How to Help a Kid Who's Scared to Go to School

Father hugging daughter while on cell phone

Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images 

Your child is generally excited about school, but it's time to head out the door, they suddenly are completely unwilling to go. Or maybe you can get them out the door, but when it comes to saying goodbye at the school gate, they won’t stop clinging to you. Perhaps your child will go to school, but spends half the day at the nurse’s office complaining of tummy aches and asking to go home.

All of these scenarios are signs of school avoidance or school phobia. Although it may feel at times like your child is the only one with these issues, you are far from alone: Up to 5% of children experience fears about school.

Let’s take a look at what school avoidance and phobias are, what causes them, and some parent-tested tips to help your child overcome their school fears.

What Is School Phobia?

Your child may have a school phobia if they feel severely stressed or scared about going to school. They may be unwilling to go, and actively protest going. Alternatively, they may go to school, and then have trouble feeling comfortable and want to go home.

School phobias may look different from one child to another, explains Nora Hug, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker in Rochester, N.Y. “Some [kids] will show external cues, such as refusing to get on the bus, refusing to get out of bed, [and/or] telling adults that they don't want to go to school.”

Other kids may experience depression around schooling, say that they are sick often, or try to leave school to avoid certain classes or subjects that they are struggling with, Hug adds. “Just because they’re physically in the school building [doesn't mean they aren't] still struggling with their school phobia,” says Hug.

The way that school phobia presents may depend on the age of the child, notes Bridget Mozina, MA, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Minnesota. Younger kids may have behavioral issues (such as tantrums), have trouble separating from their caregiver, or refuse to do their school work, says Mozina. Children may struggle to connect or engage with their peers, she adds.

In older kids and teens, school phobia may look a little different. “In teens, there may be missing assignments, below-average grades or a significant shift in their average range of achievement, shutting down when the topic comes up, and skipping classes,” says Mozina.

Kids of all ages who have school phobia sometimes experience physical symptoms, many of which are a result of anxiety. These include tummy aches, nausea, headaches, and diarrhea. This is because of something known as “somatization,” says Julie Walker, MS, LMFT, a faculty member with Pacific Oaks College and an elementary school mental health clinician.

“School phobia/avoidance may start out as an upset stomach or other physical symptoms,” Walker describes. “Somatization or the internalization of anxiety that manifests as a physical symptom— usually some sort of inexplicable pain—is something even adults can present with, but is usually how school avoidance begins.”

Causes of School Anxiety

The causes of school anxiety will vary from one child to another. “There usually isn’t just one big factor that causes school phobia or avoidance; instead it tends to be a culmination of factors that have grown over time,” Walker explains.

Some of the factors that may cause school avoidance include difficulties within a parent/child relationship, low self-esteem, academic challenges, social problems, or a history of mental health issues in either kids or their parents, says Walker.

“One of the biggest predictors for a child/adolescent developing mental health issues is the caregiver’s mental health, highlighting the importance of caregivers taking care of and addressing their own needs as well,” Walker says.

Other causes of school avoidance may be a past trauma or challenge connected to school, says Hug. “This could be a social conflict, bullying, or feeling insecure around their peers,” she explains. “Or perhaps something happened to a student in a class where they felt inadequate and that made them feel insecure in the classroom setting.”

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), school avoidance and phobias may also come up more during certain times of life, such as when a child has moved or when there are other stressors or transitions happening in their family life or personal life. There are ways to help your child if they are experiencing school avoidance.

Tips to Help Your Child Overcome School Avoidance

One of the most important things to keep in mind about school avoidance is that as tempting as it may be to allow your kid to skip school or leave school early when they are upset or scared, it’s not something that should become a habit. This is because when it comes to phobias, avoiding them only makes things worse.

“Sometimes school avoidance can then become a pattern for children and teens because when it's avoided, it immediately relieves the anxiety or stress by not going,” says Mozina. “The only problem is that it is only a temporary solution, and it can turn into a snowball effect and the avoidance becomes more and more of a problem.”

The good news is that school phobias are something that your child can move through and conquer. We’ve gathered some real-life tips from parents about how to help your child overcome their school phobia.

Distraction

Sometimes you need to get your kids to think about something else—anything else!—besides the stress associated with school. Julie E., a mom of one daughter from Singapore and blogger at Adaptable Mama, says that when her child showed signs of school phobia at 18 months, distraction worked well.

Her daughter would cry hysterically at drop-off. Even when Julie could get her daughter into school, she was upset for a lot of the day.

