Do you remember how you felt when you first started attending school? How about when you transitioned to high school? If so, you likely remember some stress while adjusting to being away from family, making friends, settling into new routines, and achieving good grades.
For some students, that stress doesn’t go away quite so easily and may lead to a deeper struggle.
School refusal is a term used to describe the behaviors of children who regularly avoid going to school or who have difficulty staying in school when they do attend. School refusal, though, should not be confused with truancy.
“Truant students tend to hide their absences from their parents, and they do not experience anxiety or depression that is associated with coming to school,” says Dr. Heather Jones, psychologist at Rogers Behavioral Health.
Dr. Jones adds, “With school refusal, students are having difficulty being in school or staying in school because of pretty severe anxiety or depression, and other risk factors such as bullying, learning disorders, or substance use.”
How to identify school refusal behaviors
School refusal can be difficult to identify, as it can present differently based on the individual affected. However, there are six common signs of school refusal that can help you pinpoint students who may be struggling:
1. Habitually absent from school. School refusal involves chronic absence from school and difficulty returning after short breaks. “When we see that a child is refusing school multiple days per week, every week, or they just completely stop going to school, there’s typically something connected to that,” says Dr. David Jacobi, lead psychologist, child and adolescent CBT services at Rogers Behavioral Health.
2. Goes to school but has difficulty staying due to crying, clinging, or tantrums. Not all students struggling with school refusal have trouble going to school in the morning. Instead, they may experience outbursts during the day that impact their ability to learn and remain in class.
3. Becomes distressed during the school day and begs to go home. Some students show signs of school refusal when confronted with specific situations or triggers, such as a disappointing grade on an assignment, a big test, or tension with friends.
4. Frequently visits the nurse’s office. Spending more time in the nurse’s office than the classroom, despite no signs of illness, may be an indicator of school refusal.
5. Often complains of stomach aches, headaches, or other physical symptoms brought on by internal stress. These complaints are quite common and can even lead to unnecessary doctor appointments in an attempt to address the problem. Absences for valid medical reasons can also contribute to anxiety and depression and may lead to school refusal.
6. Avoids contact with classmates or teachers. Bullying and other social pressures can make a child wary of returning to school and interacting with others.
Understanding School Refusal podcast
Interested in learning more about school refusal? In Rogers Behavioral Health’s new “Understanding School Refusal” podcast series Rogers’ medical experts explain the many factors that contribute to school refusal, how to identify behaviors, the potential effects of accommodating those behaviors, and the most effective treatment options.
To listen to the podcast and view additional resources, visit the Understanding school refusal webpage.