When Your Child Is Afraid to Go to School

School Phobia and Ways to Address It

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Many young children are afraid to go to school; the same can be true even for kids who are pre-preschool and go to a childcare center. Beginning between age one to two, kids can experience separation anxiety and may be upset and clingy when they are apart from parents. They may also feel less comfortable in a setting that simply isn't home. This is perfectly normal and usually goes away with comfort measures, time, and a growing sense of independence.

Though less common, there are times when this anxiety lingers much longer and may indicate a more serious concern. Some children develop a long-term fear of going to school that can have quite an impact on them physically and emotionally. This is often referred to as school avoidance, school refusal, or school phobia.

Characteristics and Signs of 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.

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 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
  • Experience symptoms on school days but are symptom-free on weekends and other school holidays

Children with school phobia may resist going to school for extended periods of time over many days.

Though school phobia can have a serious impact on a child's education, it is not uncommon. An estimated 1 percent to 5 percent of children experience school phobia at some time.

While it can be a stressful experience for both children and caregivers, there are steps that parents can take to help their children cope with and overcome this fear. In order to fully address the problem, you need to understand why your child might be scared to go to school.

What Causes a Fear of Going to School?

One study suggests that there are five main factors associated with school refusal behavior:

  • Sociodemographic variables
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Academic factors
  • Family factors

With these in mind, when a child is scared to go to school, parents should to consider underlying issues that might play a role, such as:

  • Transitions, such as moving to a new school, moving up into a different grade, and starting new classes
  • Changes in family life such as a move, divorce, death, or another potentially traumatic event
  • Real concerns for the safety of family members (e.g., there is an ill person at home)
  • Social anxiety or shyness
  • Self-consciousness (for example, a child who tends to have bathroom accidents)
  • Bullying or teasing at school
  • Fear of poor school performance and bad grades ("failure")
  • Fears over negative relationships with a teacher or peers
  • Real or imagined fears of ridicule or punishment at school
  • Having a well-meaning, but overly protective parent

Getting children to identify why they want to avoid school can sometimes be a challenge, however. Kids may not understand exactly why they are feeling sick, anxious, or uncomfortable when faced with school attendance.

Risk Factors

While any child may develop a fear of going to school, some research indicates that certain children are more likely than others to experience this:

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

How to Help: First Steps

Again, for many kids, a reluctance to go to school passes. But if you are concerned that your child's fear is profound and persistent, it's worth taking steps to help prevent a chronic, long-term problem that can substantially affect learning and your child’s ability to develop into an independent adult.

First, have your child examined by his or her physician to determine if there are underlying, treatable medical causes for this. Because the symptoms commonly associated with school phobia (e.g., stomach upset) can be caused by a physical concern, a physician should first examine the child to rule out any possible illnesses.

Once any underlying conditions have been addressed, work with your 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 Strategies

Interventions for school avoidance often incorporate both home-based and school-based tactics. Some of these examples of helpful strategies may be more useful to you and your child than others, but all are worth considering:

  • Talk to your child: Sometimes a child won't communicate what they are feeling until they are asked. Ask open-ended questions that prompt your child to fill in the blanks, rather than ones that require a yes/no answer. For example, What makes you most upset when you are at school?
  • Identify learning obstacles: Determine 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.
  • Provide reassurance: Keep reminding your child that he will be OK. Use your own behavior to convey this too by not unintentionally show signs of worry.
  • Designate an ally: Finding a teacher or other trusted adult in the school who can serve as a resource for the child when he is experiencing anxiety or needs help with a problem.
  • Help foster friendships: Help the child develop friends at school by inviting kids over for playdates or enrolling your child in clubs, sports, or after-care programs.
  • Assess the schedule: Ensure the child has opportunities for success at school and can engage in some activities that she enjoys.
  • Empower your child: Explore some different strategies to help bullied kids to take back their power, but don't hesitate to involve a professional too.
  • Intervene when necessary: If real threats exist at school or in the neighborhood, take steps to address the problem. Keep in mind that "bad bullying advice" abounds.
  • Take baby steps: Start the child on a shortened school day and gradually increase the time he spends there until he successfully lasts a full day.
  • Use rewards: Use a behavior modification system to reward the child for attending school. On the other hand, avoiding fun activities when your child is at home because of refusing school.

Seeking Counseling

Get counseling from a mental health professional for any family issues that may be impacting the problem.

This is also advised if 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.

A Word From Verywell

Having a child that is scared to go to school can be a difficult experience for parents. It is important to talk to your child about his or her fears. Focus on being supportive and understanding of your child's anxiety, but ensure that your child knows that there are things that you can work on together to make the school experience less stressful and more enjoyable. By working with your child, school staff, and health professionals, you can come up with a plan to address your child's school phobia.

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