When and How to Get Professional Help When Your Child Refuses to go to School

By Sage Staff

School refusal behavior (SRB) can show up in many ways and have a variety of underlying causes. Parents are often unsure of how to handle their child’s actions, or when and how to get the help their child needs.

Signs of school refusal

The warning signs of school refusal behavior pop up in many families throughout a student’s school life, often without incident. But when they become the norm rather than random events, it could mean trouble is brewing. Some of the warning signs of school refusal behavior include:

  • Your child is chronically late for school or is having frequent trouble getting ready in the morning.
  • Your child complains of stomachaches, headaches and other physical maladies when it’s time to go to school.
  • Frequent visits to the school office or the school nurse.
  • Frequent complaints about a teacher or fellow students.
  • Absences are becoming chronic rather than sporadic.
  • You receive many texts or calls throughout the school day with demands to be picked up from school.

Remember that school refusal behavior is not only about being absent—it’s the symptomology around it. Note that the overt emotions school refusing students display may be very divergent. The student could be feeling anxious, guilty, shameful, depressed, powerless or sad; or be disconnected, apathetic, shameless or provocative. 

Ways to manage school avoidance

There are many steps parents and schools can take to help a school refusing student and try to turn him or her around. Some students might respond well to an incentive such as being able to wear whatever they want (within reason). Other students may respond more readily to a negative reinforcement such as taking away screen time privileges or assigning household chores with the idea that there’s no “win” in staying home. Of course, talking to your child and really listening to expressed fears, concerns or insecurities can also go a long way in alleviating the problem. While some natural consequences are an aspect of addressing refusing behavior, it is imperative to try to understand what is beneath the school refusing behavior.

Is it time to seek help?

If avoiding school is becoming an extreme pattern that has escalated and is disrupting the child’s life—yes, it’s time to seek help.

One clear sign that consulting a professional is needed is if the student reacts very severely to consequences established for staying home—a reaction not warranted by the lost privileges that could even include thoughts of suicide. Yes, this is extreme but it could happen, and it is a clear cry for help.

Steps to take

Speak to your school administrators to find out what’s happening in the school building—perhaps the behavior is exhibited strongly at home but less so at school (which could point to other emotional or family dynamic issues instead). Try putting a plan in place within the school to ease the student’s concerns (such as more frequent breaks, walking into the building or classroom with someone supportive, or allowing periodic phone calls to parents throughout the day).

Talk to the school counselor or psychologist. Some issues to discuss are how long this avoiding behavior has been going on, how much distress your child associates with attending school (and how strongly he or she resists going), and how disruptive this resistance is to both school and family life.

Get a complete physical and psychological assessment for your child. Make an appointment with your pediatrician to rule out any underlying physical conditions or learning disorders that may be causing or contributing to this behavior. Have your child evaluated by a mental health professional to find out if there is a psychiatric disorder at play, such as separation anxiety disorder or another psychological issue or emotional problem that could be addressed with therapy. There is a School Refusal Assessment Scale-Revised (SSAS-R), available for both children and parents, that can help determine the primary reason behind your child’s school refusal behavior. You can view it in this issue of the Journal of Family Practice.

Discuss possibility of placement in a therapeutic school environment, where trained clinicians are available on-site and the school handles school refusal behavior all the time. For example, at Sage Day Schools, we address school avoidance through ongoing intensive collaboration between students, parents, therapists, teachers and administrators—a different and much more comprehensive model than what most school districts can offer. Interventions and support are available throughout the school day as needed to help keep the student on-track academically and emotionally.

Does your child show signs of school refusal behavior? Is it time to consider a therapeutic school environment? Contact Sage Day for more information about our high-quality academic programs for school avoidant and emotionally fragile students as well as our in-district services to support students in their current public schools. To contact us here at Sage Day, please call toll free 877.887.8817, local at 201.843.3800 or online at www.SageDay.com.