School Refusal on the Rise: What Parents Can Do to Help

It may be alarming for parents to discover that school refusal is on the rise with children and teens. While refusing to go to school can go hand-in-hand with truancy, the two are significantly different. Truancy is defined as the action of staying away from school without reason, which is more extreme, and can lead to truancy court initiated by the school system. But for those who are consistently refusing to go to school, they usually have reasons.

According to Dr. Jessica Malmberg from Children’s Hospital Colorado, five to 28 percent of school-age youth engage in school refusal. As a child and adolescent psychologist, specializing in disruptive behavior disorders, as well as a clinician, educator, trainer, and administrator, Dr. Malmberg sees many cases of school refusal across all grade levels.

“Parents who come to me wonder why their kids don’t want to go to school,” said Dr. Malmberg. “There are many reasons for this which are important to understand, and the sooner that parents can step back and try to figure out why their child isn’t going to school, the sooner we can decide the appropriate intervention.”

Children may refuse to go to school for various reasons, often driven by internalizing or externalizing problems. Internalizing problems include conditions such as anxiety and depression, as well as suicidality or even sleep difficulties. Externalizing problems focus more on defiant or aggressive behavior, a tendency toward inappropriate emotional outbursts and tantrums, as well as ADHD or other learning disabilities.

“Missing school has a profound impact on every facet of a child’s life,” said Dr. Malmberg. “Their whole job is to be at school and learn. So when children don’t go, they will lack the academic, social and interpersonal interactions with adults and peers that help them grow and thrive.”

Most parents have good intentions but it can be difficult to know what to do when they hear that their child can’t or does not want to go to school. Dr. Malmberg’s goal is to support and empower parents to weigh the pros and cons of their child not going to school. The bottom line is that children do need to attend school. Her advice is that even if the child’s issues about school seem to be mild, parents should consider the possible reasons their child is refusing to go.

Reasons for School Refusal

There are four main categories kids fall into when refusing to go to school:

  1. Children or teens may be avoiding something that evokes negative emotions for them. For example, they may be socially anxious and therefore, not motivated to go to school.
  2. Some kids are trying to escape or avoid a social or evaluative situation. They may be struggling academically, or being bullied, which can eventually become so overwhelming for them that they can’t face leaving home.
  3. Some children are seeking attention. They may stay home because they can get the attention they want from a family member, where normally they may not feel like they can.
  4. Children may get access to something they enjoy from staying home that they can’t get at school. For example, they may get to watch TV or sleep and they feel so much better doing that than tackling the school routine.
Photo Credit to Children’s Hospital Colorado

How Parents and Educators Can Help

It’s a good idea for parents and educators to know that if they link rewards to behaviors they want to see, kids will be responsive. For example, if a child wants to watch TV, perhaps that can be a reward after going to school. If parents and educators can create a contract with kids where they agree that there’s cause and effect, they may be more motivated to go to school regularly.

There are several interventions that can also be used effectively to help kids manage their anxieties and whatever is keeping them from wanting to go to school. Contingency management is the process of linking rewards to behaviors. For children with underlying conditions such as anxiety or depression, it’s useful to participate in cognitive behavioral therapy, where the child and parent can identify negative thinking and behavioral patterns and learn ways to overcome them.

There are also academic interventions available to qualifying students who are in schools with public funding. Students with disabilities can receive a 504 plan where the school provides academic and behavioral accommodations through a contract between the student, the school, and the family. Accommodations may include extended periods to take tests, or to get their homework done. If they are eligible for an Individual Education Program, students have the opportunity to work with teachers, parents, and school administrators to improve educational results through a tailored plan that meets their specific needs.

“I recommend encouraging parents tosupport their child in not avoidinggoing to school or any other type of environment or activity that their childseems motivated to avoid,” added Dr. Malmberg. “The more we avoid, the worse ouremotions feel and the more likely we are to stay away from that situation again in the future, which can create a perpetual cycle that tends to worsen over time.”

This approach, paired with rewards for desired behaviors, tends to be the best approach for parents to take on their own. “Most of the parents I see are doing the best they can,” concluded Dr. Malmberg. “They need support, and the faster we can figure out why their children are behaving the way they are, the better intervention they will get. We partner with parents because we want their kids to grow into successful adults. Parents need to feel empowered and I know that the outcomes can be really good if we support them. This does not have to be a lifelong struggle.


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