Is Your Child Afraid to Go to School?

School Phobia and Ways to Address It

a child afraid to go to school
What can you do if your child is afraid to go to school?. Getty

Is your child afraid to go to school? Many young children, around the age of two, experience normal separation anxiety and may be upset and clingy when they are separated from parents. This is normal and usually goes away with comfort and time. In a few cases, this anxiety lingers much longer and may indicate a more serious concern. Some children develop a long-term fear of going to school. This condition may be called school avoidance, school refusal, or school phobia.

Children with school phobia are often emotionally insecure and very sensitive. They are likely to want to be near their parents and feel anxiety when separated from them. Their feelings of anxiety may give rise to physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea, or stomach aches. Children with school phobia may resist going to school for extended periods of time over many days.

Though school phobia can have a tremendous impact on a child's education, it is not uncommon. It's thought that close to 5 percent of children experience school phobia at some time.

Who Develops School Phobia?

Some research suggests that some children are more likely than others to show signs of school phobia. This includes:

  • Only children
  • The youngest children in families
  • Children with chronic illnesses

Signs That Your Child May Be Experiencing School Phobia

Parents may suspect that school phobia is a possibility when children:

  • Have frequent physical symptoms such as stomach ailments, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or excessive fatigue without an actual identifiable medical cause
  • Have behavior tantrums, become clingy, or show signs of anxiety when away from parents
  • Have excessive fears of being alone or irrational fears
  • Have difficulty sleeping and frequent nightmares

Factors That Increase the Risk of School Phobia

School phobia, or school refusal, may be influenced by factors such as:

  • Changes in family life such as a move, divorce, death, or other potentially traumatic events
  • Having a well-meaning, but overly protective parent
  • Real concerns for safety of family members
  • Bullying at school
  • Fears over negative relationships with a teacher or peers
  • Real or imagined fears of ridicule or punishment at school

Addressing Your Child's School Phobia

Parents and teachers can and should take steps to address a child’s school phobia to prevent a chronic, long-term problem that can substantially affect learning and a child’s ability to develop into an independent adult. First, parents should have the child examined by her physician to determine if there are underlying, treatable medical causes for the condition. Second, parents and the child can work with the child’s school counselor, teacher, or school psychologist to help determine possible causes for the problem. Together, parents and school staff can develop an intervention plan to increase the child’s school attendance and reduce refusal behaviors.

Helpful Interventions for Children with School Phobia

Some examples of the types of interventions that are often helpful include:

  • Using a behavior modification system to reward the child for attending school.
  • Getting counseling for any family issues that may be impacting the problem.
  • If real threats exist at school or in the neighborhood, such as bullying, taking steps to address the problem. Keep in mind that "bad bullying advice" abounds. First, it's important to encourage your child to talk about bullying. It's hard to know where to begin until you understand the full picture. Here are 15 tips on helping bullied kids to take back their power, but don't hesitate to involve a professional. If your child even hints of bullying behavior, the impact on her life may go much deeper.
  • Identifying a teacher or other trusted adult in the school develop a relationship with the child. This person can be a resource for the child when he is experiencing anxiety or needs help with a problem.
  • Determining if poor academic skills or a learning disability are contributing to the problem. Fear of failure is one underlying cause of school phobia, even for children who are doing well.
  • Starting the child on a shortened school day and gradually increase the time he spends there until he can tolerate an entire school day.
  • When the child is at home because of refusing school, avoiding fun activities that might reinforce the school refusal behavior.
  • Helping the child develop friendships at school.
  • Providing reassurance to the child that he will be okay, and model your own behavior to ensure you are not unintentionally showing signs of worry.
  • Ensure the child has opportunities for success at school and can engage in some activities that she enjoys.
  • Seeking the help of a mental health professional when school phobia does not improve with intervention or is severe. This counseling should include the whole family when possible as family dynamics can both contribute to, and be influenced by, school phobia.
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