What to Do When Your Child Refuses to Go to School

It’s always difficult to hear your children yelling or sobbing that they don’t want to go to school. You may be even more sensitive to their reluctance and anxiety because of what an unpredictable place school has felt like for the past two years. So, what do you do when you have scrambled to get all your kids’ school supplies and clothes ready for school only to find that you now must coax them to get there? How do you coach 50 pounds or more of pure resistance to leave the house?

It often seems easiest to pick the path of least resistance. If they tell you they have a sore throat, you may wonder if they really are coming down with something and rationalize keeping them home—especially since sending even slightly sick children to school is frowned upon these days. But there are negative consequences to giving in to your children’s requests to stay home. First, their anxiety about going to school is not likely to diminish and may actually get worse. This is because staying home with you, especially for young children, is comforting and highly valued. Many kids don’t get a lot of one-on-one time with their parents, whether due to their own activities or their parents’ busy schedules. As a result, staying home from school will be very rewarding for your children because they see it as special Mommy or Daddy time they wouldn’t normally get on a school day.

While your children may feel better at home than at school, the social cost of their avoiding school is a clear disadvantage. Many educators and school psychologists like me have seen children struggle with socioemotional challenges like turn-taking, not getting their way, a chilling word from someone, social comparison when a classmate can read a passage more quickly, or a teacher with an unfamiliar teaching style. All these normal situations are moments for learning and growth, but they can’t happen if your child isn’t at school. Practice makes perfect, and when your children have significantly less time to practice, their skills are less well-developed.

School refusal can be a symptom of diagnosable issues, like anxiety. Many children who display school refusal are also anxious and have either separation anxiety, social anxiety, or generalized anxiety. Separation anxiety is more common in younger children who worry about leaving their parent or caregiver. Social anxiety or performance anxiety tends to occur in older children who worry about how their peers will judge them. And generalized anxiety disorder occurs when people worry about multiple situations, which for children, often includes their performance in the classroom.

One thing we have learned about anxiety is that avoiding situations that make us anxious only makes our anxiety stronger. It doesn’t teach us that we can tolerate unpleasant feelings or that what we fear most will probably not happen. However, people can learn to alter unpleasant feelings in situations that make them anxious by using self-talk, breathing exercises, and distraction to get a handle on their anxiety.

So, what can you do as a parent? First, reach out to your pediatrician if your children are sharing physical complaints. You want to rule out any medical reason for their symptoms.  Next, connect with the school so that teachers and administrators know what’s going on and so you can partner with them to develop a plan that will be successful for your children.

Excerpted from “What to Do When Your Child Refuses to Go to School” in Psychology Today. Read the full article online.

Source: Psychology Today | What to Do When Your Child Refuses to Go to School, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/school-culture/202209/what-to-do-when-your-child-refuses-to-go-to-school | © 2023 Sussex Publishers, LLC


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