School Refusal

What is school refusal?

School refusal, or school avoidance, is a term used to describe the signs or anxiety a school-aged child has and his or her refusal to go to school. School phobia can be seen in different types of situations, including:

  • Young children going to school for the first time. This is a normal type of school refusal. This develops with a child's normal separation anxiety, or uneasiness about leaving a parent figure. This type of fear usually goes away within a few days of the child attending school.

  • Fear. Older children may have school phobia based on a real fear of something that may happen to them at school, such as a bully or a teacher being mean. In this situation, it is important to talk with your child to determine what is causing his or her fears.

  • Distress. The final type of school phobia is seen in children who are truly distressed about leaving their parent and going to school. Usually, these children enjoy school but are too anxious about leaving their parents to attend.

What are the signs of school refusal?

While every child is different, the following are some of the behaviors that may be present in your child:

  • The child may complain of other symptoms (for example, stomachache, headache) that get better as soon as the child is allowed to stay home.

  • The child may tell you that he or she is anxious or afraid of a certain situation that happens at school.

  • The child may not want to leave the parent because of a change in the life of the child, such as the following:

    • New school

    • Just moved

    • New brother or sister

    • Sick brother, sister, or parent

    • Divorce

    • Death in the family

How is school refusal diagnosed?

School refusal is usually diagnosed with a team approach, including your doctor, you, the child, and teachers and counselors. Your child's doctor will be involved to rule out any real medical problems that may be occurring. A complete history and physical exam will be done. School officials may be contacted for more information.

Management of school refusal

Since every child is unique, each situation will be handled on an individual basis. The following are some of the interventions that may be used to help your child:

  • Return the child to school. Make sure the school officials understand the situation and do not send the child home for the wrong reasons.

  • Consider family counseling if other problems exist.

  • Allow the child to speak and talk about his or her concerns and fears.

  • Slowly separating the parent from the child in school may also be used. One approach is to have the parent sit with the child in the classroom at first, and then the parent may attend school, but sit in another room. Next, the parent may continue to get farther away.

  • A referral to a child psychologist or psychiatrist may become necessary.


Next Steps