Whining and groaning about going to school is bound to happen from time to time. Children will undoubtedly have a few instances when they beg to stay home from school for one reason or another. Other students may skip the parental piece altogether and skip school without adult permission. While both of these issues can be problematic, they do not fall under the more severe issue of school refusal.
Fact: Experts estimate that anywhere from 2-5% of school-age children develop this level of refusal because of deeper emotional issues at play. This non-compliant behavior can develop out of depression and/or anxiety, and sometimes a combination of both disorders.
Fiction: Some people believe that school refusal encompasses any case where a child refuses to attend school; however, it is more complicated than that. School refusal is not the same thing as truancy, where students decide to skip certain classes or ditch school altogether without their parents’ knowledge. A student who is routinely truant is avoiding school in favor of some other desired alternative. Whereas a student who is refusing to go to school is doing so out of emotional distress associated with being in school. Similarly, a child who feigns illness to avoid a math test, for instance, does not fall under the same category as a student who adamantly refuses to attend school because of unexplained dread or apprehension.
Fact: School refusal is a response to or an attempt to alleviate or avoid the trigger—school—by refusing to attend. For students with social anxiety, separation anxiety, generalized anxiety, or depressive disorders, the school environment can exacerbate symptoms and create added distress. Incidents of bullying, the desire to be the perfect student, negative peer influences, and other emotional trauma associated with the school environment can also contribute to school refusal, but it does not happen overnight. School refusal is often a last resort or “breaking point” for children who have been experiencing pent up anxiety and/or depression for an extended period of time. When other strategies and methods for managing stress have failed, their last resort is to avoid stressors altogether by staying home from school.
Fiction: Contrary to popular opinion, school refusal does not occur out of nowhere in one fell swoop. There are known behaviors or signs leading up to outright refusal that occur systematically beforehand. It is important for parents to recognize these patterns and intervene early:
- Children may begin by intentionally oversleeping several days or weeks in a row to prolong their time at home before leaving for school.
- They may make numerous trips to the nurse with complaints about chronic, unexplained pain or injuries that are not visible, such as headaches, nausea, fatigue, dizziness, muscle strains, or heart palpitations. Often times these ailments, while they may seem fictional or feigned, are actual physical responses to the anxiety that the child is experiencing—they are not necessarily “faking” the symptoms.
- Children may also continuously call or text parents from school asking to be picked up for early dismissal. Often times they will claim that they are too sick to finish out the day. While this may be true on occasion, the likelihood is that the anxiety/depression has reached a threshold where the child feels that escaping from school will be the only solution.
Unfortunately, caving to these requests for partial school days will only create further issues with school avoidance. Intervention is required to address the core triggers and help these children to cope with their feelings of anxiety and depression within the school environment.
Look for strategies for intervening and managing behaviors related to school refusal in part II!