Family therapy can help to sort things out and increase your child’s ability to cope with difficult changes in his or her life.

School-refusal is an issue that we deal with frequently at North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center. Adults – parents, teachers, counselors, coaches – must work together in trying to understand the underlying causes and triggers for a child’s school-avoidance behavior. 

By working together – school, community and family – we can be successful in helping fearful or anxious young people to overcome school-avoidance problems and help them to return to school, learn, socialize and move forward in their lives.