School Refusal and Avoidance

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 or you risk truancy. You are required to obtain education up to a certain age, or parents can be fined and go to jail.

school refusal

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. Expectations need to be put on both sides, with a quantifiable plan to measure results from. How are we going to know if what we tried is working if we can’t measure not only the goal, but the adaptations?

School Refusal Trends

Over the past 10 years, I have seen an increase in 3 school avoidance scenarios 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, where the parent really struggles to get the child to go to school in the morning. Often results in numerous tardies and absences.

The increase of school refusal incidents is 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.

What is School Refusal?

Each child is individual and so is each situation. Some kids are going to have medical issues that prevent them from attending school regularly. However, usually in this scenario, if the child was feeling ok, they would happily go to school.

School refusal is different. It’s an ongoing struggle to get the child to go to school. It starts with frequent “tummy aches” and other reasons. It can evolve into flat-out refusing to go, with meltdowns, etc.

We need to think of a child’s mental health equally important as physical health. You wouldn’t let a child go to school if they had the flu or were having a bad seizure day. So why are we forcing them through this if it’s anxiety or another mental health concern?

I think it comes back to my usual advice of following your gut instincts. If you find yourself worrying about truancy issues, or your child is absent frequently enough that you’re concerned, take action.

The most important thing here is to remember the “won’t? or can’t?” questions you should be asking yourself. Is it a matter of “won’t” go to school, or can’t?

FBA for School Refusal

Any IEP goal worth its weight in salt, starts with solid evaluations and baselines.

If your child is experiencing school refusal, then an FBA should be done on this target behavior. You have to dig deep–and be relentless if you think the FBA is not sufficient.

An FBA should not reveal “Students avoids school due to anxiety.” That’s not helpful.

I say this because many times, that is some of the stuff I see in FBA reports. But you want to know the exact antecedents. Many times the antecedents are the IEP not being followed, or it’s not sufficient, so the child is really struggling all day long.

Some conditions like Dyslexia have a high comorbidity rate with suicide. ADHD is often seen in conjunction with anxiety. If you do not support the ADHD needs, the anxiety will increase. If you do not teach a dyslexic child to read, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts may occur. These do not happen overnight–and often things like school refusal can be a precursor to this.

IEP Goals for School Refusal

Thanks to the Facebook group admins for sharing these!

  • Increasing Time at School: Goal Increase by 15-30 minutes each week with increased self monitoring and reduced signs of anxiety/escape; as measured by checklist and student self report.
  • Increasing Length of School Day: Once a behavior plan is established with consistent antecedent and reactive procedures, as well as teaching functionally equivalent replacement behaviors, data should be collected daily to help guide the team with moving forward to systematically increase XXXXXX’s time in the school setting. XXXXXX currently attends school until after lunch, then goes home. It is recommended that the team agree upon a criteria for increasing XXXXXX’s time in the school setting. For example, this may mean 80% on task for 4 out of 5 days for two consecutive weeks. Another example could be 0 rates of elopement or aggressive behavior for 4 out of 5 days for two consecutive weeks. The team should agree to A criteria, then use their daily data collection to evaluate progress and systematically increase his time (e.g., once criteria is met, a half hour is added to his school day).

Accommodations for School Refusal

I am uncomfortable doing this portion, but here goes. And here is why I am uncomfortable with this part.

Too often, I see school refusal accommodations that detail the parent or the IEP team controlling the child’s environment. Mind you, I get it! Temporarily, this often must be done in order for the child to feel safe.

But, I rarely see a plan to fade this and give the child coping skills, self advocacy skills and so on. That means, as soon as the child changes teachers, goes to another building, or encounters a similarly stressful situation in society, the refusal behavior pops up again.

I have seen things like “child will be greeted by a trusted adult and escorted to classroom in the morning.” Ok, that’s a very short term solution. What is being done so that the child does not need a trusted adult to greet them?

Because the first day that “trusted adult” is out sick, the child will refuse to enter the building. Count on it.

Engage your child to the MAXIMUM extent possible here. They should be participating extensively during the FBA (not just being observed). You have to get at the root cause, or nothing will change.

The only scenario where I’m all YES when it comes to changing the environment is if bullying is occurring. And, that often is the root cause of school refusal. I have a separate post on bullying and tackling that issue.

8 Tips for Dealing with School Refusal

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

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.


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.

This is an older post recently updated to fix links.

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