When a child no longer wants to go to school and this refusal persists over days and weeks, it can be difficult for a parent to understand the reason. However, it is necessary to insist that the child attend class.
A child may have a temporary urge to play hooky. However, such an episode should not be taken lightly if it is accompanied by physical symptoms (stomachache, nausea, headaches, etc.) or if the child seems anxious or depressed. He/she may be trying to escape from a frightening situation.
However, it is important not to let the child miss class, as this may increase the distress. In fact, the longer it takes for the child to return to school, the more anxiety he or she will experience, since he or she will believe that there is real danger.
The parent’s role is to try to understand the cause of the child’s refusal and to encourage him to face his fears.
Why does he refuse to go to school?
There are many reasons for refusing to go to school. It can be a combination of factors that add up, such as a lack of self-confidence, a recent move or a bad relationship with a student. Here are the most common causes:
The child is having a hard time being separated from his or her parents. Being away from them or their home causes insecurity and they may fear that something bad will happen to their parents;
Has difficulty mixing with other children
He/she experiences conflicts at school and does not know how to resolve them;
He/she is being bullied;
Lack of self-confidence or fear of failure He/she does not want to make mistakes, is afraid of being criticized, of failing an exam
He/she has learning difficulties and does not know how to overcome them
Expectations of him/her are too high
He is overprotected by his parents;
They have difficulty adjusting to change (moving, change of school or teacher, separation, illness)
There are conflicts at home.
How to respond?
School refusal can happen at any time. If this happens to your child, here are some things you can do to help him/her through this difficult time:
First and foremost, insist that your child go to school. Don’t assume that the anxiety will go away on its own. Encourage your child to face his or her fears while reassuring them. Tell your child that it’s okay to have fears, that he or she can handle them and that you are there for him or her;
Try to find out the cause of your child’s fears and help them identify their emotions. Ask questions, but don’t push too hard, but listen. It is important not to make fun of your child and not to deny his fears;
It is advisable to set a time during the day when they can talk to you about their fears. Invite him to respect this time, and use it to reassure him. It’s important to set a specific time, because if your child is always being reassured, his anxiety will increase and he will seek more reassurance. By providing this opportunity, you are allowing your child to express his fears without having them take over his life;
Help them find ways to relax and manage their emotions and stress. If any risk of illness has been ruled out, don’t overemphasize his complaints about physical discomfort;
Try to identify with him his negative thoughts and help him replace them with positive ones. For example, you can make a sheet of paper and write down what your child can do that is fun at school (e.g., learn new things, make friends, play new games, etc.);
Reward your child for facing his or her fears. You can do this by setting up a system of positive reinforcement by, for example, giving your child a marble or sticker every time he or she is ready to go to school on time. He can then trade his marbles or stickers for a privilege. Don’t forget to tell him you are proud of him;
Try to stay calm. If you show anxiety, stress or frustration, you may make your child even more anxious;
When you talk to your child about school, be assertive, don’t leave any room for doubt. For example, say, “Get ready for school” instead of “Are you ready for school?” Use “when” instead of “if”: “When you go to school tomorrow…” rather than “If you go to school tomorrow…”;
If you are unable to send him to school, set rules and stand firm about not making the day at home appealing. Don’t allow television, video games or other pleasurable activities. Make him do homework. Above all, don’t let this situation continue.
If your child needs to get to school alone but can’t, take it slowly. Drive your child to school first, then to the corner of the school, then to your corner, etc.
When you drive your child to school, keep it short. Let them know that when they get to school, you will give them a hug and then leave;
Work with the teacher and principal to understand what is going on and find solutions. When appropriate, share your intervention strategies with the school. For example, your child should not be able to call you during the day or go home (even if he or she says his or her stomach hurts);
If you think your child is being bullied, talk to the teacher and principal immediately;
If the situation persists, call a health professional, your family doctor or contact the psychosocial services . Also, the school psychologist can help you discover the source of the problem and find solutions.
Fear or anxiety?
Fear is a normal reaction to real danger (for example, a fire). The body mobilizes to deal with a real threat. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a normal emotion in response to an impression of danger (for example, imagining that there is a risk of fire), but the body reacts in the same way as it would in a fear reaction.
Anxiety becomes a problem when it overreacts, causes great distress, is difficult to control, lasts for a period of time and causes the child to avoid certain situations. In short, when it interferes with the child’s daily functioning.
If you think your child is experiencing anxiety and it persists despite your interventions, it is possible that he or she has an anxiety disorder. If in doubt, do not hesitate to consult a doctor or a psychologist. You can also try to speak with a social worker. It is important that these disorders be treated as soon as possible so that your child can function normally.
The importance of routine
Routine is important for your child in general, but it is even more important if your child refuses to go to school. He or she will feel better if rules and boundaries are well established. Here are some tips:
In the morning, try to have a calm, steady routine. Avoid being in a rush so as not to create extra stress for your child. The routine should be the same for both parents if they are separated;
Make a clear schedule (written or with drawings) of the different steps in the morning in order: eating breakfast, brushing teeth, getting dressed… If necessary, you can use a timer, which will help your child finish his routine within a given time and not be late;
Make sure your child goes to bed at the same time every night and gets enough sleep. If your child is tired, it will be more difficult to get him/her up and motivated to go to school. However, remember that not getting enough sleep is not a reason to miss school;
On Sundays, plan a fun afternoon activity and a quiet evening.
How can I prevent school-related anxiety?
Here are some suggestions to help reduce your child’s risk of anxiety and make it easier to adjust to school:
Start a routine a few weeks before school starts to get your child used to a set schedule and thus feel more secure;
Get your child used to a certain discipline, such as picking up toys and doing certain chores around the house;
Give your child more and more autonomy. For example, let them choose their own clothes, dress themselves, serve themselves lunch, etc.
Help your child relax by doing breathing exercises or yoga. Make it a habit to take short, quiet breaks;
Have realistic expectations of your child. Ask for things that are appropriate to your child’s abilities and don’t compare them to other children;
Help your child bond with other adults. You can arrange for your child to be cared for by people you trust, other than family members.
What to do if your child is being bullied
If you suspect that your child is being bullied, talk to your child to try to understand what is happening. Stay calm to reassure your child. Talk to your child’s teacher and, if necessary, the school principal. Work with them to find a solution and ask for follow-up from the school. If the bullying is serious, do not hesitate to consult a psychologist or psycho-educator.