Dealing With School Refusal in School-Age Children

What to Do When Your Child Won't Go to School

Man preparing his son for school

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When a child refuses to go to school, many parents of school-age children wonder what they're doing wrong, but they are not alone. Estimates indicate that as many as 20% of children show signs of school refusal at one time or another during their school career. 

Dealing with school refusal relies on understanding what's behind it and working with a team of professionals to help your child through this tough time.

Why Is Your Child Refusing to Go to School?

Before coming up with a definitive plan for dealing with your child's school refusal, it's important to get a sense of why your child is refusing to go to school.

The National Social Anxiety Center identifies four main reasons children refuse to go to school. Your child may be refusing to go to school:

  1. To get away from feeling bad. Your child is trying to avoid something at school that causes anxiety, depression or other feelings of distress.
  2. To avoid social interactions or public evaluation. Your child has anxiety in social situations, trouble with peer interactions, or is worried about how they will do in testing situations and/or about being called on in class.
  3. To get attention. Tantrums, clinginess, and separation anxiety may be a way to get the attention they desire.
  4. To get some sort of reward outside of school. This can be as simple as being able to watch TV or play video games while at home.

Your child's school refusal may be for a combination of these factors, but as long as it's being reinforced, the behavior will continue.

A child's behavior isn't only reinforced by reward, it's also reinforced by the successful avoidance of a stressor.

For example, a child may not want to go to school because they hate riding the bus. They may have tantrums in the morning that either makes them miss the bus or lets them stay home. The behavior has been negatively reinforced because the child has successfully avoiding having to ride the bus.

On the other hand, if your child won't go to school because they have separation anxiety, they're being positively reinforced by getting to stay home and spend time with you.

What Should You Do When Your Child Refuses to Go to School?

  1. Talk to your child's teacher and other school personnel about the problem. Your child's teacher may be able to provide some insight as to whether there are things going on at school that is contributing to the problem. They may also be able to reassure you that despite the morning tantrums and leg-clinging drop-offs, your child is okay once in the classroom and involved in the routine.
  2. Bring your child to the pediatrician. Many children will have physical symptoms as well as emotional ones. It's important to make sure that these symptoms and the accompanying anxiety or depression aren't related to an illness or have any physical cause. Once you can rule that out, your child's pediatrician can help you decide whether it's time to bring a psychologist or counselor on as part of the team.
  3. Try to stay calm and rational. This is easier said than done—especially when your child's behavior is disrupting the household and causing you to worry about things like truancy laws and whether you're going to lose your job if you have to call in one more day. You need to maintain the expectation that school is a non-negotiable activity. Engaging in arguments or bribery is not going to solve the underlying problem.

What's the Next Step?

Once you've identified a problem, your next steps are to get your child back to school and to seek appropriate help for the underlying issue. Treating that problem, whether it's anxiety, depression, oppositional defiance disorder or something else, will often require the assistance of an outside counselor. Getting your child back to school will require cooperation on the part of the school.

The Family's Role in Dealing With School Refusal

Once you've established a relationship with the school and an outside counselor, it's time to look at what you can do at home to help get your child back to school. Firstly, you may have to reevaluate your priorities.

For instance, if your child won't put on their clothes to go to school, you may need to weigh whether it's more important for them to change out of their pajamas or to be at school. This might mean sending your kid to school in their PJs if it's the only way to get them out the door in the morning. 

Parents may also need to:

  • Establish a behavior contract with your child that provides rewards for attending school and the consequences for not attending.
  • Teach your child relaxation techniques like deep breathing and other stress management skills.
  • Allow your child to call you and check in at a set time of day.
  • Provide your child with a picture of you or another small comfort object.
  • Set predictable morning routines.

Working With the School to Create a Plan

There are different approaches to working with your child's school to help them get back on track. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Ask the school to waive or reduce the amount of makeup work your child will have to do to catch up.
  • Develop a 504 plan if your child doesn't have learning problems significant enough to qualify for an IEP. A 504 plan deals with accommodations that are necessary when a child has a disability that impacts their education, but not their ability to learn.
  • Create a plan for getting your child from the car into the school. If your child is having problems with separation, a teacher may have to meet you in the parking lot to physically escort your child into the school. In other cases, it may be enough to have someone meet you at the door.
  • Discuss starting out with a partial day program. If your child's school refusal is severe enough, you may need to start with low expectations. It may be OK to consider a day successful if your child makes it to school, even if they don't stay long. Eventually, you can build up, hour by hour, until they are able to be there for longer stretches of time.
  • If you can't get your child into the classroom, see if they would be willing to sit in the school library, lobby, or cafeteria with supervision. Dr. Christopher Kearney, director of the UNLV Child School Refusal and Anxiety Disorders Clinic, refers to this as setting a baseline. "At least they're getting up and getting ready to go to school, and it's a lot easier to get them back into the regular classroom from that point."
2 Sources
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  1. Kearney CA, Bensaheb A. School Absenteeism and School Refusal Behavior: A Review and Suggestions for School‐Based Health Professionals. J Sch Health. 2006;76(1):3-7. doi:10.1111/j.1746-1561.2006.00060.x

  2. National Social Anxiety Center. Social anxiety and school refusal (part 1).