School Refusal is of Many Kinds

School Refusal is of Many Kinds

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

At one time or another during their grade-school years, one in four children will exhibit school attendance problems. Some would just refuse or get too "sick" to go to school; others make it to school but won't stay in class the entire time. This article focuses on elementary-grade children because refusing to go to school is more prevalent in this age group.

In the past, when school absences exceeded a certain number without a medical excuse, it was labeled as "truancy," which had overtones of "bad kid" syndrome or even a legal violation. With the arrival of child- and school psychologists on the scene, the problem of school absenteeism or school refusal has been given many names and is understood to spring from a number of different causes.

For example, some children refuse to go to school, not because the school is the problem, but they simply don't want to leave home. This is called, "separation anxiety." The child doesn't want to go to school because of fear of separation from parents.

Some children don't want to go to school because of social anxiety. They dread the prospects of being with their peers. If they experience teasing or bullying at school, it might make their anxiety worse. Some of these children are shy from very early on. They feel more comfortable at home because they don't have to talk with their peers or speak in front of the whole class. Whatever the individual reason, the fact is that some children feel embarrassed or even ashamed in the presence of their peers.

Some avoid school because of performance anxiety. They might have a learning disability or attention- concentration problem. They don't like poor grades, so they avoid going to school in anticipation of taking a test and being seen by everybody as a "dummy." the "teacher factor" might also a play a role in it. If they don't see their teacher exactly as a reassuring and comforting figure, they are likely to experience greater anxiety.

Children express school refusal in different ways. Some will put up quite a fight getting out of bed and they drag their feet getting ready in the morning. Others find every little excuse to throw a tantrum in the morning. Some children experience physical symptoms such as stomachache, headache or nausea. They might feel better once they are allowed to stay home.

The family setting may also play a part in school refusal. A study conducted in Japan shows that most school-refusal children were close to their mothers but distant from their fathers, and the mothers were emotionally distant from their husbands. Fathers, in such families, tended to be isolated figureheads.

Conflict and marital tension at home are often associated with school refusal across the societies. Some children fight going to school or plainly refuse after a separation or divorce between the parents. There might be other issues such as lack of parental interest, or adjustment issues involving stepfamily situations.

Analyze whether your child has a problem in going to or staying in school. What caused the behavior in the first place and what is maintaining it now? For example, one child I saw refused to go to school after the house was set on fire. That's what caused it. However, the refusal did not diminish soon because it was maintained by parental attention and more fun and play time at home.

Investigate potential reasons behind the reluctance to go to school. The term "school refusal" is not always helpful as it suggests a willful and defiant behavior on the part of the child. Some children are simply reluctant and even fearful. It would be wrong to say they are willful. They just have a problem that we need to help them work through.

A professional evaluation can help you identify if your child has a social or performance anxiety. Such children need to be empowered. So, a child who is having trouble communicating can benefit from training in communication skills. A shy, isolated and often misunderstood child can benefit from social and communication skills training.

Children who are victims of teasing and bullying need school intervention, peer refusal training and assertiveness skills along with specific strategies against teasing and bullying.

Relaxation and special breathing training are particularly helpful against anxiety experienced inside the classroom. If the problem is severe, the child may need to be escorted to school or from class to class.

Having ascertained the causes and put the appropriate measures in place, you may have to "push" your child a little bit. A child, who has gotten used to staying home, finds it hard to get back to the old schedule. Consequences may have to be established and used for being late to school, skipping class, or staying home.

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Copyright 2002, Mind Publications 


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