What Should I Do When My Child Refuses to Go to School?
By Lee Ann Annotti, Ph.D.

What Should I Do When My Child Refuses to Go to School?

February 29, 2016   |   ASK THE EXPERTS  

If your child refuses to go to school, it may be because she dealing with a traumatic experience at school or home. Here's how to get to the bottom of her refusal and help her like school.
 

School refusal is a tricky business, and it can be hard on the parents, the relationship between the parents, the relationship between the parents and the child, and the family unit. School refusal is not only refusing to go to school, it also includes difficulty staying in school for the full day. School refusal is more common in young children entering preschool, kindergarten, and first grade, and in pre-adolescent children, usually ages 10-11.

There are many reasons children refuse to go to school. For example, if it is a child’s first time attending school, he may be experiencing significant anxiety separating from home or a parent. On the other hand, a child may be experiencing anxiety due to a change in the class or school. It is also common for children to refuse to go to school after experiencing a death or illness with a loved one, or after experiencing a prolonged absence from school due to their own illness. Children may also refuse to go to school is if they are experiencing traumatic events at school, such as being bullied.

When your child refuses to go to school, you should reach-out to the school to determine the possible reasons your child does not want to go, or stay in, school. If possible, develop a plan with the school personnel that work with your child. If this is not possible, consider reaching out to a psychologist to help determine the possible causes and to help devise a plan to support your child.

As a psychologist, the first rule I give to parents when their child refuses to go to school is the time at home should not be treated as a vacation. Since it is a school day, the rules and expectations that apply at school should apply in the home. Your child should not be allowed to do anything during school hours that she would not be allowed to do at school. That means she should not be allowed to play video games, take naps, watch television, or engage in hobbies that she would not be allowed to engage in during school hours. Now, you must be prepared that your child may argue, scream at you, and even have a tantrum. This can lead to what is called an “Extinction Burst”—the behavior will get worse (temporarily) before it gets better. This means the limits you established are working. Things will get worse before they get better, and when this happens, it is important that you be consistent and follow the rules you established. Changes do not happen overnight.

Determining why your child isn’t staying in school is important to determining the appropriate strategies to help your child return to school. What you do after enforcing the “first rule” is predicated on the reasons why your child is not going to school. Talk to your child to figure out the reasoning. Sometimes, however, children don’t want to talk about it, or don’t have the language skills to express their reasons. At this point, you have to become an investigator. Talk with the teachers and school personnel. What are they seeing? Consider if any changes have occurred at home or in school. In many cases, children are experiencing anxiety or fear about something in school or about leaving home. It is important to help children learn how to process their emotions and develop coping strategies for their anxiety or fear. You may wish to seek help from a psychologist to help your child manage their emotions and return to school. School refusal is tricky because other than rule No. 1, the strategies to help your child are based on the “why.” In most cases, it takes a team-approach to helping a child return to and enjoy school. This team often involves the teachers, the family, and a supportive psychologist.
 

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