“Mummy, I don’t want to go to school…”
By Frances Lim
A plea I made back when I was four years old as I refused to go to kindergarten. Bullied by classmates, the new environment created too much anxiety for me to bear. I remember waking up in the morning dreading to go to school and vomiting in trepidation whenever my appeal to not go to school was denied.
After two weeks, I dropped out of kindergarten because my parents reached a dead end. The fears I had about attending kindergarten again only subsided after my mother enrolled me at a place where I had some friends. Even then, it took me about a month to feel secure enough that my mother would come back for me after classes were dismissed.
What I was experiencing then as a child is known as school refusal.
“School refusal is defined as the behavior of staying home and away from school due to severe fear or anxiety.” – King & Bernstein, 2001.
There are a number of factors that may contribute to a child’s school refusal:
- Major changes in the child’s family life (e.g. moving house, the death of a loved one, etc.).
- Transitioning or adapting to a new school environment (e.g. entrance into kindergarten or moving up to primary or secondary school). Returning to school after a long school holiday may also make it difficult for some children to adjust back to the school routine.
- Separation anxiety arising from the child having to be away from care-givers (e.g. feelings of insecurity or fear for the safety of self and/or caregivers, etc.). Some children have a more anxious personality. Parents may also project upon their child their own anxiety of separating with their child, thus causing the child to feel even more anxious.
- Extreme pressure to perform well in school.
- Inability to cope with school work or academic difficulties.
- Social difficulties, such as struggling to adapt to school surroundings, making friends, being teased or being bullied in school.
- Difficulty coping with a family that is experiencing high conflict or parental divorce.
- Difficulty dealing with intense emotions resulting from the above, and depression.
School refusal is a way to avoid facing difficulties at school or is a cry for help to significant others during their distress. Some children are able to settle well in school while others may take more time to adjust. When unmanaged and prolonged, school refusal causes extreme stress for parents and the rest of the family. It needs to be taken seriously as it could lead to difficulties in academic progression, developing healthy social relationships, family disharmony, as well as long term emotional maladjustment, such as depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, aggression, etc.
How do we identify the signs of school refusal?
- The child has significant school absence (two weeks or more)
- The child faces difficulties getting ready for school, such as crying or protesting every morning before school.
- The child repeatedly questions the necessity of going to school.
- The child regularly develops physical symptoms when it is time to go to school (headaches, stomach aches, nausea, vomiting, etc.)
- The child regularly misses their transportation to school (e.g. school bus)
In addition, if a child refuses school due to separation anxiety from his or her parents:
- The child experiences sleep disturbances and/or nightmares.
- The child is excessively clingy to his or her parents.
- The child continually has excessive fears that something bad will happen to them or their caregivers once they are separated.
What can we do?
“Be alert for signs of school refusals. Early intervention is key.”
- Approach your child calmly and do not show an anxious face.
- Empathize with your child but be firm that he or she still goes to school. “Mummy knows that it is hard for you to go to school and you wish you didn’t have to, but it is important for you to go to school. What can we do to help you to feel a little less scared about going to school?”
- Listen to your child about his/her concerns regarding school and reflect his/her feelings. Let your child know that these feelings are normal (e.g. “I know that you are scared about going to school and that’s okay. Mummy and daddy will help you get through this”).
- Help your child identify what is troubling him/her and explore some coping skills.
- Do not provide an environment that is more desirable than school, such as letting the child play video games, watch TV or engage in other fun activities when he or she is at home during school hours as this will only further reinforce his or her school refusal behaviour.
- Affirm your child when he or she is able to go to school. “You were really brave for being in school all by yourself today!”
- Do not sit in the class with your child or resort to home school in response to his or her anxiety, as such accommodation will send the message that school is indeed too scary for the child to handle alone and the fear is justified.
- Provide a safe and quiet area at home for your child to go to when feeling distressed for him or her to calm down. This “safe place” is to be conducive for your child to take deep breaths to calm down and to gather his or her own thoughts.
- If your child has difficulty following lessons, discuss with his or her teacher to identify ways that the teachers or school would be able to support your child. Teachers also play an important role in encouraging your child and alleviating his or her fears and/or anxiety while at school.
For very young children who refuse to go to school
Based on my prior experience as a child educator, I’ve observed many children who are fearful of their first few days of going to school and would cry.
- Do not be afraid of leaving your child even though he/she is crying. Let go of your child and pass him/her to the teacher. The longer you prolong your departure time, the longer it will take for the teachers to help your child calm down. If you are to stay within the premises for a longer duration of time, it will take longer for the teachers to be able to calm your child.
- Assure your child that you will pick him/her up after school ends (please ensure that you do). “Mummy is going off now but I will come back for you later at _____. Have a good time in school!”
- Pre-school teachers deal with children who have trouble adjusting to school life all the time. Trust that the teachers will know how to manage your child who is crying.
“Get professional help if school refusal behaviours persist even after all the above have been attempted.”
- Play therapy provides a safe place for children to work through their anxiety by expressing difficult emotions, learn coping skills and practice these skills through role play.
- Parent consultations assist parents to manage the situation without feeling overwhelmed, explore contributing factors, and assess for other psychological issues their child might be having.
- Family therapy helps strengthen relationship bonds between the parents and their child in order for the child to feel more confident and supported.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Egger, H., Costello, E. & Angold, A. (2003). School Refusal and Psychiatric Disorders: A Community Study. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 7, 797 – 807.
Heyne, D.A. & Sauter, F.M. (2013). School Refusal. In The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of The Treatment of Childhood and Adolescent Anxiety (1st Ed.). (pp. 471 – 517). NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
King, N. & Bernstein, G. (2001). School Refusal in Children and Adolescents: A Review of the Past 10 Years. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 40, 197 – 205.
Pina, A., Zerr, A., Gonzales, N. & Ortiz, C. (2009). Psychosocial Interventions for School Refusal Behavior in Children and Adolescents. Child Development Perspectives, 3, 11 – 20.
Wimmer, M.B. (2004). School Refusal: Information for Educators. National Association of School Psychologists, 301, 83 – 85.
Witts, B. & Houlihan, D. (2007). Recent Perspectives Concerning School Refusal Behavior. Electronic Journal of Research in Educational Psychology, 5, 381– 398.
About the author
Frances is a Clinical Psychologist and a former preschool teacher who used to see many anxious, crying children at the start of school! She consults regularly with parents on their parenting concerns and provides parenting support as well at KIN & KiDs.