‘I Don’t Want to Go to School!’ How to Help Kids With School Anxiety

Parenting expert Annie Fox offers advice for parents when they’re faced with a child who refuses to go to school.
If your child is avoiding school day after day, these tips on tackling school anxiety may help. (Photo: Michael Blann)
Nov 1, 2012

Each week parenting expert Annie Fox will share her wit and wisdom for teaching kids to be good people and strong learners.

Maybe you’re familiar with the term school anxiety, also known as school refusal behavior. I wasn’t, not until several years ago when I noticed an uptick in my email from tweens complaining about peers who were making their lives miserable. The term seems self-explanatory: kids resisting going to school for whatever reason. We all had days like that when we were students. And many of us still have days when we’d prefer to avoid something at work. So it’s easy to empathize with a child who occasionally yells, “I don’t want to go to school today!”

But is school anxiety the same thing as wanting to skip a math test or wait out a bad hair day at home? Not according to Diane Peters Mayer, MSW, author of Overcoming School Anxiety. Mayer explains that the difference is the intensity and frequency. “If you see your third or fourth grader crying and begging to stay home every day…then you have to take action.”

With teens, school anxiety may present an angry face: "I don’t want to go to school and you can’t make me!!!" Mayer says, “That can look like defiance, but it isn’t. The kids are desperate. They are in survival mode.”

More: Attention Parents: Your Guide to Making Peace in the Homework Wars

Parents may have observed refusal behavior since their child’s first day of preschool. Or the anxiety may seem to have come out of nowhere. Either way it can be baffling, especially when the child is unable to explain exactly what’s happening. Or if s/he is unwilling to do so, which is often the case when a child is being bullied.

In case you’re wondering how common it is, the Encyclopiedia of Children's Health states that school anxiety is an "international problem... affecting 4.5 percent of children ages 7 to 11. Boys and girls in equal measure."  (NOTE: Diane Peters Mayer, whose been focusing on this issue in private practice for 20 years, believes it may affect between 5 to 15 percent of all students.) In the U.S. alone, an estimated 160,000 students stay home from school each day because they’re afraid of being bullied. Other reasons kids refuse to go to school include: separation anxiety disorder, family issues, test performance anxiety, and math phobia.

If a child you love suffers from school anxiety, here’s how you can help:

1.  Acknowledge your own emotions. How does your child’s clinginess, crying, rage make you feel?Are you embarrassed? Annoyed? Frustrated? Whatever you’re feeling, acknowledge it (to yourself, not to your child) then put those feelings aside. This is the best way to help your child and begin to improve the situation.

2.  Stay calm. Put on the breaks. Do some slow deep breathing. (Seriously! It works!) This will help you take control of your feelings of being out of control.

3.  Teach your child to do slow deep breathing. Re-centering breathing (as it is called) is a useful tool that will always be available to him/her. And since no one will know when your child is re-centering, there is no fear of being teased by classmates.

4.  Talk with your child. Help him/her express their feelings. Tune it to what your child is saying. Listen more than talk.Try to understand where s/he’s is coming from.

5.  Look at the family. Take a good hard look and see what might have shifted at home that could be contributing to your child’s anxiety.

6.  Contact the school. Talk to the counselor and find out what’s going on academically and socially that may be triggering the reaction.

7. Seek professional help. If symptoms continue, get help from a mental health professional who specializes in working with kids with school anxiety.

The vast majority of children with school anxiety get up and go to school most every day, while they continue hurting in silence. Their feelings of isolation become yet another layer of their challenge. By calming down and being a compassionate parent who understands that your son or daughter is really suffering, you can begin to help.

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