Nearly every kid wakes up not wanting to go to school sometimes — that’s normal. However, there are times when aversion to school is not as simple as feeling uneasy about a class presentation. There are times with the aversion intensifies, posing a challenge to the student, and concerned parents.
School avoidance, which is also sometimes known as school refusal or school phobia, describes school-aged children resisting or strongly wanting to abstain from attending school due to emotional or psychological difficulties, mostly related to anxiety (such as fear of bullying) — though sometimes in older students, a form of school avoidance is reward-based, in which students would prefer to be elsewhere rather than at school because it is not “rewarding” for them to be in school.
The first type of school avoidance is a type in which “parent and caregivers are very aware and often feel helpless and even hopeless in breaking this pattern,” says Dr. Kendra Read, acting assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine and attending psychologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
“One of the first things we want to do is understand what the drivers are of school avoidance for the particular kid in question,” she adds.
Read says that with anxiety-based school avoidance, there’s something about school that is hard for a student, whether it be social anxiety, anxiety around tests and being evaluated, or anxiety around having to perform in some way. Read says that these anxieties can be daunting for parents and caregivers, as they can also manifest outwardly or physically. Some students experience chronic fatigue, chronic pain, cyclical vomiting, as well as symptoms of depression.
“The physical and psychological experience makes it hard for students to be at school,” says Read, adding that the blend of the two types of experiences can make it a complex problem for parents and caregivers to tackle. “For some of the kids, it starts with an avoidance-based reason to want to get out of going to school,” says Read. “Like school is hard because of chronic pain and it’s hard to sit in school with pain — and then when they stay home from school, maybe their mom stays at home and the two of them get all this time together. So sometimes a secondary reason for school avoidance is a reward-based reason.”
However, there are a number of ways parents and caregivers can help alleviate school avoidance and school-related anxieties in kids.
Collaboration is key
Parents and caregivers should partner and collaborate with schools, counselors, and psychologists.
“In my experience, when parents and students are open with teachers about their concerns, the teachers can better help address those concerns,” says Carol Schuster, teacher and social studies department leader at Yellow Wood Academy. “Good teachers recognize the importance of forming relationships with their students and their families so that everyone can be on the same team with the end goal of having a student who is comfortable at school and ready to learn.”
Information exchange is pivotal. The more information a school has about why avoidance is occurring and the more information a parent has about how students are struggling while in school — the better equipped everyone is to help a student get past school avoidance.
Don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach
Ed Casper, an instructor and tutor at Yellow Wood Academy, says that in his experience, blanket policies or punitive policies for tackling school avoidance don’t work. Rather, students need individualized attention and plans.
“We don’t have a blanket policy for school avoidance,” says Casper. “We treat students individually. Some kids avoid school due to anxiety, or there may be other coping mechanisms at play. What we do really depends on the student. For the most part though, we’ll continue class where the student left off so that they haven’t missed any material.”
Come up with a plan and set the stage
“We always have these flight-or-fight alarms in our body,” says Read. “These alarms are going off in the bodies of students [when they avoid school]. But if we pull them from school, we are agreeing with that alarm and saying, ‘Yes, this situation is dangerous and we don’t think you can deal with it. We don’t think you can cope either.’ And then [over time] their bodies and their minds become accustomed to doing things less.”
This is why Read says it’s important for parents to work together with schools, teachers, and professionals like her to create a plan to help kids reintegrate into school, in order to not accommodate what she calls “false alarms” in students.
A good plan would include behavior pacing, which would include milestones on the timeline so that students can feel successful quickly.
“What we do to help parents is design a plan in making small steps toward school integration. It’s important to have positive reinforcement in making small steps as well as daily rewards for doing small things in addition to long term rewards,” says Read.
An example she gives is if a student has a hard time getting into a car for school in the morning, maybe make sure there is always hot chocolate or their favorite drink in the car ready for them — or their favorite music.
Make it unappealing to be at home
Tackling school avoidance quickly is paramount, so that students don’t fall too behind and their anxiety about school doesn’t get to snowball. A way to make school more attractive to students is to make home very unattractive.
“All electronics are off,” says Read. “Parents can take the modem to work with them. Take all the TV remotes. Take their cellphones. In creating plans, we think about all the comfy comforts of home — how can we remove the comforts, while still give kids access to the things they are entitled to, like shelter and food? That really takes some creative problem-solving. We can shape the environment to tip the scales for these small, positive steps forward and celebrate the students when they do take the steps.”
Change the student environment
Read says that for certain students, schools like Yellow Wood Academy, a nonprofit one-on-one and small-group school on Mercer Island, help them eventually transition to traditional brick and mortar schools and larger class sizes. She also says that some students stay at Yellow Wood and graduate from there. The trajectory is dependent on the individual needs of the student.
“Sometimes, kids have been out of a traditional brick and mortar school setting for a long time, so there are issues with transition,” says Read. Finding an alternative that works for an individual student sets them up for success, whether they return to a larger classroom or remain in the specialized setting.
Founded 30 years ago, Yellow Wood Academy is a nonprofit K-12 school on Mercer Island that provides its students with individualized education. Our collaborative, accessible learning environment uniquely engages each student, embraces their potential and prepares them for their future.