What To Do If Your Child Starts Trying to Avoid School
Takeaway: If your child starts trying to avoid school, (1) Spot her anxiety triggers, (2) Keep her school updated, (3) Create an action plan, (4) Teach her to manage anxiety, (5) Gently encourage her to go to school, (6) Ask a specialist for help if needed.
It’s perfectly normal for children to try and avoid school from time to time. But if it happens regularly, it could be part of a larger ‘school refusal’ issue.
Children react to school in all sorts of ways, so it’s natural for them to try and skip a day or two. But sometimes, it’s part of a larger ‘school refusal’ behaviour pattern – something that usually first shows up in children aged 5 to 7, and then in children aged 11 to 14. With school refusal, children aren’t just reluctant to go to school. Rather, they’re full of anxiety and try to avoid school consistently for weeks and even months. Of course, their anxieties show up in different ways. Some children cry and throw tantrums right before school time, but others might just become more clingy than usual or conveniently won’t get ready for class in time. Often, children’s anxieties might show up as physical symptoms, instead – for example, headaches, tummy aches, tiredness, etc. The key here is that all these issues disappear when you give your child permission to stay home. And they’ll reappear as soon as she has to go to school again.
So, why all the anxiety? What’s so scary about going to school?
School refusal usually happens after your child has spent time away from school – for example, staying home because of the pandemic, taking a holiday, falling ill for a while, etc. Or it could follow a stressful event like losing a loved one, moving houses, or changing schools. As your child mentally prepares to return to school, all her regular worries get magnified into intense anxiety and/or panic. So, if she’s usually nervous about meeting people, she’ll start panicking about socialising with classmates, dealing with teachers, being bullied on the playground, and more. If she’s usually worried about performing well, she’ll panic about reading aloud in class, taking tests, keeping up in PE, etc. And next to all these anxieties, staying in her own room with familiar things is much more comforting.
These anxieties could also be connected to more biologically-rooted brain, attention, and learning differences.
Sometimes, school refusal could be part of other mental health conditions (e.g., separation- anxiety disorder) which are tied into brain chemistry. So, in separating from you, your child’s brain might create a panic that’s significantly more intense than the mild anxiety her classmates feel. Similarly, other brain differences could indirectly cause school-related anxiety. For example, your child will likely struggle in class if she has a learning difference like dyslexia or dyscalculia, an attention issue like ADHD, or brain processing issues like working memory deficits and executive function difficulties. Although these challenges don’t necessarily cause anxiety directly, they often complicate academic life, which fuels your child’s avoidance.
So, where do you draw the line? At what point does mild avoidance become more serious ‘school refusal’?
A few arguments about going to school might be tiresome yet manageable. But the following three signs will tell you that things have gotten out of hand: (1) Your child gets really worked up about refusing school, (2) This intense avoidance reaction significantly affects her (and your family’s) daily routine, and (3) These outbursts have been going on for more than a week or two. (Remember, though, that being worked up doesn’t always mean anger and tears. It could be more subtle avoidance like delaying morning routines or complaining about feeling unwell.)
If your child regularly tries to avoid school, here are some things you can do to help.
Avoiding school only makes your child’s life harder. She’ll have more to catch up on in class, will lose socialising time with her friends, and will get used to running away from her fears. But, thankfully, there’s a lot you can do to help.
1. Spot her anxiety triggers
Anxiety becomes hard to control if it’s not dealt with quickly. So, as soon as you notice your child’s school refusal pattern, step in and help her figure out what’s wrong. Find a time when you’re both free and calm, and ask gentle, probing questions. For example, you could explore if she’s being bullied, if a teacher is being difficult, if she’s struggling to keep up in class, and so on. It’ll help to ask direct questions and note which ones your child instinctively reacts to. You can then explore that particular subject more thoroughly.
2. Keep her school updated
Explain what’s going on to your child’s teachers. It’ll help them understand her behaviour and make allowances. Equally important, it’ll give them a chance to share things they’ve observed, which can help you with Step 1 above.
3. Create an action plan
As you both start identifying her triggers, you can develop an action plan to deal with each issue in turn. For example, if she’s struggling to keep up in class, you could explore which subjects bother her, who she can go to for help, how she can change her homework routine, what new study techniques she can practise, etc. And the plan will also outline how you’ll be helping her. This way, you’re showing her that big scary challenges become manageable when you break them down into small bite-size tasks. And although you’re helping her, she’s taking responsibility for these tasks.
4. Teach her to manage anxiety
In an earlier post, we explored how mindfulness is a powerful tool to help children manage anxiety. And you can use all those principles to help your child with her school-related anxieties, too. For example, she can practise ‘star breathing’ to calm down when panicking. (Here, she’ll hold out one hand with her fingers spread apart like a star, and she’ll trace the outline of this star with her other hand – breathing in as she goes up a finger and out as she goes down it.) You can also teach her to ground herself by paying attention to her senses (sights, sounds, smells, etc.). For example, she could mute a panic attack by picking up a random object and focusing all her attention on it. She could ask herself questions like, ‘Is this warm or cold? Hard or soft? Do I like the feel of it? What colour is it? What does it smell like? etc.’ She could also play the ‘word game’ where she picks a word for the day and stops to be mindful of herself and her surroundings every time she reads or hears that word.
5. Gently encourage her to go to school
As unpleasant as it is to see your child so anxious, remember that staying away from school isn’t a long-term solution. The more she gives in to her fears, the more afraid she’ll become, and this is a vicious cycle. So, help her create a plan and stay loving but firm as she follows through. By doing this, you’ll show her two things: first, that it’s possible to do something despite being anxious. And second, that pushing through the anxiety is often enough to chase it away. (Pro tip: If your child does end up staying home, try to make things as boring as possible. So, no TV, no screens, no WiFi. And you could give her extra homework to do. It’s worth seeing if this changes her enthusiasm to avoid school.)
Sometimes, though, you’ll need a specialist to help guide you.
Simple steps like those we’ve outlined won’t be enough in many cases. So, if your child is really struggling, consider consulting a specialist. At The Ed Psych Practice, we offer face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356 / (0) 79 9053 8654
- E-mail: Office@TheEdPsych.com
Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.
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- Here’s Why Teen Girls With ADHD Often Go Undiagnosed
- What Is Maths Anxiety? And Can Your Child Overcome It?
- Multisensory Learning at Home: What All Parents Should Know
- Why You Shouldn’t Ignore Your Child’s Learning & Attention Issues
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