Why Do Children Refuse School?

In our last post, we highlighted the importance of identifying school refusal issues. In order to address these issues, it is essential to first identify why children want to stay home. The reasons children refuse school are often complex, interrelated, and tied in with contextual factors, including school transitions, academic difficulties, classroom changes, bullying, death or illness of a significant other, family conflict and trauma. These factors must always be considered when supporting a child with school refusal. However, broadly speaking, there are four main functions that school refusal typically serves:  

  • Escaping school-related distress 

Some children avoid school to escape feelings of anxiety, sadness, fear, and somatic symptoms. These children can have difficulty identifying a specific reason for their distress, and their symptoms can be manifested in the form of excessive crying or tearfulness in the morning before school, difficulty concentrating in school, physical symptoms such as stomachaches, headaches and nausea. 

  •  Avoiding social situations in which they might be judged negatively 

School can be an anxiety provoking environment because it provides opportunities to be judged by others. Children with a fear of judgment may express worries about a range of social situations, such as stumbling upon their words in a speech, missing a goal in sport, playing in groups, making friends, and asking for help.  

  •  To seek attention from significant others, such as parents 

Some children avoid school to receive attention from significant others in their lives. For example, some children may be happy to attend school if a parent or someone close to them attends, but exhibit tantrums, oppositional behaviour, and experience headaches and stomachaches when asked to attend school alone. 

  • To gain tangible rewards outside of school 

Avoiding school can be motivated by the desire to pursue more powerful reinforcers, such as video games, spending time on electronic devices, sleeping late, and spending more time with family. 

With these reasons in mind, one can easily envision how children might have trouble upon returning to school as the lockdown lifts. Many children have experienced a long period in an environment that is free from the general school-related distress and fear of judgement they were once accustomed to, all while having significantly more time to do the things they enjoy. 

Keep your eyes out for the final post in this series, when we discuss the strategies that can be implemented to help children cope as they return to school.