School Avoidance

School avoidance (school refusal or school phobia) occurs in 5 percent of children. With patience and by trying to understand why the child fears school the problem can be overcome. Remember, the school phobic child is going through a hard time and needs all of your support. Working in concert with the school is important too.

What causes school avoidance or phobia?

For young children school means spending a lot of time away from home. Not only do children miss home in the school setting, but they are faced with new experiences, challenges and pressures (both social and academic). Some children adapt very nicely into the new environment yet others miss home, a source of anxiety and fear. In some children home or family factors can play a role; For example if there is an illness in the child or family, a recent divorce/separation or if one parent is stressed or depressed. These situations may either cause school phobia or worsen it.

Symptoms or signs of school refusal

Not surprisingly school refusal symptoms occur most often on school days, and are usually absent on weekends and during the summer holidays. The obvious signs of school refusal include:

  • Refusal to attend school
  • Creating reasons why not to go to school
  • Missing a lot of school
  • Frequent complaints about not feeling well with vague or non-specific complaints

In rare cases, school phobic children can complain of chronic physical symptoms including headaches, abdominal pain, nausea or dizziness. When these complaints are medically evaluated there usually is no medical cause found.

Reasons for school avoidance or school phobia

Most school-avoiding children do not know why they are school-phobic, and may have difficulty talking about the source of their anxiety. Aside from difficulty in separating from parents there are some other school-related factors that can cause school avoidance including:

  • Fear of failure
  • Teasing by other children
  • Anxieties over toileting in a public bathroom
  • A perception that teacher and other school personnel are "mean"
  • Threats of physical harm (as from a school bully) or actual physical harm
  • Existing learning difficulties or disabilities

Non-school related causes may include the loss of a loved one through death, divorce or moving to another locale and other home problems or situations.

Dealing with school avoidance

There is no one magic cure or fix. The most important aspect of dealing with a school phobic child is to find out what the underlying cause is. Although the cause may be directly school related, in some cases it has to do with home, personal or family issues. Once the cause has been identified, it is then easier to try to plan a "customized" approach to help the child. At times it may necessary to involve not only the school personnel, but a pediatrician and even a psychologist. The good news is though, that with age, school phobia does improve, and is much less common in older children.