School Refusal: When Fear And Anxiety Keep Kids From Going To School

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It’s a struggle that many parents are familiar with — your child doesn’t want to go to school. But for some kids, this happens every day, leading to weeks and sometimes months of missing school. Mental health professionals say these students’ chronic absenteeism is part of a condition called "school refusal" that may be triggered by anxiety, depression, family crises and other traumatic life events.

Here & Now's Robin Young talks to therapist and clinical social worker Matt Doyle about why some kids refuse to go to school and what schools can do to help these students.

Interview Highlights

On the root causes of school refusal

"It's the domino effect. So the perceived inability to complete a homework assignment creates this sense of panic and dread: 'What's coming the next day? Am I even going to sleep tonight? What are my parents going to say? What are my friends going to say, because I've come for the fifth day in a row with no homework?' It becomes such an, at times, insurmountable feeling of anxiety, that we have many children who literally will cocoon under the covers in their bedrooms, 'I'm not going to school.'"

On how he and his colleagues can help

"So much of the work that I do within the practice and that my colleagues do within the practice is home-based intervention. So what that means is we are showing up at 8 o'clock in the morning and we are watching the process unfold around the attempts to get this child to school. Many events happen between the time that child opens their eyes and the time they are either getting into their parents' car or getting on to the school bus. A series of obstacles have already been laid out for that child.

"Being in the home in the morning, I see this unfold. I come into the bedroom. The child is in the bedroom, typically still in bed at 8 in the morning. And there is a look of complete panic on that child's face. Now, they are not necessarily pleased to see me at 8 in the morning. However we sort of work through that process, get comfortable, you know I typically pull up a chair next to this child's bed, and we talk about what's going on, 'Help me understand a little bit about what is happening this morning.' And the things I hear about are very diverse. I hear about social bullying, what happened on Twitter last night, Facebook harassment, and the child just does not want to face peers following a horrific night of harassment. This part of the issue is growing exponentially."

On how schools and educators can get involved

"When resources are allocated in a way that is built on flexibility, creativity and really strong parent-school partnerships, you can see the momentum start to build. For example, having a greeter at the school, making it feel like a welcoming environment for that child to come to, versus, 'Two more times and the truancy officer will be coming to your home.' When we are managing this and talking about this and thinking about this as a mental health issue, versus a probation or legal system issue, the interventions around that tend to get more creative and more flexible."

"There is what I would call an overarching philosophy among many districts that the school day ends at 3 o'clock, our responsibility therefore ends at 3 o'clock. So what that creates as a side effect is the potential for hostile interactions between parents and school systems. It creates a misunderstanding of a child. It creates the perception that this child is manipulative, versus the approach that we are wanting to encourage. We need a welcoming environment to support the process of this child getting up and willingly coming into that building. So we really want to base this set of interventions around a welcoming, compassionate approach, while trying to understand what is actually driving this."

This article was originally published on October 09, 2017.

This segment aired on October 9, 2017.



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