“I don’t want to go to school.”
It’s a statement every parent has likely heard from their child at one point or another throughout the school year (and perhaps multiple times). That’s because it’s normal for kids to want to skip out on school sometimes. However, if you’re getting the feeling that your child is avoiding school for reasons other than wanting to simply have a relaxing day at home, you may be wondering what you can do to best address the issue.
Here, we’ll discuss school anxiety and school avoidance, and share tips from SonderMind’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Doug Newton, MD, MPH on how you can help your child work through their worries.
School anxiety is on the rise. In fact, according to a 2023 study, 86% of school-age children reported worrying at least some of the time, and 64% of the biggest worries kids are having are about school.
School anxiety can be extremely uncomfortable for kids. For some, this anxiety can lead to school avoidance (also known as school refusal), which is when a child is reluctant to or refuses to attend school. If you’ve found yourself in conflict with your child due to school avoidance, know that you’re not alone and that there are effective strategies you can put into practice to address this issue.
Understanding the specific fears and concerns causing your child’s school anxiety and/or avoidance is key to helping them overcome their fears and feel more comfortable and confident at school.
In a column for DC Journal, Dr. Newton shares his insights on how exploring the causes behind school avoidance and its association with anxiety can help you do this. Here are the steps he says to take to help support your child in overcoming these challenges.
Parents may have an idea as to what is causing their child’s school anxiety, but not always. That’s why it’s important to talk to your child about how they’re feeling so you can understand and address the source of your child’s worry.
It’s also important to understand that younger children and teenagers experience different types of school anxiety. Teenagers may experience anxiety related to their social status, fear of embarrassment, or being left out by peers. Social situations involving larger groups of peers or public areas in school may also trigger anxiety for them.
On the other hand, younger children often worry about being away from their parents or caregivers. Their concerns revolve around hypothetical situations, such as something happening to their loved ones while they are at school, being forgotten, or not finding someone to play with on the playground.
Knowing some common causes of school anxiety for younger children vs. teenagers may help you pinpoint what’s going on with your child based on their age, and help make discussing your child’s experience with school anxiety more productive.
When it comes to managing school avoidance, prevention is key. If your child has struggled with school anxiety and/or avoidance in the past, it can be helpful to implement an anxiety reduction plan before the start of the school year. According to Dr. Newton, this plan should be put into place two to four weeks before the first day of school and consist of activities that expose your child to the school environment, such as:
These activities can help familiarize your child with the school and help prepare them for that first day. You may also want to consider establishing a reward system for attending and staying in school to help create a positive association with the school experience.
It’s important for your child to know they’re not alone. To help them recognize this, share your own struggles with worries about going back to school or starting a new job. This can help children feel supported and more comfortable expressing their concerns. It’s a conversation they’ll want to have, too. Research shows that kids often seek advice from their parents regarding school anxiety, so don’t be afraid to open up.
If your child or teen has been absent from school for a long period of time due to anxiety, getting them comfortable with the school routine and environment can be challenging. Proactive communication with their school can make a big difference. Reach out to school staff, such as the principal, a teacher, or guidance counselor to help create a personalized re-entry plan for your child. It can be helpful for the plan to include a phased approach to re-entry, such as:
According to Dr. Newton, this gradual exposure technique, along with the right support and reward system, works for helping kids successfully re-enter school.
In certain cases, seeking help from a professional may be necessary for children experiencing anxiety and school avoidance. A mental health professional can help identify and address the root causes of your child’s school anxiety, develop personalized anxiety management strategies, and collaborate with the school to create an individualized plan for your child's success.
Through a mental health professional’s specialized support and guidance, your child can overcome their fears and thrive in school.
SonderMind therapists specialize in child, teen, and adolescent mental health and can help your child get the right support to help them navigate the challenges the school year brings — from test anxiety to social stress to managing the general pressures of school.
If you’d like to seek support from a licensed mental health professional for your child or teen, SonderMind can help connect them with someone who's right for their unique needs. Just let us know a little more about what you’re looking for in a therapist for your child, and we’ll connect them with someone who meets their preferences within 48 hours.