Truancy or School Refusal: Helping Anxious Kids

by ParentCo. November 08, 2017

unhappy girl sitting on stairs at home

It’s morning, and you’re trying to get your child off to school, but they refuse. They say they feel sick, or maybe they’re panicked and crying. Maybe they just won’t get out of bed. You’ve come to dread this time of the day just as much as it seems they do. Why does your kid hate going to school so much? School refusal is the term for when a child refuses to go to school, and it’s much different than truancy, even though they might seem similar. While truant children are bored with school, or angry about having to go, school refusal is caused by something different: fear. Anxiety is the driver behind this behavior, which is also sometimes called school phobia.

What causes anxiety over school?

There are a variety of factors that can contribute to a child having fear about school. Though some children have a pattern of spikes in anxiety during the time leading up to school starting again in the fall, school refusal can occur at any time of the year. Back-to-school anxiety typically stems from anxiety over the unknown and change that might also have elements of school refusal, whereas school refusal is a problem that has it’s roots in a variety of different problems and causes. In some cases, school refusal is a symptom of a larger mental health problem. It can be difficult to determine mental health issues in children, since signs tend to be different than those shown by adults. Children refusing school may have depression, anxiety, OCD, a learning disability, a sleep disorder, or separation anxiety. Their refusal to attend school is a manifestation of this more encompassing issue. Other times, there are specific stressors they’re encountering at school that cause them to want to avoid going. A teacher that they dislike, a class that’s causing them exceptional difficulty or an upcoming test or presentation might lead your kid to want to stay home instead of heading to class. “Those bullied and their bullies alike complain of headaches and stomach aches, have difficulty falling asleep and fall victim to psychological symptoms, most notably depression and very significant anxiety,” states a resource from the University of Southern California, all common symptoms in school-refusing students. Testing in general causes many students distress, which can escalate if they don’t learn coping skills to deal with test anxiety. Language barriers can also be an issue for children at school that might cause them to want to avoid attending. Kids might also have reasons for wanting to skip that don’t have much to do with school at all. In these cases, the child might want attention from their parents or other people important to them. They might also want to do something else besides school, like play or spend time with friends, or learn on their own terms. There may be things occurring during school hours that the child wants to be involved with or monitor. In all cases, the school refusal is based on factors causing the child emotional distress. The child isn’t just bored or rebellious, and in fact might be an excellent student who recognizes the value of good attendance. However, their fear is the most powerful motivator of their behavior.

Is my child refusing school or truant

When school refusal happens, it’s often initially difficult for parents to understand. A school refusing child’s behavior may seem irrational and confusing to parents, who don’t always see the full picture when it comes to what their child is experiencing in the classroom. It can be frustrating to try to get a very reluctant child out the door, especially when it’s not clear why they’re so upset. Some symptoms typical of school refusal include:
  • Stomach aches, headaches, or sore throats that seem to resolve as they day goes on, only to recur in the morning before school
  • Tantrums, panic, or crying before school or in the evening before bed
  • Changes in behavior associated with transitional times in school, including going from elementary to middle school, or middle to high school
  • Frequent calls from the child from the school infirmary, requesting to be taken home
  • Illness recurring before presentations, tests, or days where the child has physical education class
  • The child’s stress or illness lessening on the weekends or before breaks and school vacations
  • Pleas to parents to not return to school
School refusal in teens can be harder to discern from truancy, as teens tend to be less revealing with their emotions and are also more independent, so are more likely to leave the house appearing to head to school but actually go elsewhere.

Coping with school refusal

We are just now beginning to recognize the role of mental health in school refusal. Children who don’t go to school are still often viewed as a “problem.” The law says kids have to go to school, which often drives parent’s initial reactions to school refusal to be disciplinary. As you can imagine, the impact of discipline on a child who is already fearful of the consequences of attending school can be extremely negative, and in most cases leads to more anxiety. Instead of viewing your young student’s reluctance to attend class as a reason for punishment, try approaching it in a different way. Anxiety is best handled when approached as a problem to be treated, not punished. Treating school refusal as a symptom of a larger issue makes it much easier to address its cause and can hopefully make drop-off time easier for all of you. Have an open and honest dialogue with your child about why they they’re refusing to attend school. Ask them if there is something happening at school or at home during school hours that’s causing them to want to stay home. Ensure them that they are not in trouble and that you want to help them feel okay with going to school. If you’re able to find out what’s causing your child distress, you can begin to address the problem causing the school refusal. In some instances, it can be helpful to consider therapy for your child to help them cope with challenging situations. Since mornings before school tend to be when school refusing children experience the most anxiety, it can help to invest some extra time to help them feel comfortable as they go through their morning routine. A special breakfast, a soothing tea, or even just taking a few extra moments to talk to your child before school can all help calm their mind. On the way to school, you can play their favorite music in the car. Talk to them about positive things happening at school: good grades in a difficult class, an exceptional exam score, or new friends are all great things to focus on. The teachers at Kindercare share this tip for an easier drop-off for younger kids: “At drop off, take a little time to focus your attention on your child. Get down at her level and be with her before saying good-bye. This can help her relax and ease her fears.” After you’ve figured out why it’s happening, talk to your school about it. Explain the situation, and find out if there are things that you can do to help make school time easier for your child. Coordinate with school officials to address your child’s needs. Many schools have begun to recognize the distinction between school refusal and truancy, and the teachers and counselors at your school will likely gladly hear you out. Their goal is to ensure your child is successful at school, so don’t be afraid to reach out to work with them to help achieve it. Getting to the root of school refusal allows you to help them resolve the underlying issue. Addressing school refusal is about more than just getting your kid to class – it’s about helping them address their emotional and mental wellbeing, and teaching them early coping mechanisms for dealing with anxiety. With the right conversations, connections, and tools, mornings can go a lot more smoothly in your house.



Also in Conversations

Creative Ways to Teach Children About Water Safety
Creative Ways to Teach Children About Water Safety

by Charlie Fletcher

When you teach water safety skills, you can add sustainable water practices, so your kids can learn to be careful around the water while taking care of the planet.

Continue Reading

How to Know if Your Child is Ready for Potty Training
How to Know if Your Child is Ready for Potty Training

by Allison Jandu

What many may not realize is that readiness for potty training isn't just about age—it's more about your child's individual development. Here's how to know.

Continue Reading

girl holding her hands together who is expressing love
5 Tips to Teach Kids the Subtle Art of Graciousness

by ParentCo.

In an effort to improve both manners and self-esteem, here are five easy tips to practice when accepting a compliment. You'll help raise a gracious kid.

Continue Reading