What to do when your child just won’t go to school

Written by Teresa Woodruff, LPC, ATR-BC, CPCS

Child won't go to school

This time of year, we have a lot of parents ask for tips for getting their children to go to school.  We find that children have the most difficulty with regular school attendance after they have been ill, when they have a stressful event at school coming up (such as testing), or if there has been a recent transition (beginning a new school or a change in teacher).  Sometimes a child seems fine until it’s time to go to school and then all of a sudden they complain about feeling sick, have a tantrum, cling to a parent, or simply refuse to leave the house.  Physical symptoms can be real, including:  headaches, stomachaches, nausea, or even vomiting.  I know it is tough as a parent to know when to push your child and when they need your comfort.  Here are a couple tips for managing school refusal and how to decrease your child’s anxiety regarding school:

  1. Don’t let them stay home. In my house, we have a rule “If you have a fever or throw up, you stay home; otherwise, you go to school.”  Once a child learns that they can stay home just because they asked, they will naturally ask more often.  Also once they do stay home, it makes it even that much more difficult to return to school.
  2. When necessary, try progressively staying longer at school. If your child experiences anxiety regarding going to school or staying at school and has gotten out of the habit of staying all day every day, try to gradually increase the amount of time that he/she stays at school.
  3. Establish a safe person at school for your child to talk to. This can be a teacher, counselor or even the school nurse.  Let this adult know that you want your child to feel safe and be able to confide in them but you also would appreciate if they encourage your child to return to class as soon as possible.
  4. Talk to the teacher. Let your teacher know what is going on and ask if they have noticed any negative peer experiences, your child playing alone at recess, difficulty performing schoolwork or any other classroom situations that could be contributing to your child not wanting to attend school.
  5. Create a “Feel Good” kit. Allow your child to add a favorite stuffed animal (depending on age), a special motivating note from you, and a reminder of coping skills, such as:  think of something you love, take 10 deep breaths, or squeeze your fits than release 5 times.
  6. Create motivation such as after-school playdates or trips to the dollar store. This gives your child something to look forward to after school so that he/she will have something else to focus on. A sticker reward chart may also be helpful:  allow your child to earn a sticker for every day that he/she goes to school and stays all day.  Set aside a number of stickers that equal a prize, such as:  10 stickers earns you a trip to the zoo.

Please know that you are not alone.  Many children experience school refusal.  Try to be kind but firm with your child.  If his/her school attendance does not improve, talk to a professional.  If your child’s anxiety persists or is more intense that you think it should be, consult with a child therapist.  Your child may be experiencing separation anxiety.  A child therapist can help your child learn coping skills and can help you, the parent, learn ways to support your child through this.