Communicating with School / Grades and Testing / Health and Wellness / Ages 2-18

What Is School Avoidance? (And How Do You Avoid It?)

If your child starts trying to get out of going to school on a regular basis, you might be facing school avoidance. Here’s how to handle it.

It might start with a stomach ache. Or being too tired to get out of bed. Or tears at breakfast. If your child persistently tries to get out of going to school, you might be facing school avoidance (also known as “school refusal”). Now what?

School avoidance is painful for everyone involved. Many of us already find mornings challenging. Throw school avoidance in the mix, and you’ve got a very stressful situation on your hands.

No one wants to see their child upset, and carrying a screaming child to the bus stop is low on most parents’ daily wish list. And, of course, it isn’t just young children who experience school avoidance. For families with older children, it can get even more complicated: How do you compel a middle or high schooler to get to class when they really don’t want to?

There’s no easy answer to this, but here are some strategies we recommend trying.

  • Hear them out. Figuring out what’s underneath the school avoidance might help you solve the problem. At a lower-stress moment (like at dinner or on the weekend, but not on a school morning), kickstart a conversation with your kid. What’s going on at school? What are they enjoying? What are they not enjoying? If there’s something making them anxious or unhappy at school, that could be the cause of their school avoidance.
  • Ask for help from school. Especially if you’ve identified a specific cause, like a class they’re anxious about or a complicated social dynamic, bring it up with their teacher. For younger children, see if you can create a plan with their teacher to help them feel more comfortable and confident going to school every day. For older students, a guidance counselor or other trusted adult at school (like an athletics coach or other extracurricular advisor) might be a good ally.
  • Focus on the extracurriculars they enjoy. Especially for middle and high schoolers, sports, arts activities, and other clubs are the real draw of school. If your child hasn’t yet figured out something they love doing at school, make sure they sign up for a couple different activities to test them out. Extracurriculars don’t have to be expensive to make a big impact on how your child feels about going to school.
  • Take a look at screen use. There’s some evidence to suggest that increased screen time during the pandemic has caused more school avoidance. While it’s hard to understand exactly what the relationship is, it’s reasonable to think that if your child has access to their phone or tablet all day when they’re home, then staying home might start to feel more desirable than going to school. Pulling back on some of those habits might help.
  • On that note, make staying home boring. Staying home means doing extra chores or catching up on homework, not watching your favorite shows or texting your friends. (Of course, if your child is actually sick, they should rest and recuperate so they can get back to class.)
  • Incentivize school. Look, we’re not saying pay them to go to school. (Although it might work.) But going to school is really important, and in our view there’s nothing wrong with offering some incentives to make it happen. These can be small: like an ice cream outing or other fun event if they go a week, two weeks, or a month without an absence.
  • If all else fails, consider switching schools. Obviously, this isn’t a decision to take lightly. But if your child’s current school really isn’t a good fit, a new environment and a fresh start might be what they need. Here are some types of schools to consider.

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: School avoidance is brutal when you’re in the thick of it. But attendance really matters. Investing the time and effort as a family to get to the root of the problem—and solve it together—will be worth it in the long-run.

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