With the summer quickly fading to black and the academic year looming largely, we will soon be entering the season of school refusal. When I use the term “school refusal,” I’m not talking about that once-in-a-blue-moon occasion when a child forgets about an important test or project and decides it’s easier to feign illness than face the music. That’s pretty typical for nearly all kids, and it doesn’t necessarily establish a pattern of problematic behavior. What I’m talking about is school refusal that is pattern-based, recurrent, and results in academic or social impairment. For assessment or treatment of school refusal, feel free to contact me at my private practice, which services Palm Beach (Palm Beach Gardens, Jupiter, West Palm Beach, Boca Raton, Boynton Beach), Fort Lauderdale, and Miami.
School refusal is not a random event. There’s usually a reason for why your child might resist going to school. However, reasons for school refusal are many and varied, and may require some genuine detective work to get to the root of the problem. Fortunately, school staff (e.g., teachers, school counselors, and school psychologists) are often able to provide you with some useful clues.
1. Sometimes, children and teens may have undiagnosed learning disabilities or ADHD symptoms that make schoolwork feel punishing. Even when these issues are present from an early age, highly intelligent children are often able to reach middle school, high school, or even college without apparent problems. As coursework becomes more complex, concentration and organizational issues then become readily apparent. School refusal evolves as a means for avoiding uncomfortable school-related situations.
2. Maybe there’s a bullying situation that makes school feel frightening and uncontrollable for your child. If not detected and addressed early, the effects of bullying often get worse over time. This can leave your child isolated and alone, as most other students (even your child’s friends) will have a hard time siding with your child over the bully. This can quickly shrink a child’s self-esteem and result in severe depression or anxiety.
3. Perhaps there are social problems that make school uncomfortable or unpleasant. These may include fights with friends or boyfriends/girlfriends. Some children are also less sophisticated at making or keeping friends, or exhibit a paralyzing amount of shyness that leaves them feeling inhibited and socially isolated at school.
4. Children also resist school in order to reduce or avoid contact with stressors. Look at the academic calendar. Is there an exam or project scheduled? Also, consider the occurrence of field trips, dances, parties, or other “fun” events as potential stressors. Although many children enjoy such activities, others may dread them due to potential shame, embarrassment, unwanted attention, or uncertainty (e.g., “Who will I sit by on the bus?”).
5. In some cases, kids avoid school because home provides a preferable alternative. If staying home from school includes television, movie marathons, video games, or time with a preferred caregiver, it is hard to fault a child for preferring to stay home.
These are all potential problems that you, your child’s teacher, and other school staff may be able to recognize as possible contributers to your child’s school refusal. Regardless of the specific cause, these issues should be addressed as early as possible. Be aware that the beginning of puberty is likely to cause additional problems or worsen existing symptoms.
Sometimes a school refusal situation calls for even greater diagnostic clarity, which might involve the assistance of a trained clinical psychologist or neuropsychologist. For example, I have treated many younger patients whose school refusal