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School refusal is when a child does not want to go to school, or is afraid to go to school. Often these children will be sick or miserable in the mornings. The child may complain of a headache, sore throat or stomachache shortly before it is time to leave for school. The illness subsides after the child is allowed to stay home, only to reappear the next morning before school. When these complaints are medically evaluated, there is usually no physical cause found. Some children may simply refuse to go to school. Since the panic comes from leaving home rather than being in school, frequently the child is calm once in school. School refusal can happen at any age, but is more likely during the time of starting school or starting high school.

Children with school refusal usually:

  • donít have serious behavior problems
  • donít try to hide their wish not to go to school from their parents
  • throw a tantrum when forced to go to school

In the long-term these children usually do well, they get back to school and donít have any after effects. The short-term problems are about missing school work and not having the opportunity to interact with the peer group. These can happen if school refusal goes on for a long time, as it sometimes does.

How long will it last?

If daily school attendance is enforced, the problem of school refusal will improve dramatically in 1 or 2 weeks. On the other hand, if you do not require your child to attend school every day, the physical symptoms and the desire to stay home will become more frequent. The longer your child stays home, the harder it will be for him to return. Your child's future social life and education may be at stake.

How can I help my child?

  • Insist on an immediate return to school.
    The best therapy for school refusal is to be in school every day. Fears are overcome by facing them as soon as possible. Daily school attendance will cause most of your child's physical symptoms to magically improve. They will become less severe and occur less often, and your child will eventually enjoy school again. At first, however, your child will test your determination to send her every day. You must make school attendance a non-negotiable, iron-clad rule. Be optimistic with your child and reassure him that he will feel better after he gets to school.

  • Be extra firm on school mornings.
    In the beginning, mornings may be a difficult time. You should never ask your child how he feels because it will encourage him to complain. If he is well enough to be up and around the house, he is well enough to go to school. If your child complains of physical symptoms, but they are his usual ones, he should be sent to school promptly with minimal discussion. If you are uncertain about your child's health, try to err on the side of sending him to school; if later the symptoms worsen, the class teacher can reevaluate your child's health.

  • If your child is late, he should go to school anyway. When he misses the school van, you should have a prearranged alternative plan of transportation. If your child comes home on his own during lunch or recess, he should be sent back promptly. Sometimes a child may cry and scream, absolutely refusing to go to school. In that case, after talking with him about his worries, he has to be taken there. One parent may be better at enforcing this than the other. Sometimes a relative can take charge of the matter for a few days.

  • Ask the school staff for assistance.
    Schools are usually very understanding about school refusal, once they are informed of the diagnosis, because this problem is such a common one. It is often helpful if you talk to your child's teacher about the situation. Ask the class teacher to let your child lie down for 5 or 10 minutes in the school and recover, rather than send him home, if his symptoms act up in school. If your child has special fears, like reciting in class, request the teacher to make special allowances.

  • Talk with your child about school fears.
    At a time other than a school morning, talk with your child about her problems. Encourage her to tell you exactly what upsets her. Ask her what the worst possible thing is, that could happen to her at school or on the way to school. If there's a situation you can change, tell her you will work on it. If she's worried about the physical symptoms becoming worse at school, reassure her that she can lie down for a few minutes in the school itself as needed. After listening carefully, tell her you can appreciate how she feels, but it's still necessary to attend school while she's getting better.

  • Help your child spend more time with his age mates.
    Outside of school, school-phobic children tend to prefer to be with their parents, play indoors, be alone in their rooms, watch a lot of TV, etc. Many of them cannot stay overnight at a friend's home without developing overwhelming homesickness. They need encouragement to play more with their peers. This can be difficult for a parent who enjoys the child's company, but it is the best course of action in the long run. Encourage your child to join clubs and athletic teams (noncontact sports are usually preferred). Send her outside more or to other children's homes. Her friends can be asked to join the family for outings or for overnight stays. Help your child learn to stay overnight with relatives and friends. A summer camp experience can be a turning point.

If, in spite of your (and the schoolís) best efforts, the problem persists, consult a mental health professional.

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