When Kids Refuse to Go to School

Disappointed black mother looking at her stubborn daughter with reproach, sitting on couch at home

Lakeside has a history of dealing with students who have faced many life difficulties. Often, they have had school experiences that have been negative and choose not to go to school because of their fear or for other reasons such as bullying. Formerly we labelled this as truancy and sometimes there were legal consequences to their choices. However, we also know that these issues may be emotional, and their avoidance of school may have some deeply rooted causes.

On the Child Mind Institute website, Psychologist Rachel Busman has written an article on this issue that has some perspectives on why this occurs in students and what parents and caregivers can do about it. Here some excerpts from this article:

The term “school refusal” used to be more or less synonymous with truancy, invoking a picture of kids hanging out on the street corner, or holed up in their bedrooms playing video games.

While it is true that some game-playing might well be involved, it’s important to understand that school refusal is not the same as playing hooky. It isn’t driven by the allure of having fun outside of school, but rather by an aversion to school itself.

Everyone resists going to school once in a while, but school refusal behavior is an extreme pattern of avoiding school that causes real problems for a child. School refusal is distinguished from normal avoidance by a number of factors:

  • How long a child has been avoiding school
  • How much distress she associates with attending school
  • How strongly she resists
  • How much her resistance is interfering with her (and her family’s life)
Selective focus at young Asian boy using cell phone on bed in the morning light with out focus vintage alarm clock.

Including all these aspects is important, because a child can still have school refusal even if she attends school most days. I’ve worked with kids who have missed only a day or two of school, but they’ve been tardy 30 times because their anxiety is so extreme it keeps them from getting to school on time. Kids with school refusal might also have a habit of leaving early, spending a lot of time visiting the nurse, or texting parents throughout the day.

Refusal to go to school can create extensive conflicts within families and between school personnel, parents and children. We have found that it can be resolved with an accurate diagnosis, therapy and helping the student to figure out coping mechanisms that will help them find a positive approach to going to school.

Lakeside has worked very hard in our schools to create a more casual and accepting environment for students who have had chronic truancy issues. Good relationships with their staff, a therapeutic environment, regulation techniques and intentional engagement can help support a student and encourage them to overcome fears, anxiety and aversions to going to school. It takes time, patience, a unified staff effort and an overall environment of support and genuine care for students as they re-enter a safe school environment. With those interventions and purposeful steps for engaging them positively, the stigma of school angst can be restored into a more positive experience. This outcome provides reassurance and hope to students and their families and helps them create a new appreciation for school.

Gerry Vassar