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School Refusal: What to Do When a Child Won’t Go to School

Kellie Schmitt

Published on: May 14, 2023

Stubborn teenage girl putting hood on avoiding talk with mom

Editor's note: This article was sponsored by Seattle Children's Hospital.

Picture this: It’s 7 a.m. on a school day and your child is clinging to their comforter, resisting all of your attempts to rouse them. You coax and cajole, pulling the warm blankets off and promising a mouth-watering breakfast.

Maybe your child makes it downstairs. But despite your pleas and bargains — that may even devolve into threats of forfeited screen time — the bus comes and goes while your child is sitting, silent and sullen, on the couch.

School avoidance has become an increasingly common issue, says Seattle Children’s counselor Susan Sidman, LMHC, who leads a parenting skills group on the topic. While these challenges have always existed, the pandemic’s necessity for remote schooling and hybrid options may have exacerbated its prevalence. Children no longer see in-person school as their one and only option, particularly if a parent now works from home. Additionally, some students may have emerged from the pandemic with increased anxiety, depression and motivation struggles.

While allowing your child to stay home from school might seem like a reasonable solution for a day, Sidman cautions that the choice can have cascading consequences. Over time, school avoidance can lead to academic problems, dropping out of school, loss of social interaction, mental health struggles, family conflicts and a lack of needed support services.

“My biggest piece of advice is: Don’t go down that road,” says Sidman. “Do everything you can to get to school, even if you’re late.”

What is school avoidance?

The phrase “school avoidance” encompasses a range of behaviors, from children who flat-out refuse to attend to those who resist but ultimately relent. It can also include students who regularly ask parents to pick them up early from school.

According to the School Avoidance Alliance, a group that provides guidance and resources, child-driven refusal to attend school or stay there throughout the day can affect anywhere between 5 and 28 percent of youths at some point in their lives.

The Seattle Children’s skills group includes a mix of situations and ages. Some families may face exhausting daily battles to get their child out the door, while others may have a student who attends only several days a week. In the most extreme cases of students who haven’t attended school in months, Sidman recommends a higher level of care, such as an intensive outpatient or partial hospitalization program. She qualifies, “I would say that it is a group that is appropriate for parents whose children miss at least a quarter of the day or more on a regular basis — more than once a week over a period of several weeks — specifically due to anxiety.”

While there are cases when in-person school cannot meet a child’s needs, switching to remote or hybrid options due to anxiety is not usually a good choice. Staying home — even temporarily — is also unadvisable. Avoiding stress doesn’t give children the opportunity to develop coping skills and strategies, and can affirm that the thing they’re evading is indeed dangerous.

“The more you miss, the more disconnected you are with your peers and the more behind you are with academics,” Sidman stresses. “Missing isn’t just right now: There’s a cumulative effect.”

Why is my child resisting school?

School avoidance can happen at any age, and the reasons behind the reluctance can vary greatly. As a parent, the first step is to approach the situation with curiosity and ask: Why is my child avoiding school?

For some children, the problem might be situational. Perhaps they are simply not getting enough sleep or they’re worried about a particularly hard class. Sometimes, it’s not that school is bad, but that home is simply too comfortable. In other cases, mental health struggles such as social anxiety or depression may be fueling the reluctance.

Understanding the reason can parents determine the best approach. In some cases, specific interventions might be needed, such as addressing a bullying situation or providing accommodations for a learning disability. If staying home is more rewarding, the parent may need to adjust the home environment by requiring extra chores to be completed during the day and removing any screen time. Unless a child is sick, parents should have their child complete academic work throughout the school day.

What to do if a child is avoiding school

For children with avoidance tendencies, the prospect of attending school can be overwhelming, leading to all-or-nothing thinking. If they get up, they will have to attend six classes, interact with all kinds of people, and work on multiple projects and assignments. Breaking tasks into smaller, manageable steps can shift a child’s focus to the present moment.

“Don’t allow that time traveling,” advises Sidman. “This is the step we’re on right now: We’re not worrying about that biology test until later.”

Parents can encourage their child to take incremental steps forward each day, even if that means just getting dressed, walking to the bus or saying hello to school staff before returning home. While progress may vary from child to child, pacing is crucial. Sidman likens the process to marathon training, emphasizing the importance of setting achievable goals.

“If you have to go run a marathon, you need to train,” she explains. “The same kind of thing is true for kids who really have a lot of anxiety and depression and have been out of school.”

It might make sense for a child to earn a privilege such as screen time for accomplishing their daily goal, even if that is simply getting dressed or packing a backpack. If a child does stay home, though, earned privileges should only be cashed in after the regular school day ends.

Put on your oxygen mask on first

When parents are grappling with their child’s school avoidance, they often find themselves struggling to maintain composure in what can be an extremely frustrating situation. Sidman recommends using the acronym STOP to guide a proactive approach. These steps include:

S: Stop yourself from acting on emotional impulses, such as sighing, yelling, nagging, rolling your eyes or slamming a door. Similarly, resist the urge to launch into a lecture on why your child will not graduate high school and succeed in life if they don’t attend school today.

T: Take a step back to collect yourself. Breathe deeply or enjoy a slow sip of coffee. Consider what you can do to get yourself into a well-regulated state.

O: Orient yourself to helpful thoughts. Switch your inner monologue from negativity — “He’s being so stubborn!” — to a more helpful mantra such as “I’m going to be as effective as I can in this moment.”

P: Proceed effectively. Focus on one thing at a time. Look for the positive things your child is doing, even if it is as simple as noting they got out of bed or ate some food. Maybe they shared a fear or anxiety. Stay focused on the moment, and away from past failures and fears for the future.

You’re not alone

Resolving school avoidance is a process and will not likely be resolved in a day. Like a large cruise ship, turning around will take time and patience. While it’s easy to assume everyone else is getting to school just fine, keep in mind that others might be experiencing invisible challenges of their own.

“It’s easy to feel frustrated because you don’t see the other people who are struggling,” says Sidman. “Don’t give up hope. Stay patient. Know that you’re not alone.”

Throughout the process, remember to have empathy for yourself and for your child.

“A lot of these kids are missing school because they’re really struggling,” says Sidman. “They would go if it were easier for them. We need to help them learn the tools to help them do it.”

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