By Suzyn Jacobson, LCSW
Clinical Director, Family Priority, LLC
School refusal presents challenges for parents, students and schools. There are many reasons why children refuse to attend school. As a parent, it is important to recognize the function of this behavior in order to determine the particular reinforcement systems that support school refusal. Children may avoid school because something there is making them feel badly, or because they are trying to escape negative social situations or because they are seeking attention. There are underlying mental health problems that frequently impact this behavior. These include: Depression, Separation Anxiety, Social Anxiety, Generalized Anxiety, Oppositional Defiant Disorder and undiagnosed learning problems.
An adolescent boy refuses to get up for school because his parents have to leave too early for work to wake him up; a ten year old refuses to go to school because she is being bullied; a six year old refuses because she does not want to leave her pregnant mother; a fourteen year old girl refuses to attend school because she has no one to sit with at lunch; a pre-teen is struggling with school work and wants her mother to home school her.
Treatment for these challenges may involve a combination of individual and family work and/or pharmacological interventions. Individual work focuses on desensitization, relaxation therapy, cognitive work and social skills training. Family work stresses communication patterns within the family and the examination of rules and structure within the home. Treatment is critical in order to understand the motivation and reinforcement systems that support school refusal, and to foster healthy social, emotional and educational development. Insecure, anxious and depressed children may need intervention in order to improve their self-esteem and increase the feeling that they are in control of their lives in healthy ways.