When Getting TO School is Hard! (School Refusal) - Learning Lab

When Getting TO School is Hard! (School Refusal)


It seems impossible, but the new school year is starting to get old already!

The shiny new lunchbox is a bit scuffed, the fresh Crayola tips are worn down, and the shine of optimism is already waning in the new school year.

Now it’s down to the real “work” of school.

Some of us are energized and excited by the a new school year. It’s a time for fresh beginnings, rekindled friendships, and academic adventures! However, some children and teens are already experiencing an emotional and motivational letdown after the early “honeymoon” (usually August or September). Now is the time when students may struggle with on-time arrival, or with attendance overall. The net result often includes family conflicts, declining academic progress, and peaking anxiety. Children who have pre-existing patterns of severe separation anxiety, excessive worrying, or depression are especially at risk for what is generically referred to as “school refusal.”

Note: “School refusal” is very different from students who are purposely truant from school. With school refusal, the student is usually embarrassed and self-deprecating about not being able to attend school like everyone else. The desire to get to school is there; the ability to get to school easily is not.

Changes in “school eagerness” throughout a school year or semester are completely normal and to be expected for most children. A problem only arises when a student develops a pattern of tardiness, early dismissals, or full-day absences.

Is your child exhibiting some/many of these traits?

  • Frequent stomach upsets or headaches on school morning
  • Frequent visits to the school nurse during the school day
  • Poor sleep patterns on school nights (or excessive sleeping & difficulty waking in the mornings)
  • Asking to be picked up early from school
  • Outright refusal to get out of bed or leave the house for school
  • Passively arriving late to school or to individual classes
  • Difficulty returning to school after a break of some kind (a scheduled holiday, a single sick day, etc.), especially longer breaks
  • Trouble separating from mom, dad, or a caregiver (clinginess)
  • Emotional outbursts over relatively “small” problems when getting ready for school in the mornings

Our behaviors, even the ones that appear to be random, do serve a function or a purpose, whether we consciously know it or not! Finding out why a child doesn’t want to go to school, especially if the issue seems new, takes some detective work. Changes in behavior can be triggered by a disruptive life event (a household move, a divorce, a new school or teacher, a social conflict), or by what may appear on the surface to be something relatively minor to us. However, once the “not attending” starts and gains momentum, it becomes increasingly difficult to get back to school without help and purposeful problem-solving.

We, as humans, simply don’t usually keep doing things unless the action is rewarding (even if the reward is unintentional or accidental)! In most cases, the resistance to going to school is connected to one of a few main functions, typically one of these four things:

  • To escape or avoid something–usually academic work or social demands, or even to avoid attention
  • To get attention–from peers, parents, etc.
  • To get a tangible item or access to an activity that is more preferred to that child than school
  • The even more elusive “fun factor”–to do something that feels good or is just plain old enjoyable!
  • Once the behavior takes place, the student gains a reinforcement that is motivating, which encourages the behavior to continue (or repeat) the next time the student experiences those same triggering emotions: fear, nervousness, reluctance, etc…

If this is happening in your family, be sure to enlist the help of people who know your child and can help brainstorm and identify some possible causes of the behavior, while also brainstorming new rewards for improvement. Your goal is to find alternative and positive ways for your student’s need (above) to be met! Remember –everyone who knows and cares about your child can provide valuable input. This group of experts may include but is most certainly not limited to teachers, coaches, clergy, etc… It can be anyone who sees your child’s functioning or behavior in an arena outside of home.

Some things to consider as you create your action plan:

  • Is there a physical illness or problem? Have a checkup to rule out any actual physical issues. Make sure to include vision and hearing screenings.
  • Is there a true academic gap or need to investigate? Talk to your child’s teacher about grades, test/quiz performance, and homework. Ask for academic screenings or other assessments if an issue is suspected. This can help rule in or out learning problems as a cause for resisting school. For kids, every single school day is an on-demand, all-day performance!
  • When did the refusal begin? Was there a legitimate event that is causing fear or anxiety? This could be an unfriendly peer, a lost or rocky friendship, a noisy bus ride causing sensory overload, a recently failed test…children will rarely come right out and state a direct cause. We have to ask many questions and be willing to wait to discover it ourselves!
  • What are the household routines for evenings and mornings before school? Create routines that are predictable, allow for plenty of clock time for all family members, and prioritize sleep and breakfast.
  • Find a special, safe adult to greet your child at the door of the school. If your child can physically get to school at all, have them go. A late arrival or partial day is better than an entirely missed day, always!
  • Help your child develop a “self-reassurance” motto. It may sound silly at first, but having your child silently repeat a phrase reminding him/her that one is “safe/okay” or another personal phrase is powerful. This can be as simple as, “I am okay for this hour; I can go to only one more class and then decide how I feel.”
  • Insist upon a team approach. Talk with all relevant and appropriate adults, coordinate incentives and reward for attending school, have conversations with ??? to address any specific preventable issues (such as problems with specific peers), and reassure your child everyone is working together.

With time, care, and active problem-solving, your family and school team can work together to create success, even when a child has missed a long period of school. Be prepared to celebrate small wins along the way, and always ask for help! Your school team will also help decide if more intensive help is needed from outside sources.

Of all students, children who refuse school in this way will NEED this village of support in order to create new habits and patterns. The good news is that, just as missing school can create negative momentum, getting BACK in school will have the reverse effect!


Supplemental Sources:

Helping Students At Home and At School III: Handouts for Families and Educators (National Association of School Psychologists)

Conducting School-Based Functional Behavioral Assessments, Second Edition: A Practitioner’s Guide (Steege & Watson)