What is School Refusal?
Is your child frequently refusing to attend school, chronically late and/or leaving the classroom on a consistent basis? If so, your child is likely exhibiting signs of school refusal.
School refusal, also known as school avoidance, refers to a child or adolescent’s reluctance or refusal to attend school or difficulty remaining in school for an entire day. This behavior is rarely due to a lack of academic ability or a desire to avoid work; but more often driven by emotional distress or anxiety related to the school environment. School refusal has been a growing problem over the last decade, and has exponentially increased since the onset of the COVID pandemic.
Possible Causes of School Refusal:
Anxiety is often a significant component of school avoidance, where the refusal is a symptom of an untreated or undertreated anxiety disorder. Anxiety can be generalized, wherein a student worries about many different things all the time, or more specifically, where a student may be anxious about social situations, grades, or cleanliness. According to the Anxiety Institute, an intensive day treatment program specializing in the treatment of school refusal, the following conditions are most commonly present and primary: social phobia, panic disorder, agoraphobia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. They also report that for students who have been out of school for over a month, it is rare to not also see depression, poor eating and sleeping habits, and increasing avoidance of social and extracurricular outside of school.
If anxiety is a significant factor in school avoidance, the Anxiety Institute believes that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), an evidence-based treatment, can help. CBT teaches individuals how to recognize the connections among thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and works to break the link between unhelpful thoughts and avoidant behaviors. Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) is a specialized type of CBT that helps individuals approach things that make them feel anxious, while teaching them how to tolerate and manage their anxiety. If your child’s school avoidance is anxiety related, getting them into proper treatment can be the key to helping them return to school. A therapist who specializes in CBT and ERP can help your child learn how to approach difficult situations, rather than avoid them, and can help them work through difficult exposures related to school and academics.
Besides anxiety, students become school resistant for a variety of reasons. The first step is to rule out any medical issues. Absent that, the likely culprits include:
- Being teased or bullied by peer(s) or a staff member.
- Academic frustration/embarrassment.
- Not feeling supported by a teacher, paraprofessional or administrator.
- Sensory overload in a large school environment.
Besides speaking to your child in an effort to identify the triggers, it is important to speak to your child’s teachers to see if they can identify any triggers and/or patterns. Requesting nurse or guidance counselor logs can often yield critical information regarding the time of day and frequency with which a student is leaving the classroom, possibly revealing a clear pattern of avoidance in a particular class. This may suggest that the class is too challenging or not challenging enough, the dynamic between the student and teacher is poor, and/or there is a peer conflict in that particular class. The more information you can gather, the more you will be able to help your child.
Homework refusal is often associated with school refusal and can also help to identify the cause. The subject or type of work your child resists the most, such as writing paragraphs or essays, math problems, word problems or reading may be indicative of a learning disability.
In New Jersey, compulsory education laws mandate that students between the ages of 6-16 attend school regularly. School districts are required to adopt policies regarding attendance, which may include the pursuit of truancy charges against a parent or guardian for a student’s failure to attend school regularly (typically cumulative unexcused absences of 10 or more). Many school districts also report chronic absenteeism to The Division of Child Protection and Permanency (“DCP&P”) as they view it as a form of child neglect. For students who are refusing to attend school as a result of anxiety or depression regardless of the cause, having their parents face truancy charges and being under investigation by DCP&P often results in an exacerbation of symptoms, leading to self-blame and further school refusal. For these reasons, it is critical to engage in discussions with your local school district in an effort to improve your child’s attendance before the school district pursues truancy charges and/or contacts DCP&P.
- Find a therapist in your area that specializes in CBT and/or ERP. A specialist can help your child work on approaching anxiety provoking situations related to school, and can teach them to tolerate fear or distress around school.
- Obtain a neuropsychological evaluation to determine if a learning disability, attention deficit, neurodevelopmental disorder, pragmatic language, executive functioning deficits and/or any other weaknesses that may impact school performance exist. While the child study team in your local school district can administer assessments, they cannot provide diagnoses, nor do they typically assess executive functioning skills, or administer the same types of tests that are available to neuropsychologists. If you decide to engage the services of a private evaluator, it is very beneficial to have the provider conduct a school-based observation in order to determine if any factors within the school setting are impacting your child and to assess your child’s level of functioning within the classroom.
- Request referral to the I&RS Team, 504 Team, or child study team so appropriate interventions, accommodations and/or services can be provided through an I&RS Plan, 504 Plan and/or Individualized Education Program (“IEP”) such as a delayed start to the school day, class schedule changes, teacher changes, extra time to complete work, pass/fail, school based counseling, and/or remedial based instruction if a learning disability has been identified.
- Close supervision and monitoring of bullying or peer conflicts, if relevant.
- Development of a transition plan to slowly reintroduce school attendance. If your child is being seen by private mental health providers seek their input regarding the components of the transition plan.
- Inquire if your school district has any school-based therapeutic services to infuse therapy throughout your child’s school day and address issues as they arise, if appropriate.
- If none of the above options are successful, consider requesting placement at an out of district placement which may include a therapeutic school if mental health needs are the cause of school avoidance and home instruction pending the identification of an appropriate school to avoid your child falling too far behind in their academics. However, having an IEP in place is critical to achieving an out of district placement.
Identifying school avoidance, as well as the root cause, early on, and working collaboratively with your local school district and outside providers to develop a plan to have your child attend school more regularly, is the key to success. Our team of dedicated advocates and attorneys at Manes & Weinberg are here to help you navigate the legal process, and the skilled and compassionate mental health professionals at the Anxiety Institute can be instrumental in helping your child overcome school avoidance.
The Anxiety Institute
333 Main St Suite 200, Madison, NJ 07940