School Avoidance: What It Is and How to Manage It
We’ve all been there – it’s early morning, our bed is warm, and getting up to start our day is oh-so-hard! Wanting to postpone doing difficult life stuff is totally normal, but for some children, this might be a sign of school avoidance: a problem that could signal more serious mental health concerns. When a child just doesn’t seem to want to attend school, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are being truant, bratty, or lazy; it could be rooted in underlying struggles that require attention and maybe even treatment.
So, how and why does school avoidance occur? Why is it important to recognize and address? And most importantly, what can parents and guardians do to support children through it?
Reasons and Signs
School avoidance happens when a child refuses to go to school or has trouble staying in school for the whole day. It usually begins with missing a day or two and escalates to more time spent away. It is often a symptom of diagnoses such as anxiety disorders, phobias, depression, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), adjustment disorder, and several others. Other symptoms of some of these diagnoses that may contribute to school avoidant behaviors include:
- difficulty with sleep
- poor concentration and focus
- fear of judgment from others
- difficulty socializing with peers
- lack of pleasure or enjoyment in activities
- decreased energy levels
- increased worry and sad mood
A child may become school avoidant after experiencing stressors, such as peer or family conflicts, grief, witnessing or experiencing a crisis emergency, etc. either in the home or at school. In these cases, school avoidance might be a means of coping for the child. It’s also possible that these behaviors may become triggered or escalated following lengthy periods at home for school breaks or illnesses.
Effects of School Avoidance
School typically fosters academic, emotional, and social skills, so avoiding it can result in significant short and long-term effects on these areas of development. Short-term effects may include difficulty interacting with family and peers and poor academic achievement; long-term effects include increased risk of ongoing academic underachievement, difficulty with employment, and increased risk for psychiatric illness and ongoing mental health concerns.
Early intervention is crucial to successful management of all mental health concerns. Effective communication between teachers, school counselors, and parents regarding academic concerns or absenteeism before it becomes a significant problem is key to preventing school avoidance. Early intervention may involve talking to your child about their symptoms and stressors or seeking mental health therapy to assist the child in learning skills to effectively cope.
When talking to your child, practice mindful and non-judgmental listening. (Listen to understand, try to hear what they’re saying and empathize with them, view the situation from their point of view.) Take turns identifying how the other might be feeling in that specific moment; even if you disagree with the behavior. Behaviors are often a response to emotions, so you want to give the child a comfortable to share those emotions with you.
School avoidance can be associated with physical health concerns, such as gastrointestinal complaints or headaches, so ruling out underlying medical issues is a good place to start. If there aren’t any, it’s important to approach school avoidance as a team that includes school staff, mental health professionals, and family/child.
A collaborative approach promotes interventions in all settings, with all parties being informed of the treatment plan. Interventions such as cognitive and dialectical behavioral therapy and exposure-based treatments might include identifying and challenging cognitive distortions addressing fears, practicing relaxation techniques, gradual exposure to the stressors, and increasing social and coping skills.
Though unique to the individual, some children may require medication management in addition to talk-therapy to assist in easing symptoms. If these interventions are unsuccessful and depending on the extent of school avoidance, a higher level of care may be needed, such as an adolescent partial hospitalization program (APHP) or intensive outpatient treatment (IOP).
If your kiddo is struggling with school avoidance, know that you don’t have to be alone in supporting them. Look into your community to see what resources are available to you. For instance, many schools have school counselors, psychologists or social workers whom may be able to provide individual or group therapy while in the school, in addition to accommodations which may decrease barriers associated with negative school functioning. It is also helpful to explore therapeutic resources available in the community, including group and individual therapy. Lastly, enrolling the child in extracurricular activities, while being mindful to not overload the child, may promote positive social skills which can decrease school avoidance.
About the Expert
Jamie Gordon is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with extensive experience in providing case management and therapy to adult, adolescent, and pre-adolescent populations. Throughout her career, she has completed psychosocial and suicide risk assessments, implemented behavioral and treatment plans, as well as led a DBT consultation team. While acquiring her MS degree in Mental Health Counseling, Jamie researched and published peer-reviewed articles with the primary focus in the LGBTQ+ community, providing clinicians with guidelines and alternative therapeutic interventions.