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School Refusal

Children can have difficulty attending school due to a variety of factors, ranging from post-holiday blues to test anxiety, as well as peer teasing or conflict, and academic pressures. When these difficulties are fleeting, resulting in minor complaints or a rare day off from school, most families can cope without intervention. However, some youth struggle to attend school on a more consistent basis. These youth typically refuse, or attempt to refuse, school for four distinct reasons:

  1. To escape from school situations that cause distress (e.g. Riding on the school bus, a teacher, or a particular class or area of school)
  2. To escape from unpleasant social or performance situations (e.g. Playing or working with peers, speaking or reading in front of the class, or attending assemblies)
  3. To get attention from others (e.g. To spend time with a parent)
  4. To pursue fun activities outside of school (e.g. To spend time with friends, go to the mall, or to be home alone sleeping, watching TV, etc.)

Some families can easily identify a single reason for why their child is struggling; yet for others their child’s presentation of school refusal may be vague, diverse, or even confusing. For example, some children are unable to identify any specific fear or concern, while other children provide diffuse or nonsensical reasons. Others still, appear to fall into many or all of the above categories. Regardless of the reason/s, school refusal can significantly interfere with or limit a child or teen’s life. Youth who refuse school can fall behind or fail to meet academic milestones, have difficulty developing and maintaining friendships, and become isolated from peers, and miss opportunities to learn new things and engage in fun activities. Some youth may also engage in high-risk behaviours, such as drug or alcohol use to manage the boredom that comes from lengthy and unstructured time out of school.

*Note: It is important to ensure your child is not refusing school due to a medical condition that could be resulting in pain, or due to bullying or another legitimate cause. If you have reason to suspect these possibilities, meet with your family physician or the school to obtain additional information.

FACTS

  • More than ¼ of all youth will engage in some degree of school refusal during their schooling years, ranging from complaints and threats to avoid school, to missing school for months or even years at a time.
  • Fear or a specific phobia about something at school only accounts for a small percent of youth refusing school
  • School refusal peaks at several points of development, including with entry into Kindergarten, between ages 7-9, and again with entry into Middle or High School.
  • Boys and girls are equally affected by school refusal behaviour.

SIGNS & SYMPTOMS

Thoughts (Note: very young children may be unable to identify specific fear thoughts)

  • I don’t like the recess yard
  • I’m no good at school anyway
  • It’s more fun at the mall/being at home where I can do what I want
  • It’s not fair that I have to go to school. I want to stay home with mum and the new baby
  • The other kids will laugh at me
  • What if grandma doesn’t pick me up after school?
  • What if I can’t find my classroom?

Physical feelings:

  • Dizziness or light headedness
  • Frequent urination and/or diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension
  • Racing heart
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
  • Stomachaches or abdominal pain
  • Vomiting

Emotions:

  • Anger
  • Anxiety/worry/fear
  • Embarrassment
  • Irritability
  • Loneliness
  • Sadness
  • Shame

Behaviors:

  • Clinging or refusal to separate from a parent
  • Complaining
  • Crying or tantrums
  • Failing to turn in homework or assignments
  • Frequent phone calls or texts to a parent
  • Lying
  • Running away or hiding
  • Skipping class or cutting school
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Withdrawal from others

COMMON SITUATIONS OR AFFECTED AREAS

  • Falling or failing grades
  • Family disruption
  • Marital strain
  • Peer rejection
  • Poor sleep
  • Reduced job or career prospects
  • School absenteeism
  • Sibling discord

How school refusal impacts the child at different ages

In many countries throughout the world, the preschool and early childhood years marks an important developmental period when young children develop the capacity to separate from parents and caregivers, and learn to function independently in school. These early years, (approximately age 2-7), are considered a transition period as children gradually adjust to this developmental expectation, and therefore it is expected that some children will express distress or fear about being away from parents and primary caregivers for the first time. Typical behaviours during these early years include physical complaints of stomachache, nausea, and feeling “bad,” as well as clinging to a parent, crying, having a tantrum, among other behaviours. While these behaviours are expected to lessen and then disappear as the child adjusts to his/her new environment, some children fail to adjust. They either engage in ongoing and persistent school refusal, or, experience intermittent bouts of refusal, often coinciding with a return to school on Monday mornings or after school holidays.

In addition to young children who exhibit school refusal from an early age, other children may cope relatively well in pre-school and Kindergarten, yet become distressed as school is underway and academic and social demands increase. This can happen at any time, although common periods occur with the transition into middle or high school. Like young children, the reasons can be varied for older children and adolescents. For some, there is a clear history of intermittent school refusal or expression of school related distress, but it becomes most notable and persistent as the youth transitions into middle or high school. For others school refusal only emerges when the teen experiences demands that exceed his/her ability to cope. For example, a teen that is anxious about performing in front of others will find school more unpleasant as classes require increased oral presentations or group work. For other youth it is not that school becomes unpleasant as demands increase, but that the attraction of life outside of school is far more appealing. Despite these distinct differences, cutting classes or skipping school becomes the prime occupation of both groups of youth. In addition to avoiding school, these youth are more likely to lie about their activities, fail to complete work on time and risk falling behind in school, and may even engage in high-risk behaviours such as using drugs or alcohol.

Whether your child exhibits difficulties as young as two or not until they are well into primary school, or even into middle or high school, it is important that prompt attention is given to understanding why your child is struggling, and that you provide tools to help him/her adapt. The longer school refusal persists, the more entrenched the behaviours become, and as expected, the more difficult they are to correct.

Downloadable Resource: Coping Strategies for Supporting Students

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