School Refusal

Think about this for a minute. What is the worst job you ever had? The job you hated more than anything? It was so bad that at night you had trouble sleeping because you were already stressed about going in the morning. Or, you hated getting up in the morning to go. After work, you were fried. You had nothing left to give to friends and family. What did you do? I bet you quit. Right? That’s what school refusal is. Kids are quitting the job that they hate.

It causes them so much stress and anxiety, they just cannot go one more day. They have no cognitive horsepower to deal with it. So they quit. The biggest difference being, you cannot legally quit school. You are required to obtain education up to a certain age, or parents can be fined and go to jail.

For some families, they have an ongoing school refusal saga every single day. And it’s exhausting. I’ve seen what can transpire in the worst situations (observing clients). My heart really goes out to you because I can see how stressful it is.

Rethinking School Refusal

This post is a few years old. Back when it was first written, I focused heavily on tips for parents, and what they could do if their child was refusing to go to school.

I am redoing this post for several reasons. This has become an increasingly alarming issue for me, as it increases in frequency. And, I don’t think anyone is studying this or keeping data. And we should be.

Here’s where I’m at with this.

School Refusal Trends

Over the past 10 years, I have seen an increase in 3 things from families. They are:

  1. Parents who are being called by the school to come pick up their child, because the child can no longer cope with the stressors of the school day.
  2. After school meltdowns or other undesirable behavior from kids when they are at home, despite being able to hold it together at school.
  3. School refusal incidents.

If any of these events are happening regularly, I would dig deeper to see what is going on at school, and what needs to be adjusted regarding demands and supports. It shouldn’t be considered “normal” or acceptable.

I was watching Dr. Phil yesterday and the teenager on the show was refusing to go to school. In this case, it appeared to be a mix of addiction (video games) and attention-seeking behavior due to his parents’ divorce. But you could just kind of tell that one day, Mom wakes up and is asking, “How did we get here?”¬†Am I right? So, no judgment¬†here. Let’s just try to get it fixed for you.

So how do you know if it’s a problem?

Each child is individual and so is each situation. However, the increase of both these incidents and school refusal are alarming to me from a systems point of view. What are we doing to our kids that so many of them are either a) having breakdowns and mom has to be called to come get them b) melting down after school to the point it interferes with normal household activities or c) refusing to go to school.

I think it comes back to my usual advice of following your gut instincts.

These tips are for all kids, with or without an IEP/504.

8 Tips for Dealing with School Refusal

How to Deal with School Refusal

  1. Go with your gut.

    Parents usually know when a problem is a problem or just a blip on the radar. Is this just a minor parenting and discipline issue that requires you to be a bit more strict and stringent for a while? Or is it truly time for an intervention? Have social and/or academic demands changed recently?

  2. Act quickly and ask for help.

    And be proactive, collaborative and cooperative. If you see a pattern developing, act now. Things can spiral out of control quickly. This is one issue that causes family/school relationships to deteriorate quickly. Don’t wait until you’re looking at truancy letters in the mail or failing grades. If your child has refused to go to school and you let them stay home even once, you’ve opened a door that is very hard to close, so do not wait.

  3. Document everything.

    Why don’t they want to go to school? What is their reason for refusing school? Document everything they are telling you and include his/her teacher and IEP team. You need to get your paper trail and documentation going.

  4. Find the source or cause of the school refusal.

    All behavior tells you something. What is this behavior trying to tell you? Bullying? Learning disability? Anxiety? What is your child saying? Can you find a pattern or an incident that may have triggered this?

  5. Familiarize yourself with truancy laws.

    Whether we like it or not, truancy laws exist. We may not think they are fair or reasonable, but that’s not for us to decide. You need to familiarize yourself with your state truancy laws and be proactive (point 2 above). This is why you need your paper trail. If you find yourself in truancy court, you want to have data and documentation that you have been trying to solve this problem.

  6. Get evaluations and an FBA.

    If the child has a Behavior Plan, either it is insufficient/inappropriate for that child, or it’s not being followed. So it has to be fixed. If the child does not have an IEP or Behavior Plan, you need to ask for IEP evaluations to get one.

  7. Seek treatment.

    The IEP process is long. From a letter requesting evaluations to a Behavior Plan in place could easily take 100 days. While you are waiting, see what your insurance plan covers. Or if your state offers Wraparound Behavioral Health options.

  8. Pursue other options.

    One of the hardest thought hurdles for us as a society is the vision we have for our public school system. What we are learning is that we are not one-size-fits-all. Maybe homeschooling is the best option for your child. Or a different IEP placement or a home cyber school.


And a bonus 9th tip: Take time to read all of those hyperlinks that I provided. This is a complex issue and not one that can be addressed in just one blog post.

Also, know that this is a problem that can be fixed. I’ve seen schools really step up and do some creative things for kids. Once we arranged for a guidance counselor to go to a teen’s home every day at 6 am and help the child through their anxiety. I’ve seen teams put together some great Executive Functioning Accommodations for kids who struggled to do “mornings.”

I had a student (I used to teach a vocational program) and she struggled with Executive Functioning issues so terribly. For her, she was either at school 1-2 hours early, or not at all. There was no in between. She simply could not plan out her mornings to get there on time. So, we accommodated her early arrivals with credit for volunteer hours and extra study time and tutoring when she needed it.

This is one issue that I find parents and teams really get at odds with each other and it doesn’t have to be that way. We all want our kids to get an education–we’re on the same team. We just may be at odds as to how to do that.

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This is an older post recently updated to fix links.

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