WHEN THE SCHOOL BELL TOLLS…

…It sometimes falls on deaf ears. Ears that prefer other sounds to those which occur at school. Ears belonging to children who for a variety of reasons, refuse to attend school.

Approximately two percent of all school aged children are “school phobic.” That is, for any number of reasons depending on their age and experience, they have difficulty attending school. A child’s negative reaction to school attendance has been termed, “school phobia”, “school avoidance” or “school refusal.” It is useful to simply understand that children have difficulty attending school for a variety of reasons. Some examples will suffice:


  1. In some cases, school-aged children have difficulty separating from their caregivers. Difficulty separating from a loved one often occurs at about the age 18 to 24 months, and is called, “separation anxiety.” A normal reaction at this age, toddlers will cry, cling and have temper tantrums when they are about to be separated from a parent (for daycare or a babysitter, for example). Although this resolves for many children, some older children continue to have difficulty separating from a caregiver.
  2. Sometimes school-aged children who did not experience “separation anxiety” as infants or toddlers will suddenly become anxious and fearful at the time school begins. A recent crisis in the family such as death, divorce, financial difficulties; or an unpleasant event occurring in the child’s community may trigger school avoidance.
  3. The school environment of today is a complex array of social and academic pressures. Due in part to technological advances, changing family dynamics such as increased divorce and the proliferation of drugs and violence in today’s schools, children are often faced with social and academic issues that were less prevalent a generation ago. Those who are struggling with grades or personal problems may also shun school attendance.
  4. Children who have experienced extensive illness or surgery may feel considerable stress at the prospect of having to return to the classroom routines as well as academic and social demands.

Children who fear or otherwise avoid attending school have one thing in common: sooner or later, they need to return. Parents can help in a number of ways:

  • Bridge troubled waters . For young children who experience separation anxiety, help make the “unfamiliar”, familiar. Children are naturally cautious about the unknown. And this is even more intense in those experiencing separation anxiety.

Prior to the beginning of school, discuss what is going to happen. How he will be going to school, who his teacher will be and his or her role, some of the events he can expect to experience; and especially that you will be there waiting for him to return and tell you about his day! It becomes useful to pair the “trust” of a safe parental figure with the people, places and things associated with school. Accompany your child to school, meet his teacher(s) and view his room with him. Show him the location of various school functions such as lunch, art, the auditorium and bathroom.

  • Communication as ‘medicine’ . When a child is traumatized due to unforeseen circumstances within the family, conflict with others at school, or difficulty performing academically, sharing feelings openly helps establish a healthy bond between parent and child. One which includes the expecta-tion that in times of stress or difficulty, a parent can be trusted to help improve the situation; or at the very least, listen! Openly sharing feelings models another very important concept for children to understand: adults also experience stress and feel pain. But through a variety of vehicles not the least of which is discussion, pain can abate and difficulties can be overcome.
  • The ‘truth’ about consequences . A behavior that is followed by a very pleasant consequence, such as approval, is likely to occur again. Be sure to provide plenty of affection, maybe a delicious snack, when your child arrives home from school that first day. Milk and cookies never tasted so good!