Understand the reasons for “school refusal” before developing coping strategies.


Dear Adele,

Last year our middle schooler frequently tried to avoid going to school. He skipped class several times, got behind in his assignments, and would regularly call us to pick him up at school for psychosomatic illnesses, such as headaches, diarrhea, or a racing heart.

With classes starting again soon, he is already complaining about the behaviour of other students, a teacher he does not like, and the difficulty of the curriculum. We know school is important and need to keep him there. What do you recommend?

Anticipating the Reluctance


Dear Anticipating the Reluctance,

School refusal, or absenteeism for no medical reason, may start with regularly being late and then occur one or two days a month or several weeks or months at a time. According to Anxiety Canada, “more than one quarter of all youth will engage in some degree of school refusal….” It peaks around the entrance to kindergarten, at ages 7 to 9, and again upon entry into middle or high school. It also happens after a major change like a move, a family divorce, or the loss of friends. There does not appear to be any gender differences.

Parents find school refusal a stressful disorder. They know how important school is and that absenteeism affects children’s academic performance. They also worry that it impacts their friendships and relationships with teachers. Parents are often upset because they are made late for work or even forced to miss work altogether to provide care.

Signs of this disorder are numerous. It is not uncommon for youth to not get out of bed when the alarm clock rings. Parents may have to escort their child to the bus or to school. Tempers flare, and young people complain profusely. They look for all kinds of excuses to stay at home. Sometimes parents receive calls or texts from school with complaints of non-existent physical illnesses such as headaches and stomachaches.

Reasons for school refusal may be unclear, multifaceted, and confusing. Some kids have a multitude of reasons why they don’t want to go to school, while others have no identifiable concern at all. One common reason is stressful school situations such as troublesome kids on the bus, a negative teacher, or a difficult class. Another reason might be to escape from a social performance situation causing stress. Sometimes kids just want attention from a parent. Other times they want to pursue activities that are more fun away from school, such as hanging out in the mall, watching television, sleeping, or being with friends.

School refusal can interfere with young peoples’ lives and limit future possibilities and opportunities. The youngsters get behind academically, may have trouble keeping friends, and become isolated. They can miss out on learning and fun. Once out of school, they may become involved in high-risk behaviours because of the lack of structure and boredom.

In addition, school refusal can put a great deal of stress on the parents' marriage, upset the family dynamics, create sleep problems for everyone, and lead to a lack of harmony among the siblings.

The first thing I suggest is that you try to understand the reasons for the avoidance of school, because the more habitual the behaviour becomes, the more difficult it will be to correct. If you know the causes and investigate the various possibilities of those problems, you can offer better support to your progeny. You might explore whether your child is having trouble making friends, whether he is just lazy, whether his school curriculum is too hard or too easy, whether he is being bullied, or whether he is having teacher-student problems. It is important to talk, listen and validate feelings regularly.

The second thing I recommend is a commitment to the idea that remaining at home is not an acceptable option. If your child gets behind academically, it will be much harder for him to reengage in school, and any social problems will get worse. Try to offer your child coping strategies and an understanding that going to school, even part of the time, is better than not going at all.

Reach out and connect with school staff. Share any mental health challenges your child may be experiencing, so the school can make accommodations for your youngster. Encourage and support a positive child-teacher relationship. Work with the staff to develop coping strategies that can be allowed to help your child decompress.

Seeking professional help is also a good idea. Therapy might follow a comprehensive assessment. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy can help a child learn to manage his fears or anxiety. Exposure Therapy reintroduces youngsters to school over time on a slow basis. Remember that it is much better to deal with school refusal sooner rather than later and that the quicker you get your child back to school, the better.

Finally, work hard on your relationship with your child. It is important that your youngster trust you. Communication is key. Seek to understand his fears, uncertainties, anxieties, and what emotions is he experiencing. They may include anger, anxiety, worry, irritability, loneliness, shame, sadness, or embarrassment. Once you are well connected with your child, you will have greater success in handling school reluctance.

For further ideas on this subject, read Dr. Rachel Busman’s article ‘When Kids refuse to Go to School.

I will conclude with a few quotations about education that you might find useful for your youth.

“The capacity to learn is a gift; the ability to learn is a skill; the willingness to learn is a choice.”— Brian Herbert

“School is a building with four walls and tomorrow inside.” — Lon Waters

“The beautiful thing about learning is nobody can take it away from you.” — B.B. King   

Best wishes, Anticipating the Reluctance.

Sincerely, Adele

I'm looking forward to your questions! Email me at maryadeleblair@gmail.com and please put Heart to Heart in the subject line. Note that all columns will remain anonymous.

Photo: Pexels, Mikhail Nilov