How to Address School Refusal

Boy (5-7) holding onto mother's leg in front of school
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Do you have difficulty getting your child to go to school? School refusal is a common problem according to Christopher Kearney, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist and the director of the UNLV Child School Refusal and Anxiety Disorders Clinic. Learn how it may affect your child and how to treat it.

School Refusal vs. School Phobia

Fear-based absenteeism, sometimes called school phobia, is different than school refusal and applies to only a small minority of kids.

School refusal is an anxiety-based absenteeism that doesn't refer to a specific fear.

There is also a difference between school refusal and school refusal behavior, which includes many reasons that aren't based on anxiety. It can include skipping school to socialize with friends.

Signs of School Refusal

You may see a pattern of your child missing classes or being chronically tardy. Your child may complain about school and threats at school. Your child may have vague, untestable kinds of physical complaints, like stomach aches, headaches, abdominal pain, and back pain. Many kids will have more obvious symptoms like diarrhea or vomiting.

When School Refusal Appears

School refusal can happen at any age. The highest risk time is when kids enter middle school, ages 10 to 13.

The next highest risk is anytime kids enter a new school building for the first time, such as entering kindergarten, middle school, or high school. It is also more likely when a family moves to a new school district.

Getting Help

Kearney notes that help is needed when the behavior interferes with the child or family's daily functioning. "Has it gotten to a point, for example, where the child's grades are suffering, where there's a lot of family conflict, where the parents are missing a lot of work, where the family is in legal trouble, or there's a lot of arguing that's going on?" This point could be reached in a matter of days, or you may be able to cope with it longer. You may seek help from a psychologist or ask your school for help in getting counseling.

Working With the School

It is important to work with your school to ensure your solutions are in line with their policies. Sometimes school officials can develop a 504 plan.

If a child has been out of school for a while, a part-time schedule might be coordinated, and the amount of makeup work needed might be negotiated.

School officials may be able to help with a plan for more supervision and escorting a child from one class to another.

Common Challenges

Kearney says that too much leniency is the biggest problem. "The default option should always be sending the child to school and maintaining that expectation." He notes that parents get lenient about letting the child stay home, leading to further problems. Kids get reinforcement as staying at home means less anxiety plus being able to enjoy pleasant activities. "They're refusing school maybe not because of the all the anxiety problems but because of all the tangible rewards they're getting at home."

If a child says they will go to school but spend the day in the library instead of class, Kearney finds that a good first step. At school, they will still be getting all of the cues about going to school. "A lot of times what will happen is they'll reconnect with their friends and if not, at least we've got them at a point where we've got them in the school."

A Word From Verywell

School refusal is more common and it can be disruptive to families. If you are facing this problem, seek help so your child can have a better chance of success at school.

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Article Sources
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  1. Tyrrell M. School PhobiaJ Sch Nurs. 2005;21(3):147-151. doi:10.1177/10598405050210030401

  2. Kearney CA. Dealing with school refusal behavior: A primer for family physicians: Workable solutions for unhappy youth and frustrated parents. J Family Pract. 2006;55(8):685-692.

Additional Reading
  • Kearney, Christopher. Personal interview. July, 2010.