Are you in a situation where your child has a tantrum at the mere mention of school? Does your child comedown with a mysterious illness right before he or she is due at school? Are you dreading the start of the new term? If any of these apply to you then your child may have a case of what Americans call, ‘school refusal’.
School refusal is not the same thing as truancy. Children who truant are choosing to be wilfully disobedient and deceptive, they set out in the morning as though they are heading for school, but they never arrive. Children who express their anxiety about school through illness, crying or clinging to you, are generally well-behaved and more compliant. With a truant, a parent will not know where their child is, but with a child refusing school, the parent will know exactly where they are. More often than not, a child who is refusing to go to school has anxiety issues.
Your child may well be experiencing issues at school with loneliness or bullying, but equally they may be finding the work hard going. This is especially true at the start of each school year when the work suddenly becomes progressively more difficult. Obeying rules, learning new things, practicing new skills – it all takes a great deal of energy. If your child has just had a long holiday where they indulged their favourite pastimes, then they will definitely find school work hard!
In addition to this, they have been released from the security of being at home with their parents and siblings and are suddenly out in the big world with people who are new to them. This can be scary and make your child feel vulnerable. They may even worry that something will happen to you, or their pets or brothers and sisters, while they are away at school.
Rule out genuine illness. If your child is complaining of physical symptoms, take him or her seriously and take her to the doctor. Don’t assume there is nothing wrong and your child is acting up.
Have a rule in your house of what constitutes an illness that a child can stay away from school for. Fevers and flu etc., but not colds, headaches or stomach aches. If they are genuinely ill the school will quickly contact you to remove the child from the premises.
Make sure your child is getting enough sleep. Children between the ages of six and 12 need nine to 12 hours a night. Your child should be in bed with any electronics and gadgets off when you say, not when they choose.
Communicate. Talk to your child about what is bothering him or her and try and get to the bottom of any specific issues. You need to outline a plan that includes returning to school and be clear that this is what will happen, but at the same time pay close attention to what your child says. Remember that sometimes your child will not be able to articulate exactly what is wrong, but you need to support them as much as you can.
Look for clues as to what the problem is. This is especially important if your child can’t communicate with you clearly about what is wrong.
No lectures! There’s no point in having a lengthy argument. It’s just possible that your child is craving attention and if he or she gets it in this way, then there will be repeat occurrences of school refusal behaviour.
Talk to the teacher. Quite often teachers are the best placed to know what is going on with your child in school. You will also want to alert the school to the fact that there is a problem, and that as a concerned parent you want to get to the bottom of it.
The reverse of this is not to be too overbearing. Don’t make an assumption that it is the teacher or the school that is at fault. There may be instances of bullying that the school have not picked up on, but by working with them, you will highlight the issues and they should be grateful.
Being at home is not the answer. Let your child know that if they do stay away from school it will not be play time for them. If they are ill, they need to be in bed and resting, with no TV or games, and no extra attention from you. Staying away from school (outside of the holidays) should not be something that appeals to your child.
If the anxiety is so extreme that your child must stay away from school, create a learning environment at home. They will need to sit at a desk and work. If they are not ill, they should not be allowed to sleep. If you are a working parent, try enlisting a non-working or retired friend, neighbour or relative to help you with this.
Be calm, supportive and firm.
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