Most children enjoy going to school as they see their friends and generally experience a positive learning environment. However for a small number of children the thought of school can arouse fear and anxiety to the point that they refuse to go and are absent for long periods of time.
School refusal poses a serious challenge for some children and their families. Parents will have tried a variety of approaches to encourage their child into school; these can range from gentle persuasion to pleading, to trying to literally drag their child into school. However all of these will have met with little success. The child who is adamantly refusing to go often cannot give a clear reason as to why he cannot face school.
This can be all the more confusing because often the children who develop school refusal are generally quiet children who are otherwise very compliant. Staff at school can also be puzzled by this condition and find that no matter how they approach the problem, the child remains anxious and continues to refuse to attend school.
School refusal is most common in children aged five to seven and 11 to 14. These ages coincide with the time that they are coping with the most major changes, namely the new challenges of primary and secondary school.
Possible causes of school refusal
Refusal to go to school can follow a prolonged spell at home when the child may have got used to the security of home and the sense of being very close to his parent(s).
School refusal may sometimes occur after a child has suffered a trauma or stressful event such as a bereavement, being involved in an accident, etc.
For other children school refusal may follow a major change such as a house move or a change in school.
Sometimes school refusal may be a way of staying close to a parent who is ill or experiencing stress in his or her life. The child may be anxious about his parents when he is away from them and feel that he needs to stay and ‘mind’ them.
For yet another group of children, school refusal is the expression of an anxiety disorder.
How to recognise school refusal
A pattern may develop where the child regularly complains of being sick or constantly asks to stay at home with minor physical complaints. On Monday morning he complains of tummy aches and may get physically sick on the way to school. The child says he feels better once he is allowed to stay at home, but next morning the same thing recurs. Visits to the doctor will not reveal any underlying physical causes. Some children seem paralysed by anxiety and fear at the prospect of going to school.
The child could do one or a number of the following: Be unable to talk about it and when the subject is broached simply clam up; talk about feeling unsafe or scared; be clingy to one or both parents; describe unreasonable fears about his parents or himself; suffer from sleep problems – unable to get to sleep or nightmares; have severe tantrums if forced to go to school.
School refusal may start off innocently and in a lot of cases sensitive intervention by parents and teachers can stop it becoming a difficult problem.
However, professional help should be sought if the child's fears reach the level of school refusal. If the child is suffering from an anxiety disorder it can have serious long-term effects unless help is sought early. He may go on to develop educational or social problems if his fears keep him away from school and friends for an extended time.
A qualified mental health professional will work with parents to develop a plan to help their child return to school. He or she will also look at the underlying causes of the school refusal and be aim to help the child and parents manage and understand these.
Your first port of call could be your GP, who could organise a referral to the local child mental health team, or your school principal, who may be able to organise a referral to the school psychology service.
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