Navigating new school year fears

As the school year rolls back around, you may notice your child expressing reluctance in returning to school. Not to worry, this protest is very normal. In fact, up to 25% of school-age children typically express some sort of school resistance. Often the issues are minor, but for a small fraction of students something more serious may be going on.

There are three forms of rejection ranging from mild to serious: School Reticence, School Avoidance and School Refusal. The nature of your child’s complaints can guide you to figure out what might be happening with your child specifically.

School Reticence is temporary. It presents as a general lack of desire to go to school. By being firm with your child to attend school, you can prevent mild resistance from becoming a pattern and developing into something more serious.

School Avoidance is signaled by repetitive behavior. The avoidance may be either social or academic. Children exhibit school avoidance by begging to stay home, requesting home schooling, visiting the school nurse and/or texting or calling home with requests to be picked up. Your child is most likely experiencing some level of anxiety they don’t know how to manage or express. If you can recognize a pattern to their requests, you may be able to identify the cause of their anxiety to help them work through the issue.

School Refusal is a more serious form of distress. Students who refuse to go to school for extended periods are typically experiencing higher levels of anxiety.

In all cases, parents should try to address their children’s anxiety with patience and support while still maintaining rules regarding school attendance.

Three things that may help: Discussion, Routines, and Praise.

  1. Talk with your child about their fears or worries. By listening with compassion and without judgment, you may be able to solve the problem together.
  2. Stick with your typical routine on school mornings. Keep your child on track for getting to school on time despite their complaints. Do not allow your child to avoid school.
  3. Compliment and praise your child for completing the morning routine and making it to school on time.

Aside from school specific causes, school refusal can also be related to various anxiety disorders (separation, social, panic). If you believe that underlying anxiety may be present and significant, consider scheduling an evaluation with a qualified mental health provider.

Written by

R. Lindsey Bergman, PhD

Health Sciences Clinical Assistant Professor, Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior