School refusal is a big challenge with children. Making matters worse, it’s hard to know exactly why a child is refusing to attend school. One very common reason that children avoid school is due to anxiety. A child may be too anxious to attend school, but doesn’t want to say this so they generate a different explanation. They may initially say that their stomach hurts or claim that they are sick. Then, you as a parent are faced with the question: what do I do?
Here is very straightforward response to your question:
(1) Do the best you can to simply identify your child’s reasons for avoiding school. “I don’t want to go” isn’t a reason, it’s a plain statement. The question is why don’t they want to go. Keep in mind, that a child or teen might not be fully aware of the reasons they are avoiding school. But, with some discussion, they can usually identify the problem.
For a young child, you might tell them that when you were little you sometimes were afraid to go to school because you were afraid of bad things happening either to you or the people you care for, then ask if maybe that’s what’s happening for them. With an older child you can be more direct and gently ask “is there something you are afraid might happen at school?”Or “you went to school yesterday, but don’t want to go today. Did something happen at school yesterday?”
Try to have an open discussion with them in which your only goal is to genuinely understand them. In behavioral therapy, quite often, we explain our clients that “we cannot say good bye to a behavior, without saying hi to it first.” So, keeping that frame in the back of your mind, your task, at this point, is to simply learn about the reasons why your child refuses to go to school.
It may be painful to hear how your child views him/herself or what they are experiencing at school, but you cannot help them until you really know what’s happening. Once you fully understand the issue, try to explain it back to them and see if they agree. “So, tell me if I have this right. Yesterday you gave a book report and you feel like it went terribly. You’re afraid if you go to school today you’ll see that you got an F and all your friends will have gotten As, and you will feel stupid. Do I have that right?”It’s an all too human tendency to try to relieve suffering by jumping in to solve the problem, but children are always having adults try to solve problems for them. Before we solve it, resist the urge and take some time to really listen.
(2) After you fully understand the reasons why hour child doesn’t want to go to school, make sure you’re not reinforcing avoidant behaviors. This is extremely important because based on our clinical experience, quite often avoidance gets positively reinforced by a well-meaning adult. “Johnny didn’t go to that party because he was too scared; he must feel terrible. I’ll take him out to a movie to cheer him up.”In this case, Jonny is getting another reward for his avoidance (a movie). He was able to get rid of his anxiety (negative reinforcement) and see a movie (positive reinforcement). Now his likelihood of avoiding in the future is much higher because he has been reinforced in two different ways.
School avoidance is already being negatively reinforced but eliminating any uncomfortable feeling associated with attending school. Let’s make sure we don’t positively reinforce it too. This means that while your child is at home, they aren’t watching television, going online, or playing video games. They are either doing schoolwork or house-chores. Be mindful of ways in which you may inadvertently be reinforcing them. Often times, children end up going out to lunch with their parents when they are home from school because their parents eat lunch out. This is a positive reinforcement for a child. You may have to eat at home that day. Additionally, a child’s privileges may have to be revoked (taking away something desirable is called negative punishment). For instance, a teenager who refuses to attend school might lose their phone, their computer, and television privileges.
In summary, in case your child is struggling attending school, we strongly advise you to (1) do the best you can to identify the reasons behind his/her avoidance and (2) make sure you don’t reinforce school avoidance behaviors.