As summer winds down, it is routine for children and adolescents to feel a little melancholy or even worried about the approaching start of school. But for some students, anxiety about school is more than routine; it is insurmountable. School refusal is a serious behavioral problem: without assertive management, it can become a pattern which is very difficult to alter. Whether a child is complaining of vague somatic concerns or is explicitly refusing to go to school, the pediatrician’s office is often the first place a parent will turn to for help. If you can recognize the true nature of the problem, help to determine its cause, and facilitate the needed management, you will have effectively treated what can become a disabling problem for vulnerable young people.
School refusal is happening when a child has major difficulty attending school, associated with intense emotional distress. It can be a refusal to attend school or difficulty remaining in school for an entire day. It is distinct (but not mutually exclusive) from truancy, which is a failure to attend school associated with antisocial behavior or other conduct problems. In the pediatrician’s office, school refusal sounds like, “He was moaning about a stomachache yesterday, I kept him home, but he had no fever and ate okay. Then it all repeated again this morning.” Or you might hear, “She was whining about a headache, but when I said she had to go to school, she started crying and couldn’t stop. She was hysterical!” In teenagers, there may be somatic complaints or just a sleepy, sulky refusal to get out of bed. Children with truancy might fake illness (as compared with feeling sick), or simply leave school. Truant children often want to be out of school doing other things, and may keep their whereabouts a secret from their parents. While it might seem like just one tough morning that can be shrugged off, true school refusal will continue or escalate unless it is properly managed.
School refusal affects approximately 5% of all children annually, affecting girls and boys in equal numbers and with peaks in incidence at the ages of 5 to 6 years and again at 10 to 11 years. Approximately half of children and teenagers with school refusal have a treatable psychiatric illness. In the Great Smoky Mountain Study of 2003, where more than 1,400 children were observed, they categorized children as being anxious school refusers, truant, or “mixed school refusers,” with features of both truancy and anxiety. In children with truancy or anxious school refusal, 25% had a psychiatric illness. In the mixed school refusers, they found 88% had at least one psychiatric diagnosis and 42% had somatic complaints. While pure truancy will require different management strategies from school and parents, those young people who display features of both anxiety and truancy around school attendance are most likely to be suffering from a psychiatric illness. Those illnesses most commonly associated with difficulty attending school include anxiety disorders (separation anxiety, social phobia, generalized anxiety disorder) and depression.
While psychiatric illness is a common factor, there is also always a behavioral component to school refusal. This simply means that children are either avoiding unpleasant feelings associated with school, such as anxiety, or escaping uncomfortable situations, such as bullying or the stress of performance. On the positive side, children may be refusing school because they are pursuing the attention of important people (parents, peers) or pursuing pleasurable activities (playing video games, surfing the web or hanging out in town). Beyond an internal anxiety disorder, some children may be facing bullying or threats at school or may have to walk through a dangerous neighborhood to get to school. Some children may be missing school because of significant stress or transitions at home, such as financial difficulties or divorce. Other children may be staying home to take care of younger siblings because of a parent’s medical illness or substance abuse problem. Children who are being abused may be kept home to prevent suspicion about bruises. Lastly, some children feel they have to stay home to be with a lonely or depressed parent. Gently asking about these very real concerns will help determine the necessary course of action.
Pediatricians can play a central role in the management of school refusal. Often, the most important step is helping parents to understand that there is not an insidious medical problem driving the morning stomachaches and headaches. It is critical to clarify that (usually) their child is not feigning illness, but that there is significant distress around school that has led to this behavioral problem. Even children who have a genuine medical problem also can have school refusal. Once parents understand that without proper management, this behavior will continue or worsen, they usually are ready to collaborate on effective management. Their child may need a thorough psychiatric evaluation to rule out a treatable underlying psychiatric diagnosis, particularly if they have both anxious and truant behaviors. Most of the psychiatric problems associated with school refusal will require therapy and some may require medications for effective treatment.
Successfully getting children back to school will require a behavior plan that is agreed upon by the parents and the school, and then used consistently. This plan will simply detail strategies to “demagnetize” the home and “remagnetize” the school. Such strategies might include ensuring that children are not allowed “screen time” when home from school, and that their homework expectations continue. It should support healthy routines, including a regular sleep schedule and exercise. It should facilitate their being able to gradually manage any anxiety associated with school (shorter days initially, the option to have time-outs in a favorite part of the school or with a favorite teacher). A behavior plan should detail strategies for the child to manage stress (relaxation strategies, connecting with supportive individuals, even singing a favorite song). This plan can detail reasonable accommodations for a medical or psychiatric condition and appropriate rewards for regular attendance, such as being able to go on a class trip.
Through all of this, the pediatrician is in a uniquely authoritative position to provide support and reassurance to parents of a school refusing child. The pediatrician has a unique ability to clarify for parents the seriousness of the behavioral problem, even if there is no medical problem. Compassionately acknowledging how much a child is suffering (and the parents, as well) is powerful. Remind parents that accommodating anxiety only shows a child you don’t think they can master it, and often keeps them from trying. Express confidence that this is a relatively common and treatable phenomenon. If a pediatrician’s and parents’ efforts do not work quickly, in a matter of a few days, urgent referral to a mental health consultant is indicated, as falling behind in school and any acceptance of staying home makes return to school more difficult every day.
Dr. Swick is an attending psychiatrist in the division of child psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, and director of the Parenting at a Challenging Time (PACT) Program at the Vernon Cancer Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital, also in Boston. Dr. Jellinek is professor emeritus of psychiatry and pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, Boston.