By Zack Schwartz, MSW, LCSW
I am a social worker and have recently encountered a number of school avoidant students, as it is becoming an increasingly prevalent issue. It creates a lot of frustration and parents do not know how to go about solving this issue, they just want it to stop and they want their child to go to school more than anything. Parents have come to me expressing that they have tried grounding and consequences but due to lack of patience they have lacked consistency as well. At times I feel conflicted and I know Sage Day has a reputation for working with children who are school avoidant and have successfully brought students back to district. I would really appreciate some additional input so I can steer these parents in the right direction and offer some more effective strategies for these families to help their children more consistently attend school. Please advise.
When a child refuses to go to school he or she is telling us that he or she is in a lot of emotional pain. An effective short-term means to help the child to move out the front door and into the school door is to consistently implement incremental consequences and school-driven interventions. Parents and school personnel can be equally conflicted about implementing consequences in school avoidance situations because of various concerns including: the child’s fragility and unpredictability of his/her reaction to them, a lack of clarity about how, when, and where to apply consequences and the idea that consequences in general are a “waste of time and “don’t work”. Yes, the child will be momentarily upset when receiving consequences for school refusal. This reaction is quite a normal and appropriate response to the situation (does anybody really want to lose the use of their iPhone?). Additionally, deep parental concerns about the child’s reaction may provide a critically helpful indicator of a child’s possible need for more intensive psychiatric care than initially understood.
The most appropriate consequences for school avoidant behavior generally involve the limiting/removing of a short-term, daily pleasurable activity or privilege that the parent can easily monitor (e.g. taking away child’s cell phone, not allowing the child to go out with friends, or the use of video games or other forms of entertainment). If a child knows what consequences to expect in advance and can have a new opportunity to regain their privileges on a daily basis by going to school, then he/she is more likely to respond positively to them. While consequences are often very effective when appropriately implemented, they are frequently not a sufficient means of guaranteeing consistent school attendance. School personnel can assist by offering the following interventions:
- Making it as easy as possible for a child to go to school by meeting him/her at a discreet school entrance door and/or letting him/her first go to an emotionally safe place when arriving at school (e.g. Therapist/CST/Guidance/Nurse’s office, etc.) rather than going to class immediately.
- Using your relationship with the child and family by calling the home every day that the child is excessively late or telling the child to call you when he/she is at home struggling to go to school. Consider also getting the child’s cell phone number or asking to speak with the child when calling the home phone.
- Helping the child by develop a step-by-step plan to both get to school and to map out the school day. This gives the child some control in the situation and can increase his/her investment in process.
- Empowering the parents to talk with the child to anticipate and resolve potential school avoidance issues each night before bed rather than reactively discussing them all in the morning.
- Empowering parents to set and enforce consistent consequences for school avoidance.
- Conducting a meeting at school with administration, CST case manager, parents and child to stress the seriousness of the issue and discuss strategies for helping the child get to school.
- Doing a home visit(s). This can help you provide the family with support in facilitating the child to school, and getting the child to appreciate the seriousness of the situation.
- Suggesting that the parent or child contact the child’s friends to determine if they can car pool or walk to school together for additional peer support.
- Supporting the parents in consulting their primary care physician or psychiatrist to rule out emotional or physical illnesses that may be interfering with school attendance.
- For children under psychiatric care, asking psychiatrist about the possibility of prescribing a PRN medication as another means to help the child’s emotional state in the morning.
- Sending a truancy officer to the home to help the child understand the legal ramifications of school refusal.
- Assisting the family in making an appointment for a partial hospitalization intake appointment if the school refusal lasts for an extended period of time.