So she tried making the journey to school more lighthearted and focused on other things besides the upcoming separation. “I'd put her in her stroller with all her toys and books and I'd be playful with her all the way to her school,” says Julie.

Having supportive teachers during this stressful time helped immensely as well, Julie shared. “Her teachers, bless them, are always ready by the entrance, prepared to hold and hug her when she struggles."

After about two or three weeks of these routines, things improved, Julie says.

“Heart” Reminders

Caila Drabenstot, a mom of two sets of twins from Indiana, has dealt with her fair share of school avoidance. “My daughter has generalized anxiety, and my son becomes easily overstimulated and misses me during the day a whole lot,” she shares.

She discovered that if she sent her school phobic kids to school with little reminders of her and her love for them, it really seemed to help.

“I drew hearts on my kids’ hands and kissed them before they left for school to let them know that I was with them, even if I wasn’t with them physically,” Drabenstot says. “It turned into them drawing hearts on my hands and kissing them before they left for school, too.”

Drabenstot also sent her kids to school with small notebooks so that they could write down what was bothering them at school to discuss at night when they got home.

Short Term Goals and Rewards

Some kids do really well with well-defined goals—as well as some rewards to celebrate their achievements. This method has worked well for Joanna McClanahan, mom of two from Olympia, Wash.

“I have one kid who loves school and another anxious introvert who dreads it every morning,” she explains. For her kid who’s anxious about school, she does things like ending the week with a celebration if her child is able to overcome their fears.

“I’ll say, for example: if you go to school every day this week, we can go to the park for three hours this weekend for a picnic,” McClanahan says.

Regular Mental Health Days

For Brenay Brockenbrough, mom of a 7-year-old from central Virginia, taking a more preventative approach works well. She schedules mental health days on a regular basis so that her child gets breaks from school to relax and recuperate.

“She gets two mental health days every nine weeks,” Brockenbrough says. “I write a note to excuse her because a brain feeling under the weather is a valid excuse for an absence.” During those mental health days, she and her daughter veg out, stay in their PJs all day, and watch YouTube videos.

These breaks are great times to connect, and really help her daughter keep her school anxiety at bay, says Brockenbrough.

Being Honest and Direct

Julie E. says that her daughter had another bout of school phobia when she started preschool, which coincided with when her daughter could better understand was COVID-19 is, and she began feeling anxious about that. This time, distraction with toys and special activities didn’t work as well.

But now her daughter was old enough to have some honest discussions about what was going on and how she was feeling.

“I just started being direct with her and telling her, I can't play with her the whole day because I need to work,” says Julie. “Then I would ask her if there's anything she hates in school, then what she likes in school. Then we'd focus on what she likes and that was enough to distract her then.”

Being direct and honest can work well for kids as they grow a little older.

“For preschoolers, I think it helps to treat them like how anyone would like to be treated—being honest with them, telling them the necessary info in a way that's appropriate for their age—and then focusing on the positives of going to school,” Julie shares.

Getting Help From Teachers and Specialists

Mozina recommends connecting with your child’s teacher and school staff if you need extra support. In some cases, the school may need to be alerted to a bullying situation or to understand a particular academic or learning challenge your child is facing that is making school more difficult.

Some children may also need the help of a licensed child therapist. “You can make an appointment with a child therapist who specializes in this area to help your child or teen learn about their feelings and coping strategies, and manage any possible stressors that may be impacting the avoidance,” Mozina recommends.

A Word From Verywell

School phobias can be challenging, but they can be manageable if you are proactive about helping your child process their feelings and employ techniques to encourage them to go to school. However, sometimes you can’t do it alone, and it may be important to get professional help. Either way, know that you are not alone, help is out there, and in due time, your child will adjust to school.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. HealthyChildren.org. School avoidance: Tips for concerned parents.

  2. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. School refusal.

  3. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Physical symptoms of emotional distress: Somatic symptoms and related disorders.

  4. Yale Medicine. Avoiding and refusing to go to school.

  5. American Academy of Pediatrics. School avoidance: Tips for concerned parents.

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a lactation consultant and writer covering maternal/child health, parenting, general health and wellness, and mental health. She has worked with breastfeeding parents for over a decade, and is a mom to two boys.

Originally written by
Ann Logsdon

Ann Logsdon is a school psychologist specializing in helping parents and teachers support students with a range of educational and developmental disabilities.

Learn about our editorial process