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When kids don't want to go to school

What to Do When Kids Don’t Want to Go to School

November 27, 2018     By Rachele A Diliberto, Ph.D., Boys Town Nevada Behavioral Health Clinic

Anxiety, Behavior, Child Development, School

Article written by: Rachele A Diliberto, Ph.D., Boys Town Nevada Behavioral Health Clinic

Many children express reluctance to attend school at some point in their lives, making it one of the most common childhood behavior problems. However, reluctance, and then refusal, to go to school can lead to bigger problems and serious consequences if parents don't effectively respond.

The reasons children are reluctant to go to school vary. One common reason is high rates of school anxiety. Reluctance also tends to be worse after kids have been out on sick days or vacations because they have a hard time going back after missing or being on a break from school for a few days.

Sometimes, reluctance to attend school is just a temporary thing, and is easily remedied. For example, maybe your child had the flu and was out for a few days, and is now having a hard time going back to school. Suddenly your child is anxious, clingy and crying about all the homework he or she missed. Having a conversation with your child about why it's important to go to school, and easing his or her concerns might be all it takes to get things back on track.

A bigger problem occurs when reluctance transitions to outright refusal.

School refusal behavior is defined as a child refusing to attend school and/or having difficulty remaining in classes for an entire day. Refusal is an extreme pattern that causes real problems for a child (and his or her family), and there are a number of factors that make it different from normal avoidance. These include:

  • How long a child has been avoiding school
  • How much distress the child associates with attending school
  • How strongly the child resists
  • How much the child's resistance is interfering with his or her (and family) life

The consequences for missing school intermittently or over a lengthy period may include family conflict and stress, problems in learning and earning good grades, difficulty making and keeping friends, school dropout and delinquency.

There are a number of signs that indicate a child may be having difficulty attending and staying in school, including:

  • Fear of specific things at school: tests, teachers, other kids, riding the bus
  • Physical/somatic complaints
  • Temper tantrums
  • Refusal to get out of bed or get dressed
  • Clinging to parents
  • Asking the same questions over and over (Can I just stay home? Can't we do homeschooling?)
  • Arriving late for school
  • Crying in the classroom
  • Asking to go to the nurse and then calling parents to be picked up
  • Truancy/missing certain classes or leaving school before specific classes
  • Missing school during test or presentation days
  • Withdrawal, extreme shyness at school and different behavior in other classes (may indicate poor peer relationships or bullying)

A child also may have a lot of "suspicious" sick days and/or make frequent trips to the school nurse. Anxiety can be shown in physical ways, so symptoms could be consistent with anxiety about attending or staying in school. In these situations, we recommend getting your child checked out by a pediatrician as it is important not to overlook a possible medical problem.

Visit our condensed guide on School Refusal to see what you can do, as a parent, to Understand the Problem and Help Your Child.

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