School avoidance, sometimes called school refusal or school phobia, is a growing concern affecting up to 25% of students. School avoidance is stressful for parents and children alike, and the situation is often difficult to navigate both at home and at school.
Children avoiding school may exhibit outright refusal, may complain of vague physical symptoms, or may come up with very creative reasons for not attending school. Most commonly, children with complain of unexplainable physical symptoms – things like headaches, upset stomach, nausea, and dizziness. These symptoms are typically only present on school days, with weekends being complaint-free. If a child experiencing school avoidance attends school, he may frequently visit the school nurse or experience separation anxiety from parents while at school.
Children typically avoid school for reasons they aren’t capable of verbalizing or willing to share with parents. It is important to consider that students who avoid school may be experiencing anxiety or trying to avoid negative experiences at school. Fear of failure, perceived “meanness” of teachers/school staff/other students, issues with peers, bullying, and fear of using a public restroom are all possible contributors to school avoidance.
TIPS FOR PARENTS:
Have an open dialogue with your child about why he doesn’t want to attend school. Consider all possibilities and offer your child sympathy and support. Brainstorm solutions with your child for any issues identified and rehearse responses for any difficult situations your child anticipates.
Acknowledge your child’s feelings, but insist on her immediate return to school. The longer your child stays home, the more difficult her eventual return to school will be. Explain to your child that attending school is required by the law. Understand that your child will likely become more insistent on staying home several days, but you must make a commitment to remain firm in your expectation for school attendance.
Discuss your child’s reasons for school avoidance with teachers/school staff. Enlist their support in your child’s return to school. If bullying or issues with teachers have been identified as reasons for school avoidance, discuss these issues with school staff immediately and discuss options for quick resolution. Discuss a gradual return - starting with several hours daily and building to a full school day - if needed.
Discuss the positive aspects of school with your child. Identify friends that your child can lean on when feeling anxious or sad. If your child is having difficulty making friends, enlist the help of teachers or the school guidance counselor to encourage engagement with others students – buddy lunches or getting to spend a recess inside with one or two other students may help your child build friendships.
Encourage your child to engage in hobbies and interests. Fun will help your child relax and hobbies are great distractions that will help your child build self-confidence.
If your child is not currently in therapy, enlist the help of a counselor to help your child verbalize feelings and build healthy coping skills. Encouraging your child to understand and protect their own mental health is a gift that will last a lifetime.
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