Understanding School Refusal

Many parents find themselves completely stumped as to why getting their child to school every morning is such a struggle. Many wonder if there is something wrong with their child, or maybe something wrong with the teacher or the school. While it is a frustrating thing, there is no need for alarm; nearly 28% of children in the US show signs of school refusal sometime during their school years.

The behavior is found equally in boys and girls and is common throughout all the school-aged years. Most common is 10-13 years old or when the child is being transitioned to a new school. The behavior manifests itself in a number of different ways and because each child is different, there is no way of telling how your child might refuse school.

School refusal is not an easy thing for parents or children to deal with, but it can be helped if understood. Here are the basics of school refusal to help you understand a little bit about what your child is experiencing and ways that you can try to help.

What Is It?

In a nutshell, school refusal is defined as a child between five and seventeen years old who displays any of the following behaviors:

  • Experiences a high degree of distress during school days which in turn lead to them begging to stay home
  • Puts up a fight each day when it is time to go to school by throwing tantrums, crying, refusing to let go of you, or other severe behavioral issues
  • Goes to school with no problem but ends up leaving before the day is over
  • Is absent entirely

Obviously the way that school refusal is demonstrated changes depending on the child’s age. Many times it starts in the early years with the crying and clinging, and then the child reaches the teen years where they can simply choose to leave or not attend at all.

If left untreated, the behavior can turn chronic and have a detrimental effect on the child’s education and future.

What Causes It?

School refusal can be caused by a number of things, and figuring it out is often the hard part. Once you determine what it is that is causing your child’s behavior you can often begin taking the necessary steps to help and change things.

Children sometimes show these behaviors simply because they are extremely attached to one or both parents and want to be at home with them. It may cause them anxiety to be away or they simply just don’t want to be at school. This can often be prevented by separating from your child on a regular basis during his/her younger years so that he/she grows accustomed to being away.

Other children may have anxiety about certain things that are happening at school such as a difficult test, a project, or presentation. The school-related stress and anxiety can often lead to feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt which then leads to depression. Children who are struggling with certain subjects in school will often try to avoid school at all costs so that they don’t have to deal with the overwhelming fear that overcomes them when they don’t understand or are called on to answer a question they do not know the answer to.

For others, school refusal is the result of social anxiety. Perhaps your child is very shy and doesn’t associate well with other children. He/she may feel alienated and alone, or other children may be bullying him/her.

What Are the Signs?

Children who display behavioral signs of school refusal have been separated into two categories; those who internalize the problem and those who externalize it. The signs of each are incredibly different but both mean the same thing.

Internalization:

  • Obsessive worrying
  • Anxiety
  • Social isolation
  • Depression
  • Physical complaints such as headache, stomach ache, or nausea
  • Fatigue

Externalization:

  • Tantrums, including screaming, crying, and clinging
  • Aggression; both verbal and physical
  • Completely oppositional; refuse to conform to rules

What Can I Do?

Since you are not present at school with your child, it is often a teacher who will notice the problem or the cause of it and let you know. You can sit down with the teacher and principal of the school to decide what the best course of action might be for your child.

Simply doing nothing and hoping that things will get better is definitely not an option since many of the underlying causes of school refusal such as separation anxiety disorder, conduct disorder, and social phobias are very real problems that need immediate attention.

Even the smallest issue can spiral into something major if left untreated, so while you may not know exactly what to do, you must do something.

Therapy is often needed to determine the cause of the school refusal and to help your child cope with it. A therapist can often interpret what a child is saying or things that they write or draw to see what it is that is really bothering them. There is always a reason why a child suddenly stops wanting to go to school, and often your child may not even really know the reason. Therapy can help your child and you to put an end to school refusal and get back on the patch to a solid education and a bright future.

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