School refusal is the fancy term for the child who begs to stay home from school. The desire to avoid going to school may set in after the initial excitement of the back to school season wears off. For many children, that’s just a few short weeks into the school year.
We can all agree: children need to get an education. In most cases, that means going to school. When children don’t want to go to school, they have to convince their parents they can stay home. Some children will cry, while others will play sick. They may not be faking their symptoms: the thought of going to school gives them a stomachache.
We all want our children to do well in school, to make friends, learn, and have fun. That makes it important for us to get to the root of the problem: What causes school refusal? What can we do to make our children feel more comfortable about going to school?
School Refusal Doesn’t Blow Over
To begin with, don’t imagine that the problem will blow over if you leave things alone. That’s a bad idea. “School refusal is one of the most vexing problems for school districts and parents because it is very difficult to resolve. Once a student decides not to go to school, it is very difficult to get the student back on track,” says Licensed Social Worker Monica L. Mandell.
Dr. Fran Walfish, a psychotherapist and author of The Self Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building A Better Bond with Your Child, agrees. Parents should definitely nip school refusal in the bud, because “Once you allow your child to skip school, you open the door to bigger problems including school phobia.”
Then again, it may take a while for a parent to notice the child’s attempts to avoid going to school. “The symptoms of school refusal may begin slowly,” says Mandell. “At first, the student skips one class, then a few, and finally the entire school day. The student will complain about somatic illness, but a parent should begin to tally the days that their child is not going to school. Students get sick, but usually only for a day or two and not for a week or weeks at a time.”
Signs Of Illness: A Larger Problem?
Walfish cautions that symptoms of illness can signal a larger problem. “When a child develops stomachaches and decreased appetite, this may be the classic signs of separation anxiety and it is no longer a mild situation.”
So what makes a child want to stay home from school? For younger children, school refusal is often about separation anxiety. Kids find it difficult to separate from their parents. Walfish notes, however, that what begins as separation anxiety can morph into something else. At that point, school refusal can turn into a larger battle over control between parent and child. Which is another good reason not to let school refusal drag on.
Separation anxiety isn’t the only cause of school refusal. Some children dread the intensely social environment of school. School is a place where children must interact with other people all day long. “If the process of socialization is stressful, then home becomes a safe haven,” says Mandell. “This is not about the child being anti-social, rather it is a way for the child to avoid and escape the need to be social with others.”
Find Your Child A Friend
Walfish says the trick here, is in preparing your child to be a social being. A parent can pave the way for socialization by finding the child a companion. “It is important and good for the child to enter the classroom already knowing a friend. We are all interdependent human beings. Even more than adults, kids need a companion or partner to combat feeling alone and isolated at school. Every child needs and wants to belong to a group, both within their family and at school, in order to feel validated and accepted.”
Choosing a friend for your child, says Walfish, has some important advantages. “Because of the complexities within families and the breakdown of so many families, we have a growing problem of kids joining gangs so that they will feel they belong and own a place within a group. Partnering your youngster up with a friend BEFORE school starts is like depositing insurance dividends into your child’s social bank account.”
But for some kids, refusing to go to school is less about socialization and more about the fear of being away from the parents, or separation anxiety. “In this case, a parent can help by letting the child know he is safe at school and that parent and child will be reunited when school is over for the day. Parents should also work with related service providers such as school social workers or school psychologists who can help the student learn to tolerate his stress and anxiety,” says Mandell.
School Refusal As Stress Avoidance
Learning to tolerate stress and anxiety does sound like a good antidote to school refusal. After all, says Mandell, “School avoidance serves the function of allowing kids to avoid stressful situations in school.” For this reason, Mandell suggests that parents try to identify the cause of the stress. “Is the stress caused by test taking, by being in the cafeteria or the bathrooms, or is school avoidance a desire to escape from social situations?”
Like Mandell, Heather Ackley, a social worker and director of New Hope Parenting Solutions, believes that knowing the cause of the stress may lead to a solution. From her perspective, fighting school refusal begins with a conversation. “To help children feel better about school, and even thrive, talk to them. Identify the reasons they aren’t attending. Have a non-confrontational conversation with them, maybe over dinner or during a car ride, and honestly ask them about school.
“Talk to them about what they like when they do go, what their favorite things about school are, what they don’t like, and what they are struggling with.”
Mental Health Days: A Bad Idea
No matter the cause of school refusal, experts agree that students should not stay home for mental health days. Instead, parents should be contacting the school. “It is important to start a conversation about what to do and how to get the student back on track,” says Mandell, “because schools are legally obligated to educate all of their students.”
What can be done to combat school refusal? As it turns out, quite a lot. “Create a safety net for your child that includes school officials, parents, and outside service providers to help resolve the issue of school avoidance,” says Mandell. “Parents can also refer to their local Committee on Special Education to ask about drawing up an IEP. This would provide a plan specific to the child that includes behavior modifications and supports.”
Is your child beginning to balk at going to school? Don’t sit back and let it happen. Talk to the school, talk to your child, and tackle the problem head on.
Because school should be a place of happiness and discovery. And kids should not wake up with dread in the pits of their stomachs.
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