When Children Refuse to Go to School

Jan 31, 2024 | Adult Toolbox, Counselor's Corner, Newsletters

by Courtney Oliver, LMHC
BYS Executive Director

When it comes to going to school, every child complains now and then about going; that is typical childhood behavior. But when a child regularly refuses to attend school every day for days or weeks on end, it is essential to uncover the cause of their school refusal feelings in order to support them.

School refusal behavior is a pattern of avoiding school that can result in academic stress, lack of connection with peers or trusted adults, difficulty maintaining a routine, or other long-lasting consequences. There are several factors to consider when a child refuses to go to school for any length of time.

  • How long have they been avoiding school?
  • How much distress do they associate with attending school?
  • How strongly do they resist?
  • How much does their resistance interfere with their (and the family’s) life?

Some of the most common reasons a child refuses to go to school are anxiety, depression, social anxiety, bullying, problems with peers, or a specific incident at school.

The first step in helping a child who refuses to go to school is to identify the root cause of their refusal. A discussion about their feelings will likely get at the heart of the child’s avoidance of school. Compassion, understanding, and patient listening are paramount during this discussion. One helpful question you could pose is, “If you could change one thing about school, what would it be?” If your child finds it hard to talk about the issue, ask them to rate each part of the school day (bus ride, classroom, specialist classes, teacher, peers, recess, lunch, etc.). Younger children may find it easier to share their feelings by pointing to symbols like smiley/sad faces. Role-playing could be a great way for children to share about their day and incorporate parents. And, be sure to check in with yourself and recognize anything happening at home that might be making it harder for your child to leave home generally or go to school.

If the root cause of your child’s school refusal is anxiety, depression, or other concerns that can not be resolved through conversation, getting a comprehensive diagnostic assessment might be a helpful next step. While refusing to go to school is not a diagnosable disorder, it does often accompany disorders like separation anxiety, social anxiety, depression, and panic disorder. A complete assessment will provide insight into your child’s mental health concerns and offer effective tools or treatment. A great start to getting an assessment would be to check with your child’s primary care physician.