When my child refuses to go to school

What to Do When Your Child Won’t Go to School


How to handle the tough problem of school refusal?

Barbara Markway Ph.D. Posted Sep 09, 2013


Does your child complain of a stomachache right before going to school? If your child stays home, do the symptoms vanish, only to reappear the next morning? Does your child have a tantrum when you try to make your child go to school?

If so, your child may have what’s known as school refusal. Children with school refusal have a very difficult time getting to school and/or staying in school, usually due to some type of anxiety.  School refusal is not the same as truancy. Truant children are more typically defiant and deceptive, and their parents are not aware they are not in school. In contrast, school refusers more often than not are well-behaved and compliant kids, except for this particular circumstance. In addition, their parents know they are not in school. These parents of likely spent plenty of time and energy trying to get their child to school, but with no success.

Here are some steps to take.


1. Check for physical causes. If your child is complaining of physical symptoms, have her checked by a physician. It’s unlikely that anything is physically wrong with your child, but you don’t want to make that assumption and later find out you’re wrong.


2. Talk with your child.  Talk about what’s bothering her, while at the same time making it clear that a plan will be made to return to school. Keep in mind, though, that some children can’t describe what is bothering them. Don’t force conversation if it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. The most important message to convey is this: you believe your child can conquer this problem, and you’ll be there to help her through it.


3. Don’t lecture. Avoid lengthy discussions and debates about the importance of going to school. Lecturing won’t do any good, and it may actually make matters worse. Any attention, even negative attention, can reinforce and maintain a problem.


4. Play detective. Look for patterns of when your child complains of illness. Does he wake up with a stomachache or headache? Does he complain of these things when he’s busy and distracted? Does he feel ill on Saturdays? Be objective and play detective. Do this in a low key, non-accusatory way; there’s no point in putting your child on the defensive. Look for clues as to what is causing your child to avoid school.


5. Set up a conference.  Both parents should meet with the teacher and/or the school counselor. This sends the message to the school that you’re involved and committed to working on the problem.


6. Keep an open mind. Don’t assume the teacher or the school has done something wrong. Similarly, teachers should not assume the problem lies with the parents. When stress levels are high, it’s natural to want to point the finger and blame someone, but it doesn’t do much to solve the problem. It’s important to make sure that any reality-based fears, such as bullying, are addressed and corrected.


7. Do not make it appealing to stay at home. Let your child know that if he’s truly ill, he will need to see a doctor, stay in bed and rest, keep the TV off, and so on. Enforce rules about no TV or video games. This may sound obvious, but I’m amazed at how many kids stay home and basically have free reign of the house, doing whatever they please. If you stay home with your child, don’t offer lots of extra attention and sympathy. It may sound cruel, but you don’t want staying at home to be appealing.


8. Simulate a learning environmentIf your child does end up staying home and is not ill, have him read, study, sit upright at a desk, and so forth. For adolescents, you may also want to make sleeping off limits, as this is alluring for many in this age group. Some of these suggestions will prove difficult to follow for working parents, but do your best. Consider enlisting the aid of a nonworking friend, relative, or neighbor for short period of time.


9. Make a sick policy ahead of time. For example, you might make it a rule that unless your child has a fever, she goes to school. If she is truly ill, the school nurse can evaluate the situation and send her home if necessary. In the chaos of the morning – trying to get everyone ready for school and work – this removes the power struggle from the parent and child, which is a good thing. Too often, the struggle itself can be reinforcing for children because they are receiving so much extra attention. Along the same lines, don’t spend much time, if any, discussing physical symptoms, especially if the doctor has already determined there is nothing medically wrong.


10. Enlist support. Consider having someone else take your child to school until the situation is resolved. Because emotions are so charged during a time like this, it can be helpful to remove yourself from the job of having to force your child to go to school. If there is a related separation anxiety with the mother, for example, have the father take the child to school. Or have a friend or another family member be in charge of these transition times until the child has made a successful reentry into school.


Although it’s unsettling to see your child intensely distressed about attending school, try to remain calm and supportive, but ultimately firm. Remember, your child needs to go to school – this is where children mature, not only intellectually but also socially and emotionally. By following the above suggestions, there’s every reason to believe that your child will overcome his school anxiety and, in the process, gain a newfound appreciation of his ability to hang in there and work through a tough situation.