School Refusal in Children

School Refusal in Children

Written by: Jenn VanEtten

Do you know a child who does not want to go to school or attend virtual classes? Children can find going to school difficult at any age, especially in the new era of remote schooling. While it is normal for a child to refuse school occasionally, it is important to notice when this becomes regular behavior. Frequent refusal to leave the house for school, walk in the classroom, or login to class can have negative impacts on a child’s academic and socio-emotional development. 

What is School Refusal?
For some children, aspects of school may feel overwhelming and challenging, which may result in difficulty going to school and staying in class. This is known as school refusal, and students express it in many ways:
• Consistent difficulty getting a child out of bed and/or to class. 
• Frequent expression of headaches/stomachaches in order to miss instruction.
• Taking repeated and extended bathroom breaks during virtual learning.
• Hiding under a table or in another room during/before online class.
• Turning off the video during virtual learning

If school refusal behavior persists beyond 2-3 days within 2 weeks, it may be time to respond. It is important to go easy on yourself and your child, especially when navigating the novel process of K-12 learning from home. 

Why is it Important to Respond Early?
While school refusal behavior can be considered normal on occasion, continually avoiding class can negatively impact a child’s development. As a result of missing multiple lessons, they may fall behind in learning and experience increased anxiety about catching up—this cycle may be quick to snowball. Younger children with school refusal may be especially prone to difficulty developing healthy friendships with their peers. It is important to recognize this early in order to help children reframe their feelings toward school and prevent long-term consequences. 

What can Parents/Guardians do to Help?
Step in quickly and identify the issue. If a child is exhibiting school refusal behavior for longer than 2-3 days, take action. Gently ask them: “What is it about school that you do not like?” Are they frustrated with distance learning? Are they struggling academically? Maybe both? It’s also possible that neither are the problem and they just prefer to skip class because of a new toy or video game.
• Validate they’re challenges and address the issue. By validating your child’s feelings, you will encourage them to continue verbalizing their thoughts rather than acting on emotions. You might say “I agree that virtual learning is very difficult right now and it is important that you continue to login an participate in class ”. When addressing specific issues that cannot be fixed in the home, it may be best to reach out to a teacher or other school staff to come up with a plan.
Make missing class boring. Allowing a child to do as they please after refusing to attend school – whether in person or online— may reinforce the school refusal behavior. If a child will not engage in learning, you may want to restrict screen time, Wi-Fi access, and other activities that may be encouraging them to refuse school. Identify your child’s preferred activities and ensure they are not available alternatives to attending class.
Communicate and collaborate with school staff. Contact your child’s school counselor, psychologist, or socialworker and tell them what is happening. Depending on the problem, they may determine that it is best to intervene with the child in the class or through a virtual meeting. If the problem persists, ask them for more resources. 
Seek out other professional services. If none of the above are useful, consider contacting a local mental health provider. A common and effective treatment for school refusal behavior is cognitive behavior therapy. Cognitive behavior therapy helps by restructuring the child’s anxiety-inducing thoughts about school. 

If you are interested in reading a practical guide for parents/guardians to understand school refusal, check out this book!

To learn more about the early signs and outcomes for children that experience school refusal: