Dominion Hospital - February 22, 2019

It's heart wrenching, frustrating, infuriating. Take steps to manage your child's refusal to go to school.

Let's be clear: School in 2019 is not what it was back in the day, but some things transcend time. Like morning dread. Or that Sunday night feeling. Or bus stop jitters. Occasionally, all kids balk at going to school. When the refusal crops up daily, your child may have what's known as school refusal.

What is school refusal?

Children with school refusal have a difficult time getting to school and staying in school for the whole day due to anxiety. These children are often well-behaved rule-followers, except when it comes to school.

School refusal is different from truancy, where children act out defiantly or are sneaking to cut classes. Parents of school refusal kids know their children aren't in school, and often have been working hard to change it. Here's what you can do to end the struggle and address the core issues:

  1. Check out illness complaints. If your child repeatedly complaints of a headache, stomach ache or other physical symptoms, then follow that path and see a doctor. While unlikely the cause, investigating symptoms validates your child's feeling that something is wrong and gives you information. It also establishes contact with a medical professional who may be able to evaluate your child for anxiety.
  2. Be open to hearing about problems or worries. Keep in mind some children can't put into words what is bothering them or are reluctant to tell you so listen for what they aren't saying, too.
  3. Look for patterns. Are certain days of the week worse than others? Is your child ill on Saturdays? Does the headache start at a certain time of day? Look for clues about what triggers symptoms or makes them worse.
  4. Create a sick policy. Once you've check out symptoms, set some guidelines about staying home sick. For example, unless you have a fever, you'll go. This removes the power struggle and ends long discussions about symptoms or complaints.
  5. Set up a conference with the teacher or school counselor. They see a different side of your child and may be able to offer insight. They also will see that you are involved and actively working on the problem, something important if days off of school are starting to add up.
  6. Address what you can. If there are reality-based fears, such as bullying or test anxiety, then take steps to correct them. For things you can't change, like math tests on Fridays, help your child to reframe the situation and work through the anxiety.
  7. Avoid getting into a debate about the importance of going to school or yelling about behavior. Anxiety means it's a matter of can't, instead of don't want to. Negative attention can establish a pattern of behavior.
  8. Staying home should not be an attractive option. Make it clear that being at home means they are choosing to see a doctor for their symptoms, and that there are no after-school privileges like TV or games. You can also set up a study table and have your child complete missed school work or work ahead on assignments. For teens, you might choose to make sleeping off limits.
  9. Know when to ask for help. School refusal that lasts for more than a week consecutively or off-and-on for several weeks may require outside counseling help. Your family doctor is a good place to start for referral suggestions (particularly if you've seen them to eliminate illness as a cause) or the school counselor.

Helping your child work through anxiety and school refusal can give them a sense of accomplishment and draw out inner strength. Though you might feel alone and powerless in midst of it, the situation is common enough that there's a name for it. Soldier on, parents, this too shall pass.

Dominion Hospital in Fall Church can be a source of support. Talk to one of our specialists to see if the Choices School Refusal Program is right for your family. Our First Step Counselors are available 24/7. Find answers at Dominion Hospital.