How to address your child’s school avoidance

Shot of a little boy sitting outside with his backpack

If you’ve ever parented a child who complained about attending school, you’re not alone. But for some children, the reluctance to go to school goes beyond the good-natured moans and groans.

According to the nonprofit School Avoidance Alliance (SAA), school avoidance is “when a child refuses to attend school or has difficulty remaining in school the entire day.” It doesn’t have a definite diagnosis, but most believe it has roots in anxiety and other disorders. And unsurprisingly, school avoidance has become more prevalent since the pandemic, which generated a lot of anxiety among children.

WellTuned spoke with Dr. Sharon Moore-Caldwell, a medical director with BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee to learn more about how to recognize when attending school is becoming an issue for your child—and how to address it.

What is school avoidance?

Dr. Moore-Caldwell: It’s challenging for many kids to return to school. Especially after a nice summer break when families and children may have followed fewer routines and structured days. There are two ways parents and caregivers can help their kids transition easier into their school-year routines. Before the first day of school, consider:

  1. Setting earlier bedtimes
  2. Introducing more daytime structure

However, even with a period of transition into a routine school schedule, for some children, the beginning of a new school year brings anxiety. And that can lead to school avoidance. It may start with just an absence or two, and then build up over time to become something more concerning.

What does school avoidance look like? According to the SAA, a child may:

  • Be entirely absent from school
  • Leave school during the day
  • Leave class to go to the nurses’ office
  • Develop distress about going to school before eventually going
  • Claim to have physical symptoms that would preclude their attendance
  • Cry, hide in their bedroom, or have an outburst before school
  • Beg you to not make them go to school

If your child’s refusal to attend or stay in school is causing stress for your child and family, that’s a sign that it is time to take a closer look and re-evaluate possible interventions.

Possible reasons for avoiding school

Dr. Moore-Caldwell: There are a number of reasons that you child may want to avoid going to school. A few likely reasons include:

Bullying. Your child may be the victim of bullying, or they may fear becoming a victim of a bully. This could be in-person bullying, or it could be cyber-bullying—or both. Unfortunately, many children feel uncomfortable sharing this information with adults.

Body image. Some children become very self-conscious about their bodies especially when they undergo changes. These changes could include acne, weight gain, and others.

Family changes. The reluctance to leave home and attend school may be rooted in a family disruption. This could include a recent trauma, like:

  • a serious illness,
  • divorce,
  • death, or
  • changes in economic circumstances.

Struggles in school. If your child is struggling academically, it’s not surprising that they  may want to avoid going to a place where they’re having troubles. They may also be anxious about activities at school, such as:

  • taking tests,
  • speaking in front of their class,
  • using the school bathroom,
  • being on the playground,
  • being in the cafeteria, or
  • athletic performance.

Teacher concerns. A new teacher or a strict teacher may cause some anxiety.

Pandemicrelated anxiety. If your child caught COVID-19 at school or feared catching it at school, they may have some leftover anxiety from that. Or they may just be experiencing anxiety related to the pandemic overall.

Safety concerns. Your child may fear that something dangerous could happen at their school, like a school shooting or other potentially harmful incidents.

Comfort of staying home. Some children prefer to stay home so they can engage in fun, comfortable activities, like watching television and playing computer games.

Children with anxiety disorders or learning differences may especially be at risk.

How to address the problem

Dr. Moore-Caldwell: Addressing the issue starts with noticing that something isn’t right with your child. Pay attention to the signs, and then you can start a conversation. Start with an open-ended question such as, “It seems like you don’t want to go to school these days. Can you share with me why?” Then give your child the space to respond and really listen to them.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) urges parents to be sympathetic and supportive. You can talk about ways to resolve the problem or address their concern and encourage them to help develop a plan. But you do need to reiterate that they need to return to school if they’ve been staying home. The longer they stay home, the harder it will be to return.

Other steps that can help you address the situation:

Schedule a school conference. Schedule a meeting with your child’s teacher or meet with the school counselor. Ask if they’ve noticed any changes in your child’s behavior or noticed any signs of anxiety or distress. Ask them for cooperation in addressing the situation to help your child. 

Talk to your child’s primary care doctor. Your child’s pediatrician can examine them and rule out any possible medical causes of symptoms like stomachaches or headaches. They may also be able to start a conversation with your child about how things are going at school. This conversation can elicit some information that could help.

Be an advocate for your child. If the precipitating cause is a bully, you can be their advocate for making sure the school addresses the problem. You can advocate for other changes to be made at school as appropriate to alleviate your child’s anxiety, too.

Consult a mental health professional. Your child might benefit from talking to a counselor or therapist. You may be able to get recommendations from their pediatrician or school counselor.

“One thing to keep in mind when you’re seeking the cause of your child’s reluctance to attend school is their age,” says Dr. Moore-Caldwell. “Something that bothers an elementary-aged child can be very different from something that will produce anxiety in a high-school student.”

More from Dr. Moore-Caldwell on WellTuned.

Jennifer Larson

Jennifer Larson is Nashville-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years of experience. She specializes in health care and family issues.

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