School avoidance is a very slippery slope and is something you want to nip in the bud once you see it beginning. As a parent, it can become very challenging to find the balance of reinforcing boundaries and expectations while still validating your child’s feelings and fears. School avoidance can appear in many forms. Are they experiencing stomach pains, bathroom issues, dizziness or headaches first thing in the morning? Are they staying up late the night before in hopes to prolong the next day from coming? Are they becoming a frequent flyer at the school nurse’s office? Of course you check the medical symptoms first and validate your child’s pain, but you begin to notice that these physical symptoms only show up on weekdays and magically disappear the second you give them permission to stay home that day.
It can feel incredibly frustrating and defeating. You may want to ignore it and hope that it will go away. You may feel tempted to treat it as a behavioral issue and that they are simply being defiant. But as their parent, you know it is something deeper and you see them struggling. The bottom line is the longer they miss school, the harder it will be to return. The good news is that there are various solutions to school avoidance and the best part is you’re not alone to find out what they are!
Reasons for Avoiding School:
- Feeling a need to stay home to “protect” their parent
- Feeling unsafe on the bus or at school
- Overcrowded hallways
- Fear of failing academics
- Not wanting to use the restrooms at school/change for gym
- Pressure to be perfect
You may be wondering, what is going through my child’s head? What are they afraid of? What is the big deal? I’m going to give you an example of sequence of anxious thoughts that could cause school avoidance to give you an idea.
“What if I don’t do well on the quiz, then I will fail my test, then I will fail my class, then I will fail all of my classes, then I won’t get into college, then I’ll be a failure at life and my parents will have to support me forever. I’m such a disappointment.”
You can see what started as a concern to study for a quiz transformed into being a failure at life in seconds. Once that chain of thoughts starts, it is very difficult to stop it and change it alone. They may not necessarily know where it is coming from, but the pressure to do well is coming from somewhere. Are they the ”dumb” one of their peer group? Do they have an older sibling who naturally did well and all the teachers remember them? Are they an only child and don’t want to embarrass you when you talk to your friends? Do they have a need to get praised? Is there financial pressure at home that makes them feel perfection at school is the sole path to success?
When one day turns into a week of missing school – Don’t hesitate to open lines of communication with the school to see what suggestions they have. Your child is not the first student they have experienced school avoidance with. Find out if there is a “go to” staff member that your child can feel comfortable with or a safe space they can return to if they are having a difficult time during the school day. Some students benefit from extra time to help with their test anxiety because the fear of running out of time inhibits their ability to truly focus on the exam. Some student’s benefit from entering school ten minutes before everyone else to avoid that initial rush of the crowded hallways. Some students benefit from having a tutor as additional academic support to catch up on work or to instil their confidence with academics. Some students benefit from a progression back to school (for example, Monday – get driven in and go to 2 classes, Tuesday – get driven in and go to 3 classes, Wednesday – take the bus and do AM classes, etc). The list can go on and on and can be individualized to your child’s needs.
Let your child know, no matter the fear – there is a solution and you’ll love them regardless.
Some Quick Tips:
Praise the positive (even when the negative is screaming inside of you). Avoid comments like, “We all have to do things we don’t like”or “It’s not that big of a deal, just go!” Remember that school avoidance is coming from a place of anxiety and worry, and they need reassurance that their fear has a solution.
Don’t shame them publicly or avoid excluding them from fun things outside of school as a negative reinforcement. It may feel confusing to let your child go to a birthday party or to the movies with friends after they just missed a week of school, but it is important for them to build their own support system and independence. Connecting with peers will reinstill that there is support at school and they are missing out on fun memories.
Stay strong! I know the last thing you want to do is be late to work again because you were waiting in the parking lot for your child to be ready to walk into the building. It is difficult to watch your child struggle and as tempting as it may be to want to cave in and give up the fight to let them stay home – you have to set the tone that going to school is a must.
Encourage a progression of make up work. Receiving a mountain of homework can make everything that much more overwhelming and want to avoid it altogether because it feels impossible to catch up. Start with makeup work that is manageable and in a subject they enjoy and work up to the more challenging stuff.
Make it a little less comfortable when they are missing school, especially during the school hours. If they were at school, they wouldn’t be allowed the play video games – so why should they while they are home from school? If we make home too safe and comfy, the fear of leaving will only continue to get bigger and more daunting.
Keep conversations brief in the morning about what is upsetting them. Once you open up that can of worms, it is hard to close it. You want to avoid beginning their perseverating reasons to avoid school. Keep them distracted with small talk to not let their thoughts wander into a negative headspace.
Talk to the school. Make the school aware of the problem and your desire to get that back to school as soon as possible. Schedule a meeting to discuss strategies that can be attempted to ease the transition back to school.
Talk to a therapist. Your child is having anxiety stemming from something and they can benefit from a neutral person to express what is happening inside.
We are here to help!
Jeanette Rivera, LCSW
School Social Worker & Nourish Your Mind Psychotherapist