Nothing can derail a morning more seriously than a child refusing to go to school. While the problem might sound odd to parents who have not experienced it, school refusal is a growing issue that’s impacting more families now than in pre-COVID times. School refusal can include behavior such as outright refusing to go to school, delaying so severely that regular tardiness is common, leaving class to go to the nurse throughout the day, and requesting to be picked up early due to illness or some other issue. If you have an early elementary student who is either suddenly or gradually becoming more serious about avoiding the classroom, here’s what to do.
Recognize the problem
For some kids, school refusal starts suddenly, perhaps at the beginning of the year or after a school change. For others, the problem starts gradually and grows in the frequency of occurrence until school and class attendance are becoming a daily issue. It’s important for parents to understand that school refusal is not a behavior issue — it’s usually related to underlying mental health challenges, specific issues at school, or a combination of both.
Understand the cause
Once you recognize that there is an underlying cause to school refusal, it’s time to investigate what’s going on. Talk with your child, their teacher, and any support staff that knows them well to figure out if there’s something going on at school that’s prompting the refusal. Issues with bullying, social challenges, or unfavorable classroom conditions could be contributing to their school-related distress.
If the school environment doesn’t seem to raise any red flags, it can be helpful to recognize that school refusal is often secondary to anxiety, which can be diagnosed and treated by a therapist.
Sometimes, even if the school environment looks “fine,” it is not set up to be inclusive to neurodiverse kids. High-demand, overstimulating environments can be the norm in schools, which can cause deep anxiety and distress for kids who have sensory sensitivities or other issues.
Create a team for support
Once you’ve begun to identify the underlying issue, you’ll want to put together your support team. Depending on the underlying cause, this might include a child psychologist, an occupational therapist, your child’s teacher, the school social worker, an advocate, or any number of other roles.
Make good choices for your family
If you examine the underlying issue and determine that your child’s school is not a good or safe place for them (especially if they are neurodiverse and their needs are not being met) you may want to make a big change in your life. That might include choosing a different school or homeschooling.
If you decide to remain at the same school, work with your team to create a consistent plan that works for you and your child. This might include cognitive behavioral therapy, occupational therapy, creating safe spaces at school, and identifying an in-school advocate that can help them feel safe at school.
School refusal is challenging and, often, heartbreaking, for families who want their child to enjoy school and who struggle with the unpredictability that school refusal can create on the family routine. While the solution may vary from family to family, one thing that holds true for all is that you’ll need support. Talking with trusted friends and family members and your own therapist can help you cope as you help your child navigate this tough issue.