As we settle back into the school year for most children and families there is an adjustment phase before we get back “to normal”. The reality for some children (and families) is the departure off to school is not always met with happiness and excitement. Some children experience a considerable aversive (fear) reaction to the thought of going to school. Australian research suggests up to 9% of the school population may experience school refusal at some point in their school life (Withers, 2004).
For some children this behaviour will come out of the blue. Other times it’s in response to a problem at school, or a change in circumstances at home.
What it looks like
Any resistant behaviour in response to school. It may happen in response to talking about school; and will escalate on school mornings. It often peaks at the start of the school year and after school holidays. It is also common when the child is going through a significant transition e.g. changing schools. It can result in the child having tantrums and exaggerated emotions (such as crying, shouting, throwing things). It can be very distressing for parents and or the child.
What to do: some ideas
- If you know or suspect your child will have problems start talking early. Talk though what is going to happen each day (ie in the morning at home and when you get to school). Talk through details eg will you walk in to the classroom with them? Where they will hang their bag. Also talk with them about who will pick them up and what will happen after school (this can give them something to look forward to).
- Acknowledge their emotion. E.g. you might say something like “I know your scared/worried/anxious about going to school, but it’s really important that you go. I’m going to help you. I know you can do it”. This reassures the child and sends a strong message that they will go. Don’t threaten.
- Remove the option of not going to school. Avoidance behaviour reinforces the child’s fear. Instead, focus on what is going to happen and how you are going to help them. Speak confidently (even if you aren’t confident) that they will be able to do it. If you remove the option of staying home, the child will think less of it as an option.
- Work with the school. Organise a meeting with the teacher or school administrator and work out a plan for helping your child at school. This is usually important which it comes time for parent to leave the school at drop off. Teachers can be really helpful in redirecting the child so they get engaged in an activity.
- Have a good bye routine at school; then leave. For example, you might say “Joe, I’m going to walk with you to your classroom then give you a kiss and a hug and say goodbye. Then I’m going to walk to the car and go home. You will walk into class and start your reading. I will see you at 3pm and then we’ll go home and have a milkshake”. Use the same routine everyday regardless of your child’s response. The routine provides safety (the child knows what to expect), and alleviates the need for you to think of what to do. Once you have said goodbye to your child leave the school. Don’t hang around and see what happens. If you are upset, call a friend or organise some support for yourself away from school. This is important because a) your child sees you demonstrate that going to school is normal and OK; b) if you are upset or anxious, your child will be also.
- Persist. It may take a couple of week for your child to respond. In some cases, a child may always be unhappy about going to school. Be persistent and consistent.
Of course, in some cases the situation can get worse and become quite traumatic. If this happens speak to the class teacher and a school administrator. It may be necessary for some psychological support. Early intervention is always important.