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I want to stay home: coping with school refusal

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From time to time, kids during their primary and secondary years may go through stages where they don’t want to attend school. This may take the shape of, ‘I feel sick, I don’t think I can go to school’, or ‘I hate school, I want to stay home’.

Just like adults sometimes don’t want to go to work; kids don’t want to go to school. Although for parents this may cause concern, for children it’s usually short-lived and almost a normal part of school life.

However, there are other situations where children develop a range of anxieties, which lead to not just the occasional not wanting to go to school, but a real fear and set of symptoms that lead to great levels of distress and at times depression.

When this occurs, it is referred to as ‘school refusal’. This terminology may be confusing, because there is also the term ‘truant’. Truancy is when children leave for school, but skip school to meet friends or do something that may involve breaking rules, and don’t tell their parents While some children appear to have a habit of truancy, and some of the truant behaviours are similar to school refusal, there are differences, and this article is related to school refusal.

What is school refusal?

  • School refusal can be a serious emotional problem. If not addressed, it can lead to longer term problems for kids.
  • School refusal involves a high level of stress about school attendance. Kids want to remain at home where they feel safe and removed from the severe anxieties they have about school.
  • Children may exhibit physical symptoms of their stress including: crying, stomach aches, tantrums, extreme anger to panic attacks.
  • Some children appear to have significant separation anxieties from their parent or primary carer.
  • School refusal usually manifests itself in a gradual process over time. Parents may notice that a child becomes increasingly reluctant to go to school on a Monday after the weekend or after a holiday period.

What can be done about school refusal?

It becomes increasingly difficult to return to school the longer a child has refused to attend.

So, it is very important that intervention and a range of strategies occur as soon as possible. These strategies can help the child to regain their confidence, and to lessen the anxieties or other issues that are a challenge for them.

Also, it is important to try to return the child to school as soon as possible. It may be useful to have a medical check-up to ensure that any of the physical symptoms that the child says they have, can be investigated. If needed, it also provides an opportunity for the doctor to refer the child and family to a counsellor or psychologist, so everyone has the opportunity to discuss and explore issues.

The school and teachers need to be aware that the child at the current time has a serious problem. The problem needs to be respected and understood by the teachers and not regarded simply as ‘attention getting’ or making things up.

The school and parents will need to work together to help support the child to get to school, and to feel as safe and comfortable as possible.

When a child refuses to go to school over a prolonged period of time and reflects high levels of distress and anxiety, it’s important to:

  • acknowledge the stress
  • provide support as soon as possible
  • inform and discuss these issues with the school
  • seek additional support such as counselling.

Children who experience this anxiety about school often become extremely distressed, and it is the shared responsibility of school, parents, and the community, to provide a range of supports as quickly as possible.

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