The concept of avoiding school is not surprising given the landscape of our world over the last few years. Unfortunately, schools have become a place of emotional stress for some students and teachers. With education, collaboration, and a deep understanding of why students choose not to attend school, we can get kids back into the classroom feeling safe, heard, understood, and; of course, educated.
Students of all ages have dealt with falling behind from COVID and the mental health struggles that were exasperated or that followed. The everyday pressures of school will always exist, including getting good grades, handling friendships and dealing with bullying. To add even more, the thought of a school shooting occurring adds a tremendous amount of stress.
Educators have also been forced to adjust to the constantly changing educational environment and manage their fears while teaching and caring for children. To find solutions, which can differ by age, we must dig deeper to understand the struggles that can lead to avoiding school.
The Struggles Are Very Real
During the Covid-19 pandemic, depression and anxiety in youth doubled compared to pre-pandemic levels. A pandemic of any kind is a trigger for school avoidance, and COVID has likely instigated a global mental health crisis in youth," said study author Sheri Madigan, an associate professor of clinical psychology and Canada research chair in determinants of child development at the University of Calgary. Bullying has not just become an in-school problem as cyberbullying suicide is now the eighth leading cause of death in children aged 5–11. The popular and somewhat effective saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me," is no longer the case. Words can have devastating consequences for our youth.
There have been 151 such shootings since 2018 and 51 shootings in 2022 alone. The awareness and fear factors are highly elevated due to more media access than ever before and regularly scheduled school shooting drills.
What Does It All Mean?
There are many labels for students who don't want to attend school. Whether we call it school phobia, which tends to be outdated, chronically absent, school refusal, or school avoidance, they all lead to the same destination, an undesirable place to visit.
Chronically absent refers to 10-15% of students who are estimated to miss 10% or more school days every year.
School phobia was first used in 1941 to identify children who fail to attend school because attendance causes emotional distress and anxiety. The term has since been replaced with school refusal or school avoidance.
School avoidance refers to a student who refuses to go to or stay in school for the entire day, impacting 5% to 28% of youths.
Yes, there will always be kids that don't want to get out of bed or pretend they're sick to avoid a test or to stay home and play video games. It's easy to dismiss these behaviors; however, educators need to recognize when it’s something more serious.
The main difference is that kids experiencing school refusal don't want to stay home. It's a feeling they have that is often unexplainable from a psychological cause. Parents and teachers need to know this is not a behavioral issue or an act of truancy. Therefore, instead of punishment, support is crucial.
School avoidance may indicate something more severe, like a learning or anxiety disorder or feeling unsafe at school from other students or staff.
What Does School Refusal Look Like to Parents and Educators?
Certain behaviors and habits of young and old children who are experiencing school refusal should trigger concerns and immediate next steps for parents and educators.
- Frequently struggling to arrive at school on time
- Leaving before the school day ends
- Not attending school at all
- Headaches, fatigue, stomachaches, and other physical symptoms of anxiety may make it hard to get off to school in the morning or make it feel necessary to leave early
What Does School Refusal Look Like From a Child’s Perspective?
Grasping what an adolescent is experiencing with school avoidance is an important piece of the puzzle.
- Not understanding why they feel this way
- Difficulty communicating what’s causing their anxieties
- Fear of failure
- Problems with other children
- Worries over going to a public bathroom
- A perceived "meanness" of the teacher
- Threats of physical harm
- Actual physical harm
What Can Educators Do?
Solutions begin with a collaborative approach between parents and school teachers, administrators, psychologists and therapists who can merge their expertise to determine why a particular child refuses to go to school and what they may be avoiding at home.
Teachers spend most of their day with kids, and the parents often look to them for answers. The National Association of School Psychologists is one of several resources suggesting various methods for getting educators involved.
- Set up a meeting with the school guidance counselor, therapist or psychologist
- Encourage parents to set up regular evening and morning routines
- Assist parents in bringing a reluctant or acting-out child into the school
- Work with parents to effectively respond to their child's complaints about school, while ensuring that the child attends school
- Work with parents to monitor attendance, particularly for older students
It is important to note that not all parents are willing to participate. The involvement of the parents or caretakers is never guaranteed, which creates more pressure and a longer road to discovery and problem-solving for the school. Could this mean something is going on in the home causing a child stress? We never want to assume that a busy parent is abusing their child because they are not as present; however, abuse is a very real scenario that should be taken seriously and investigated if suspected. At least 1 in 7 children have experienced child abuse or neglect in the past year in the United States, and that includes physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse.
Away from home, teachers can significantly impact the classroom to make a difference in a child struggling with school avoidance, especially those on the younger side. For adolescents and teens, the reasons for school avoidance may be more transparent and easier to communicate if they are willing to share.
Identifying the root cause is often the first step towards solutions.
- Welcome the separation-anxious child when he or she arrives at school
- Help the child become involved in getting organized for the day
- Give the child special jobs, such as handing out papers or collecting books. Praise and encourage the child and provide comfort to younger students when they are upset.
- Set up rewards for school attendance
- Assign a peer buddy at recess or lunch to help a socially anxious child feel more comfortable
- Provide tutoring and other academic interventions and support for students who have academic difficulties
- Show sensitivity to students with performance anxiety.
- Reduce the need for the student to give speeches or provide an alternate test-taking environment
- Provide a safe harbor with the counselor, nurse or school psychologist where the student can go when feeling stressed or overwhelmed
- Address school safety issues through anti-bullying and anti-violence initiatives
- Create a welcoming, engaging environment that helps students feel connected to their school and teachers
- Switch classes if there are struggles with particular students or teachers
- Offer additional supervision if there is bullying occurring
- If a teen's school refusal is beyond the scope of school staff, further assessment by a private mental health professional may be necessary
Missing school has significant short and long-term effects on a child's social, emotional, and educational development. It also impacts the parents, teachers, and fellow students. The sooner the issues causing school avoidance are tackled, the better. The consequences build as the more a child is absent.
- The harder it is to get back into the routine
- The more detached they feel from other students
- The harder it is to catch up academically
- The harder it is to maintain basic skills of coping with anxieties
School avoidance, or whatever label you use, is often misunderstood. With education and collaboration between the student, parents, and school staff, discovering what's causing the anxieties will lead to answers and a better educational experience.
Cross Country Education has school psychologist roles available in schools nationwide. For more information and to apply, click here.