Elementary | Kindergarten | Tweens + Teens | Behavior + Discipline

Does your child fear going to school?

Meggan Jung will never forget the elementary school student who was so determined to stay home from school that he locked himself in the bathroom. Jung, school psychologist for the Bellevue School District, went over to his house. "He was afraid to leave his mom," Jung remembers. "It took a long time to get him to come out."

Every school sees them. Sometimes, they're the kids with the recurrent headaches or stomach aches. Perhaps they don't have physical complaints, but show signs of fear and anxiety. While few resort to locking themselves in bathrooms, these children are often proficient at coercing parents to let them skip school -- "just for today."

Why would a youngster choose his own house over the schoolhouse? Reasons vary. It's fairly common for kindergarteners to have trouble separating from their parents -- especially if kindergarten is their first school experience, Jung says.

In fact, transition points -- kindergarten, middle school and high school -- are high-risk periods for school avoidance, according to Karen Pavlidis, psychologist at Arboretum Psychological Services in Seattle. For some students, transferring to a new school is most troublesome of all.

But when kids suddenly opt out of the normal school routine, parents and teachers should pay close attention, says Betsy Ritchie, school nurse at Bear Creek Elementary in Woodinville. Often, these children are trying to avoid or escape something that's making them anxious.

Maybe, Ritchie suggests, they're not succeeding in school or are being bullied or pressured on the playground. Maybe they're worried about finding their classroom or missing the bus stop -- or are embarrassed about an in-class episode of throwing up. "With younger children, it might mean they've had an accident and not made it to the bathroom," Ritchie says.

Events that happen in the world around them can also fuel kids' fears. "After storms, earthquakes, terrorism incidents or the worst-case scenario -- a school shooting -- kids might think, 'what will happen to us if we're at school?'" Ritchie says. "The bad news in the media is scary."

Then there are the youngsters who simply find it much more fun to be home. That's why, Ritchie advises, "Parents shouldn't make things too comfortable -- especially if their child leaves school early with something iffy, like a stomachache."

What to do

Get your kids back to school as quickly as you can, experts advise. "Sometimes parents have to use 'tough love,'" Ritchie says. "Kids can tell when parents start vacillating."

And the longer youngsters stay home, the harder it is to return, Pavlidis says. "With any anxiety, we try to avoid things that distress us because avoidance decreases our anxiety. But that can become reinforcing."

If a child has missed many school days, the parent might want to use a "step-ladder" approach to help the child return, by re-introducing him to class a portion of each day, she says.

Parents should consult with the teacher about ways to help the student re-adjust to school, Pavlidis adds. "Everyone should be on the same page about how this will be handled. Maybe the child will be allowed just one phone call home a day. Or maybe the class or school placement needs to be re-evaluated."

Linda Morgan writes frequently on education issues for ParentMap.

Ways parents can help

Karen Pavlidis offers these tips:

  • In the morning, establish a smooth before-school routine and leave time for the struggles.
  • Even if your child is late, get him out the door.
  • If yours is a two-parent family, have both parents take the child to school; this sends a powerful message.
  • Ignore tantrums and complaints, and let the child know there will be consequences for this kind of behavior. Keep punishments mild, such as restricted TV time.
  • Reward your child for not showing school refusal behavior and for being cooperative in the morning. Offer special after-school activities, extra time with a parent, or extra TV time.
  • At the same time, don't get caught up in having to give repeated reassurances.
  • If a child is being bullied or picked on, the school needs to be involved. Similarly, if the child doesn't like the teacher, that issue should be explored. Is it a bad match? Principals and school counselors can be helpful.
  • Minimize how rewarding it is to be home. Make sure your child is up and dressed as if he is going to school. Keep it boring; let him or her spend time alone and do homework-like tasks until school day is over.
  • Know when to seek professional help. Is this a problem that stands alone? Or is your child exhibiting some real anxiety or mood issues?

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