School Avoidance: Intervention Strategies for Parents

School attendance can be an exciting time for children and teens with opportunities to develop intellectually, socially, and physically. But for many kids, it can be daunting and overwhelming. Additionally, navigating ever-changing educational settings, turned upside down by the COVID19 pandemic, hasn’t been easy for parents or kids. Understandably, children and youth from preschool to college have struggled with stress and confusion. The emotional stress of school can result in some kids refusing to attend or stay at school – a problem known as school avoidance when it occurs consistently (Birch, 2018). 

School avoidance behaviors vary and can include struggling to arrive at school on time, leaving before the school day ends, or not attending school at all. In addition, anxiety symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, stomachaches, and others may make it difficult to get up in the morning or make kids feel like they need to leave school early. 

School avoidance can provide an escape or short-term relief from distressing aspects of the school day. However, when students continually miss school, returning can feel increasingly difficult as they experience academic and social consequences. As a result, the child doesn’t learn how to manage school-related anxiety and that it is possible to deal with challenges during the school day.

What can parents do to help a child struggling with school avoidance?

  1. Take action as soon as possible. Challenges associated with avoiding school, such as missed work and social interaction, can snowball quickly, making returning to school more difficult. Step in quickly if your child struggles to get to school on time or stay for the entire day.
  2. Seek to discover the underlying issues. Investigate why your child does not want to go to school. Try gently asking, “What is making school feel hard?” Express empathy and offer support as you work together to discover stressful-producing situations. Reasons for avoiding school vary and may be related to concerns about academic performance, relationships with teachers, bullying, social pressures, or separation anxiety. (Birch, 2018).
  3. Engage in collaboration and communication with your child’s school. Contact support staff (school counselors, social workers, psychologists, teachers, etc.) at your child’s school and share your concerns about why they are avoiding school. They are vital partners for collaborative problem solving and establishing a plan for your child. Identify small steps that will help your work through distressing situations at school.
  4. Acknowledge concerns but be firm about your child’s return to school. Let your child know that while physical symptoms of anxiety, such as stomachaches, headaches, and fatigue, are undoubtedly unpleasant, they are not dangerous. Encouraging perseverance in anxious teens and children is essential – empowering them with evidence that they can do what they need to even when experiencing physical anxiety. Physical symptoms often subside as the school day progresses and children face their fears.
  5. Encourage school attendance with clear limits at home. Avoid special treatment that may make continued avoidance tempting when your child stays home from school. Instead, make your home environment as much like school as possible with homework or other learning assignments, limited screen time, no visitors, and consistent follow-through with expectations.
  6. Establish routines and structure that help reduce anxiety. Consistent bedtime and morning routines can help prepare your child for school. Inadequate sleep, poor nutrition, or lack of physical activity can exacerbate anxiety. Encourage healthy habits that support physical and mental wellness. Addressing concerns in the evening may help families avoid cycles of conflict in the morning. Keep discussions about anxiety or distressing physical symptom to a minimum in the morning. Instead, let your child know you are confident they can face their fears. (Adler, 2018)
  7. Consider a step-wise return plan for severe anxiety. Some children may benefit from a phased return to school.  Work with school administrators and support staff to formulate a helpful strategy. For example, start with having the child attend a favorite class or for just a couple of hours. Progress to half-day and then a full day of attendance. (healthychildren.org, 2017).
  8. Support creates motivation. Ensure your child has adequate support at school to address the issues contributing to avoidance. Maintain connections with school staff to help your child feel supported. Encourage opportunities for social support through friends and relationships that motivate attendance. Finally, seek social skills training, counseling, and team activities to build confidence. (Adler, 2018).

References and Resources

Adler, Y. (2017, October 15). School refusal: 8 effective intervention strategies. Thrive Alliance Group. https://thrivealliancegroup.com/school-refusal-8-effective-intervention-strategies/

Birch, J.M. (2018, September 18). School refusal: When a child won’t go to school. Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/school-refusal-when-a-child-wont-go-to-school-2018091814756

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2017, September 5). School avoidance: Tips for concerned parents. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/emotional-problems/Pages/School-Avoidance.aspx