School Refusal: What It Is and How to Help

In this blog post, we’ll explain what “school refusal” really means, possible causes of school refusal, and why rates might be rising. We’ll also share concrete strategies you can try if your child is struggling. You are not alone!

Emily Veno
June 9, 2023

Prisma is the world’s most engaging virtual school that combines a fun, real-world curriculum with powerful mentorship from experienced coaches and a supportive peer community.

“Mom, please don’t make me go to that school again.”

That quote comes directly from a 7th grader named Major. He began resisting attending school when his teachers stopped allowing accommodations for his ADHD. He began getting into fights, and even got suspended. His mom, Latasha, barely recognized the bright, curious, creative kid she had always known. Soon, even the thought of going to school was a source of tears.

Major’s school refusal impacted his whole family, causing arguments between his parents. After exploring her options, Latasha decided to pull Major out of school and enroll him in Prisma’s virtual, project-based middle school. “We have our beautiful boy back!” Latasha shares. “Major laughs now, he is more responsible, he is more mature.”

Major’s story is not the only story of school refusal we have heard at Prisma. However, not every case of school refusal is best addressed with switching to a different form of schooling, nor is this possible for every family.

In this blog post, we’ll explain what “school refusal” really means, possible causes of school refusal, and why rates might be rising. We’ll also share concrete strategies you can try if your child is struggling. You are not alone!

What is school refusal?

School refusal, also known as school avoidance or school absenteeism, isn't a simple act of truancy. Instead, it represents a complex, emotionally driven behavior where a child refuses to attend school or has significant difficulty remaining in school for a full day.

Some might mistake it for a child being rebellious or trying to evade schoolwork, but it often has roots in deeper issues connected to mental health. Anyone who has personally dealt with adolescents in the throes of school refusal will tell you it’s more than just laziness—kids are often fearful, hysterical, and out of control, making negotiating with them about their attendance next to impossible.

School refusal behavior can manifest in various ways, from tantrums and pleas to stay home to physical symptoms like stomachaches or headaches. Sometimes, these claims are made up excuses, but they may also be real physical manifestations of anxiety. Some kids may struggle to even leave the house, while others may make it to school but quickly go to the nurse’s office and ask to be sent home.

Younger children might exhibit school refusal behaviors in the form of separation anxiety. High school kids may leave the school building without permission, skip classes to hide out in the library, or lurk in bathrooms as a form of school avoidance.

School refusal is recognized by clinicians, school psychologists, and mental health professionals as a severe issue needing intervention. Notable researchers like Christopher Kearney have contributed significantly to understanding and addressing school refusal behavior.

What are the most typical causes for school refusal?

Several potential triggers might lead to school refusal, varying significantly from one child to another.

Situational Triggers

  1. A new school year or a transition to a new school, particularly from elementary to middle school or middle to high school, can trigger school refusal in children who struggle with change.
  2. School environment factors, such as academic pressure, conflicts with teachers or difficulty keeping up with schoolwork, can also play a significant role.
  3. Some kids struggle to transition back to school after long vacations or extended illnesses.
  4. Social stressors, such as bullying, falling out with a preferred friend group, or not having anyone to sit with at lunch can be common triggers.

Disorders & Disabilities

  1. Anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder can cause school refusal.
  2. Kids with autism can be especially susceptible to negative impacts of many of the situational triggers listed above, especially struggles with transitions and social stressors.
  3. Kids with ADHD may struggle with school refusal when their learning environment lacks proper accommodations or when they feel overwhelmed by schoolwork or distractions.


Why is school refusal on the rise?

The COVID-19 pandemic added a new layer to this issue. In a recent USA Today feature on the rise of school refusal, mental health experts said they’ve seen an explosion in families struggling. "The mental health infrastructure was never designed for this level of need,” said Jonathan Dalton, who runs the Center for Anxiety and Behavioral Change in Maryland and Virginia, which offers treatment for school avoidance behaviors.

So why are we seeing more school refusal than ever before?

