Coping with a School-Phobic Child
By Dr. Kenneth Shore
It is not unusual for young children to resist attending school. After all, they may be leaving a comfortable, secure setting with a nurturing adult for an unfamiliar place with an adult and children they may not know. Older children, even those in middle and high school, may also resist going to school but their stress is usually due to school- or peer-related problems rather than difficulty separating from their parents. The first and foremost goal with a child who is school phobic is to get him back in school as soon as possible. The longer your child stays out of school, the harder it will be to get him back in so don’t waste time. The following are strategies that you may find helpful.
- Obtain a medical examination. If your child is complaining of physical problems, consider taking him to the doctor. A clean bill of health suggests that his physical complaints are due to stress and anxiety. If so, help your child deal with the source of that stress.
- Insist that your child attend school. Let him know this is not only your requirement but a legal requirement as well. Ready yourself for a vigorous protest from your child. This may take the form of a tantrum or a crying episode. These behaviors are likely your child’s way of testing your resolve. Stay the course and resist your impulses to give in to your child. If your child cries as you drop him off at school, do not stick around.
- Adjust your interactions with your child. Let your child know that you understand his distress but reassure him that school will get a little easier each day. Avoiding excessive sympathy since this will reinforce his impulse to stay home. In the morning, try to deal with your child in a calm, matter-of-fact manner while maintaining your resolve.
- Problem-solve with your child. Ask your child what ideas he has for making the problem better and, if needed, offer some of your own. Review the pros and cons of each idea and together develop a realistic action plan. Try role playing aspects of the plan with your child.
- Involve the teacher and, if necessary, other school staff. Make the teacher aware of whatever is upsetting your child and involve her in the plan to get him back in school. The principal or guidance counselor should be called upon if another child is bullying your child or there are problems on the bus.
- Maintain contact with your child during the day. Young children who are unhappy separating from their parents may benefit from calling you during the day at a pre-arranged time. This should be used with discretion since a call to a parent may be more upsetting than helpful. Another way of easing the separation is by giving your child an item to carry during the day which reminds him of home. This may be a picture of the family or a favorite toy or book.