Tips for Parents of Students with School Refusal
If your child is struggling to overcome school refusal caused by anxiety, check out these tips:
- First of all, remain calm. While it’s important to respect your child’s fears, make sure he knows that you aren’t afraid.
- Ask questions! Why is your child refusing school? Is your child anxious about many things or just one? Is your child actually in danger? I know a student whose PE teacher had her running through a beautiful field of white flowers…not realizing that she was terribly allergic to the bees buzzing around her. The student obviously became very scared of attending PE. When she was allowed to exercise indoors or away from the bees, her fear dissolved.
- Seek accommodations from the school. To ensure cooperation, consider an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
- Encourage your child to attend school every day, even if it’s just for an hour. Allowing your child to stay home may reinforce the idea that school is dangerous. At first, your child may only be able to sit in the library with a parent or other trusted adult. That’s okay.
- If your child is at risk of falling behind academically, hire a tutor. Getting behind will likely increase anxiety and make it harder to return to school. While parents may be qualified to instruct their own students, working with an outside instructor can be an important step toward getting back into the classroom.
- Take small steps that push your child slightly out of his comfort zone. Work with your child. In my experience, it’s better to be too lenient than too harsh.
- Emphasize and reward partial successes. If you promise your child a toy in exchange for spending one hour at school, make sure you give her the toy even if she runs screaming the second that hour is up. If she is unable to stay for an hour, praise her for her effort and accomplishment, and ask her to try again tomorrow.
- Expect setbacks, but be consistent. If your child is unable to maintain recent progress or make new progress, offer support and acceptance, but continue to express your expectations.
- Replace "crutches" (like coming home early or eating in class) with more effective coping tools. Help children understand and accept their anxiety, and teach them how to use anxiety relaxation techniques.
If your child has an anxiety disorder, addressing her school refusal may not be enough. Talk to your pediatrician or a mental health professional for more information.
About the author: Kiri Van Santen is a homeschool teacher, tutor, and coach specializing in the education of children with anxiety disorders. She was diagnosed with Panic Disorder and OCD in her early teens. Ms. Van Santen is also the author of the Fearless Learning Blog.
Last Updated: 18 March 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD