Helping the School-Phobic Child
By Dr. Kenneth Shore
A student who is absent frequently from school demands the teacher’s attention. While it may be that he is genuinely sick, it may also be that he is absent for reasons other than illness. If so, this could reflect some anxiety related to school and be the precursor to a more significant problem.
In most cases, a child’s anxiety about attending school can be resolved and the child returned to school quickly with teamwork by parents and the teacher. In some cases, however, this anxiety can take the form of resistance to attending school. At its most extreme, this school resistance may become school phobia, also called school refusal.
This problem requires your immediate attention. Prolonged absence from school can give rise to significant academic and social difficulties. In addition, the longer the student is absent from school, the greater his anxiety about returning and the harder it is to get him back.
For some students, their resistance to school may be related to issues within the family. For others, it may stem from events in school. Some anxiety-provoking situations that may give rise to school resistance include difficulties with schoolwork, ridicule or bullying by classmates, an embarrassing incident, lack of acceptance by peers, loss of a close friend and fear of a strict teacher. In identifying what may be causing a child’s anxiety about school, think about what may have changed for him and observe carefully his interactions with peers.
What Can You Do
- Call home. If one of your students has been absent for even a short time, contact the parents to find out the reason. If you find that he will be out for a lengthy period, you might arrange for his classmates to write him some letters telling him they hope he comes back to school soon. When he returns, instruct your students to say simply that they are glad that he is back and not to bombard him with questions about why he was absent.
- Give priority to the student’s immediate return to school. Encourage the parents of a school-resistant child to send him to school even if he is upset. Reassure them that the school has dealt with this problem many times and most children adjust and calm down after a short period of discomfort. Let them know that the school will make their child as comfortable as possible and will cope with his distress and even tantrums. Advise them not to argue with or yell at their child before school but rather to tell him in a calm, matter-of-fact way that all children must go to school and that it is not possible for him to stay home.
- If necessary, adjust the student’s schedule. While ideally you want the student to return to his regular school schedule, you may find that the only way you can get him to come back is to make some adjustments in his school day, including the following:
- having the student go home for lunch.
- having the parent come to school to eat lunch with him.
- allowing the student to call home during the day.
- arranging for the parent to stay in school for part of the day (for example, by volunteering in the library).
- arranging for the student to attend for part of the day.
- Get to the source of the problem. If the child’s physician has ruled out a medical basis for his absences and you suspect they are due to anxiety about school, schedule a meeting with the parents to try to understand the reasons for the absences. You might involve the child in part or all of this discussion. If he has difficulty putting his concerns into words, mention some potential sources of anxiety in school. His reactions may tell you that you have hit a nerve: he may look away, pause or become teary-eyed when you mention a sensitive area. If you are able to pinpoint the source of his distress, take his concern seriously and work together to develop some solutions.
- Weather the student’s distress. Brace yourself for a crying episode after the parent drops him off although you may be surprised at how quickly he calms down. These behaviors may be his way of testing your resolve. You might also try distracting him by involving him in an activity that he enjoys. Whatever you do, avoid the impulse to call the parents to have them pick up their child. That will only make the next day that much harder. If he complains of a stomachache or headache and you conclude it is anxiety-related, send him to the nurse but make sure she is aware of the importance of keeping him in school.
- Make school inviting for the student. Ask his parents what kinds of activities are comforting to him and try to incorporate them into the class routine. You might also find a few minutes each day to talk with the student about his interests or activities to help him see you and by association school in a positive light. In addition, help him develop friendships with classmates so that he feels a sense of belonging and acceptance in school.
- Suggest the student carry a security item. His separation anxiety might be eased by carrying an item during the day that connects him with home such as a picture of his family or a favorite doll, book or toy.
- Provide incentives to the student for school attendance. You might talk with the parents about rewarding their child for attending in school. He might, for example, receive points for participating in class, not crying in school, staying in school all day and completing assignments. These points could be exchanged for special privileges or tangible rewards in school or at home. As his attendance stabilizes, you can gradually phase out the rewards.