Effectively managing school refusal (also known as school avoidance or school phobia) takes a consistent, coordinated effort between the parents and the school. It may also require help from outside mental health resources.
In this article, we’ll address common mistakes as well as more effective school refusal intervention strategies for both schools and parents.
3 common mistakes in addressing school refusal
When a child repeatedly refuses to go to school, the student is telling us that he or she is feeling a great deal of emotional pain. Without the proper school refusal intervention strategies in place, well-intentioned parents and school staff members often fail to solve the problem, and sometimes make things worse.
Recognizing the issue and intervening too late
School refusal is usually not a problem that happens overnight. Students show warning signs over a long period of time, often beginning in elementary school. For example:
- Tantrums in the morning
- Frequently complaining about school
- Chronic tardiness
- Often missing school after a weekend or holiday break
Of course, it’s not uncommon for students to show some of these signs occasionally. However, when it begins to happen more frequently, both schools and parents need to intervene right away before the pattern becomes entrenched. That often means taking action in late elementary school or middle school, rather than waiting until there’s a serious problem in high school and the student is in danger of failing to graduate. The sooner we address the problem, the better the student’s chance for success.
Allowing early dismissal
Teachers and school staff tend to have big hearts. So when they see that a student is struggling to cope with being at school, they don’t want to see them suffer and may make the mistake of letting them go home early without a medical reason.
That practice may make the student feel better in the short term, but it’s the last thing we should be doing to address their anxiety about school. In the long run, giving in to the problem does the student more harm than good.
Here’s what to do instead: provide support (through school counselors and child study team members as well as mental health practitioners) that helps students tolerate being at school and work towards being more comfortable there. Spending more time at school, with the appropriate support, helps students exercise their anxiety-tolerance muscles. The more they can hang in there and get through the day, the better they will be prepared to handle the next day.
Prioritizing academic success over emotional health
This is an understandable mistake. After all, students are in school to learn, and it’s natural that teachers and parents want to encourage every student to succeed academically. So everyone tries to convince the student to come to school by pointing out how much work is piling up.
The problem is, school refusal is usually a manifestation of underlying emotional and mental health issues (such as anxiety and depression) that prevent students from learning effectively. Constantly reminding the student of how much they are falling behind is counterproductive. Students respond with increased anxiety and avoidance, leading to falling even further behind. And even if a student understands on a rational level that it’s in their best interest to go to school, they can’t succeed academically without mental health intervention. That’s why we must address the emotional issue first so the student is capable of learning and being at school.
What’s the best way to do that? Here are some helpful school refusal intervention tips for both schools and for parents.
What schools can do to help students overcome school refusal
Schedule a meeting at school with school administrators, school case managers, parents, and the student. The purpose is to discuss the seriousness of the issue and talk about strategies for getting the student back to school.
Make it easy for the child to start the day by having a trusted staff member meet the student at a discreet school entrance. It can also be helpful to have the student start the day in an emotionally safe place in school, rather than reporting directly to class.
Work with the child to create a plan. The plan should be a step-by-step map of the school day to give the student some control and to help them become more invested in the process.
Conduct a home visit. Parents are often overwhelmed by their child’s emotional problems and need help getting them to school. A home visit can help model a more helpful way to talk to the student about going to school.
Call the home or the student directly. Every time the student is excessively late, place a call to check on the situation. It can also be helpful to tell the child to call you when he or she is at home struggling to go to school.
Send a truancy officer. This can help the student, and sometimes the parents, to understand the legal ramifications of school refusal.
How parents can manage the issue at home
Talk with the child before bed. Anticipate the problem and try to resolve it proactively in the evening. Don’t wait until it’s time to leave for the bus in the morning.
Enlist peer support. Arrange for the child to ride or walk to school with friends.
Set and enforce consistent consequences. This is often hard for parents, because they don’t want to make their child more unhappy. But setting clear, expected consequences and always following through sets the message about how important it is to go to school, and can lessen the student’s temptation to stay home.
Consult your primary care physician or psychiatrist. It’s important to find out if the student is suffering from an underlying medical or emotional problem that’s contributing to the school refusal problem. If there is a psychiatric issue, ask about PRN medication as a means to improve the student’s emotional state in the morning when needed.
Arrange for partial hospitalization. If school refusal goes on for a long time without any improvement, consider making an intake appointment for a partial hospitalization so the child can receive more intensive therapy.
School refusal is a difficult issue, and unfortunately the numbers of students, families, and schools facing it are growing every year. To learn more from parents and mental health professionals who are successfully managing school refusal, listen to the latest episode of our podcast, Conversations About Student Mental Health.
Christopher J. Leonard, MSW, LCSW, M.ED.
Chris Leonard is Director of Operations for Sage Thrive and the Sage Day Schools. He is an experienced teacher, school administrator, social worker and psychotherapist with over 30 years of experience working with children, adolescents, and families. Mr. Leonard is married with two daughters and enjoys distance running, mountain and road biking, hiking, and the outdoors.