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