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School refusal is more than your child not wanting to go to math class because they don’t like math; it’s a deeper and more complex issue that should be addressed, especially if it’s a common occurrence. These anxious behaviours can occur in about 5% of children during their school years, so it’s not uncommon and you’re not alone in finding a solution.

What Is School Refusal?

School refusal is when your child uses different reasons (real or fabricated) to avoid going to school. It could be them telling you they’re sick and need to stay home or even outright refusing to go to school. This kind of behaviour can also be called school avoidance. Simply put, your child wants to dodge situations that cause them distress.

What Does School Refusal Look Like?

These behaviours and the reasons behind them can cause symptoms that are common amongst students suffering from anxiety. Your child may experience:

  • Headaches
  • Stomachaches
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness

Some symptoms may affect your child on school days then they feel completely fine on weekends. These can be very real physical manifestations of their school refusal anxiety and not just made up excuses.

While school refusal allows your child to escape situations that upset them, it is a temporary solution for their anxieties. Read on to learn why school refusal happens and what you can do to help.

Why Does School Refusal Behaviour Happen?

Whether this is a consistent behaviour or it just started up out of the blue, take a step back and consider why it could be happening. Here are some reasons your child could be anxious about going to school:

  • Academic pressures and fear of failure
  • Anxiety about a test, presentation, or social activity
  • Physical or emotional bullying
  • Separation anxiety with a parent
  • Disruption at home (moving, divorce, etc.)
  • Not getting along with a teacher or peer


Tips On How To Deal With School Refusal

School refusal can be a very frustrating experience for both you and your child, resulting in feelings of discouragement if left unaddressed—but there are ways to address and manage it. Consider these tips when working out a unique solution for your child:

  1. Take action immediately
  2. If this behaviour happens once every 3 months or so, it’s not a chronic issue and can be attributed to something temporary. You should still discuss it with your child when it happens but if this is a more frequent issue, it’s time for you to take action.

  3. Rule out medical issues
  4. If your child is complaining of headaches, stomachaches, nausea, dizziness, etc. it’s best to take them to the doctor to first rule out if there is anything medical going on. If your doctor suspects it is a form of anxiety, ask them ways to help manage it or point you to resources that can help. This does not always mean medication but includes learning coping strategies for both you and your child.

  5. Uncover their reasons
  6. Having a frank but calm conversation with your child is a good place to start uncovering their feelings. Depending on your child’s age, they may not be able to communicate the reasons they’re avoiding school. It could be one simple temporary issue such as an upcoming test or it could be a set of complex issues like being the target of bullying or disruption at home. List possible reasons and ask open-ended questions to narrow down the list.

  7. Be emotionally supportive but firm
  8. Missing school is not ideal, so it’s important to get them back in class as soon as possible. School refusal is very much an emotional reaction and your child needs support from you. Address your child’s fears or make a plan with them to address their concerns.

  9. Practice problem solving and conflict resolution
  10. Social conflicts or academic problems can cause a lot of anxiety and contribute to school refusal. Strengthening problem-solving and conflict resolution skills can be a great way to help your child help themselves long-term. Use real or fictional scenarios and work with them to come up with solutions. Solutions can be how to react when a bully confronts your child or how to handle criticism on school papers and tailor them to your child.

  11. Don’t give special treatment
  12. When your child stays home from school it can be hard not to make a fuss over them. It’s important that your child is not given special treatment or they’ll see it as a reward for this behaviour, which can perpetuate the issue. A way to combat the rewarding feeling is making their time at home as school-like as possible. This means no screen time or staying in bed unless they’re genuinely sick.

  13. Talk to your child’s teacher
  14. Your child’s teacher is with them for hours a day and in situations you don’t usually see. This gives them insight into daily behaviours and interactions with others that you may miss. Ask the teacher if they’ve noticed anything in the classroom or outside at recess that is concerning or out of the ordinary.

  15. Advocate for your child
  16. If the issue is stemming from bullying or conflict with a teacher, speak up. Your child can’t always advocate for themselves or they may be afraid to do so especially if the issue is with someone of authority. While school refusal anxiety is usually a mental health issue, it can stem from a real physical safety concern such as threats of violence from a bully. Talk to the teacher and principal to work out a solution.

  17. Set a routine
  18. Those suffering from different forms of anxiety benefit from predictable routines. It lets them know what’s going to happen instead of stressing over unknowns. Keep an eye that the routine isn’t too rigid or it’s overscheduled as this can stress your child out more. Find the balance that works best for your family.

  19. Consider therapy
  20. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a short-term psychotherapy method that has been proven to help those suffering from anxiety and children dealing with school avoidance. CBT is a treatment used for more severe cases but it’s a method to consider if there is not a direct action to alleviate the anxiety. It’s a structured form of therapy that helps your child identify thought patterns that are triggering their anxiety and learn strategies to replace those negative thought habits.


Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For Outside Help

School refusal anxiety can be an incredibly complex issue and, if left unchecked, can get worse quickly. While it’s not uncommon, it is a distressing and disruptive problem for your child and your whole family.

If you feel overwhelmed or under-equipped to handle it, it’s always okay to ask for help. Your child’s school is a great place to start. Many schools have access to resources including referrals to specialists that can help you and your child learn how to handle school refusal.


Dr. Danielle, PhD


February 10, 2020