  1. There has been a rise in all mental health issues since the onset of the pandemic, in children and adults. The World Health Organization estimates a 25% rise in anxiety and depression rates worldwide.
  2. Kids who got used to being at home during pandemic online schooling may find it harder to leave the house today. This may be an acute issue like agoraphobia, or may simply be a desire to stay in a comfortable environment, perhaps with a preferred family member or parent who works from home.
  3. Video game addiction and other negative forms of screen time are impacting children more than ever. A child who finds it distressing to leave a favored video game or device may exhibit school refusal behaviors.
  4. Many teachers and parents have reported widespread issues in public schools post-pandemic, including rising behavior issues, a teacher shortage, and learning loss. These challenges can turn a previously positive school environment into a chaotic situation.

Lastly, the pandemic may have simply emphasized problems with our educational system that have been there all along. Many young people don’t see the point of attending school or what they are learning’s relevance to the real world. Or, they don’t feel a strong connection with their teachers or peers—when human beings feel disconnected, we withdraw.

As one mom in the USA Today article puts it: "In the real world, most people can choose whom they work for or where they go to college. But students don't have that flexibility in a traditional school system."

It’s precisely this disconnect that led us to start Prisma, with a curriculum that emphasizes real-world, interest-driven learning; and teachers that serve as “learning coaches” and provide 1:1, loving support to each child in their cohort.

Strategies for Addressing School Refusal

Addressing school refusal involves a multi-faceted approach, engaging a team of providers, including teachers, guidance counselors, school staff, social workers, and mental health professionals.

Here are the best practices for addressing your child’s school refusal:

  1. Early Detection: Monitor your child's school attendance and look out for frequent or sudden absences. Frequent complaints of headaches or stomachaches on school days could also indicate school anxiety. When discussing these signs with your child, approach them with compassion and understanding, saying something like, "I've noticed you've been feeling sick on school days. Do you want to talk about it?"
  2. Seeking Professional Assistance: If your child shows signs of school refusal, consider reaching out to a child psychologist or a licensed therapist. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be highly effective in managing school refusal, as it teaches kids how to cope with their anxiety. When discussing this step with your child, ensure them that it's normal to ask for help when dealing with difficult emotions.
  3. Creating a Supportive School Environment: Advocate for your child at their school. Talk to the school counselor or psychologist about your child's struggles and ask for their assistance in creating a supportive environment for your child at school.Before speaking with school staff, prepare your child by explaining that you're all on the same team and that you're meeting with the school to find ways to make them feel more comfortable.
  4. Parental Support: Make it a routine to have open conversations with your child about their worries. You could start these conversations with a simple, "How was your day at school?" and gradually delve deeper into their feelings about school.
  5. Gradual Reintroduction to School: If your child is missing a lot of school, consider a gradual reintroduction. Start with having your child attend school for a few hours a day, then slowly increase this over time until they're comfortable attending a full school day. Discuss this plan with your child, emphasizing that it's okay to take small steps and that they won't be forced to jump back into a full day immediately.
  6. Promoting a Healthy Lifestyle: Encourage your child to maintain a balanced diet, exercise regularly, and get plenty of sleep. These habits can significantly help manage anxiety levels. You can make this a fun and bonding experience by cooking healthy meals together, engaging in family physical activities, or establishing a calming bedtime routine.
  7. Understanding Over Punishment: Remember, it's not beneficial to punish your child for refusing to go to school. Instead, focus on understanding and addressing the root cause of their fear. Each child's situation is unique and requires a personalized approach.
  8. Utilizing Community Resources: Look for local support groups for parents dealing with school refusal. These groups can provide a space to share experiences and learn from others facing similar challenges.
  9. Considering Alternative Education Methods: If your child continues to refuse school despite your best efforts, consider alternative education methods such as homeschooling or online schools like Prisma. Before making this decision, have a frank discussion with your child about the pros and cons of these alternatives and involve them in the decision-making process.

School refusal is a complex issue, often rooted in mental health problems like anxiety disorders. With a thorough understanding of its causes and a holistic, supportive approach, it's possible to help your child overcome their fear of school.

If your child is struggling with school refusal, remember that you're not alone, and there are professionals and community resources available to help.

Join our community of families all over the world doing school differently.

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