Is Your Child School-Phobic?

Four things you should know if your kid frequently asks to stay home from school.

Many kids would pick video games over arithmetic, but staying home from school too often can be a sign of deeper issues. (Photo: Jinx!/Creative Commons via Flickr)

When asked to describe their favorite thing about school, many youngsters will answer, “Going home.” But although they may not appreciate the gift of education, or relish their role as students, kids still accept daily attendance as an inevitable part of growing up.

That’s not the case for about five percent of children who suffer from school avoidance. For these kids, just the thought of heading back into the classroom fills them with anxiety and dread. Think your child might be suffering from school phobia? Here are four things you should know:

1. WARNING SIGNS:  School avoidance can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are often subtle and not alarming. Children will complain of headaches, stomach aches, nausea or fatigue, and say they don’t feel well, though they can’t explain why. Clear-cut symptoms like fever, vomiting or diarrhea are uncommon.

Symptoms usually appear on weekday mornings and disappear on weekends.  Kids will ask to stay home from school as often as possible.

2. EVALUATION: It’s important for parents to distinguish between legitimate physical maladies and school-refusal behaviors. Experts advise consulting with the child’s doctor to rule out possible illnesses. If nothing physical is detected during the medical evaluation, it’s likely that the child’s symptoms have a psychological basis. The parents’ efforts should then be directed toward finding out why school attendance is such a stressful and negative experience for their child.

3. ROOT CAUSES: Mark Goldstein, a child clinical psychologist in Chicago, told U.S. News & World Report that kids who experience school avoidance are usually reacting to pressure, either real or perceived. “There’s tremendous pressure…in academics, appearance, activities,” he said. “A lot of times kids are just overwhelmed…And if a child has a proclivity towards anxiety, especially a genetic predisposition, there’s a greater likelihood of anxiety being precipitated.”

For younger children, school refusal can be the result of separation anxiety.  For older ones, causes can range from being teased or bullied by classmates to being anxious about a particular event, like changing for gym class or taking an upcoming test. 

4. TREATMENT: The cure for school avoidance depends on the underlying causes and the age of the child. For instance, students who struggle with school work on an ongoing basis should be evaluated for learning disabilities. In cases of bullying, contacting school staff and administrators may be necessary. 

Goldstein suggested that kids suffering from general anxiety often benefit from behavioral interventions to relieve stress, like meditation, muscle relaxation, hypnotherapy, or cognitive behavioral therapy. 

More intense psychological interventions are necessary in rare cases where children suffer from social phobia and are literally too panicked to go to school, or when they’re diagnosed with clinical depression.

Extreme cases aside, most children who experience school avoidance simply need parental support and reassurance—as well as a firm reminder that going to school is not an option. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents err on the side of sending kids to school instead of keeping them at home. If need be, school staff can be recruited to keep an eye on the child and encourage his return to the classroom.

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