What To Do When Your Child Refuses To Go To School

'School refusal' is not necessarily an act of indiscipline, but possibly an indicator of a much bigger problem. Read on to find out how to motivate your child to go to school.

By Shashwathi Sandeep

What To Do When Your Child Refuses To Go To School

It is only a few weeks into the new school year. But, every morning when it is time to get ready for school, six-year-old Ramya complains of a tummy ache. Alarmed, her mother takes Ramya to a doctor for a check-up but an evaluation reveals nothing of significance. It is then the doctor suggests that Ramya may be displaying signs of ‘school refusal’.

The problem of children refusing to go to school is more common than it appears to be. While some children show a reluctance to go, others refuse outright, throwing tantrums, and are unwilling to get dressed. Some children can even fake an illness.

School refusal exposes both the child and the parents to a significant amount of stress. But getting to the root of the problem and taking steps to address the issues involved can help resolve the situation. Here are some common reasons why children refuse to go to school and how you can deal with them:

1. Separation anxiety: Most children are happy to go to school. But for children suffering from separation anxiety, the thought of going to school can give rise to irrational worries and fears, such as something bad happening to them or their parents. This makes a child extremely reluctant to go to school.

  • What you should do: Talk pleasantly to your child about going to school and highlight the fun he can have there. When your child throws a tantrum before leaving for school, instead of giving in to his demand, here’s what you can do:
  • Let him know you understand how he feels. For example, you can say, "I know that you don't want to leave Amma. You are worried about what will happen if Amma or I are not around…"
  • Assure him that his teachers will take good care of him and let him know the time you will be back to pick him up.
  • Once you drop your child at school, say a brief goodbye and move away.
  • And, when it is time to pick your child, make sure that you are there on time.

Avoid bribing your child or reprimanding him for bad behaviour. If your child is more comfortable separating from one parent, then that parent should drop the child off to school.

2. Academic issues: Issues like difficulty in understanding concepts, falling grades and learning difficulties can cause a child to feel anxious and worried. This can make a child reluctant to attend school.

  • What you should do: Make the time and involve yourself in your child's education. Gently find out the reason behind her poor performance and then, talk to her teachers to come up with a plan. Help your child complete assignments and project work. You can also hire a tutor to help her with studies.

3. Unfriendly school environment: Some children find the school environment miserable and distressing. There can be several reasons behind this, such as bullying or teasing or, problems with teachers and other staff. All these can make a child feel threatened and unwilling to go to school.

  • What you should do: If you suspect that your child is being bullied or teased, or is upset and unenthusiastic about going to school, talk to him. But, going straight to the point can make your child feel uncomfortable. So, begin the conversation by asking indirect questions. For example, 'Has anyone ever been mean to you?' or 'Did anyone ever hurt you on purpose?' Once you find out the cause, you can think about the steps you need to take to resolve the issue.

4. When the going gets tough: In school, children are challenged to move outside their comfort zone, by doing things like eating on their own, tying their shoelaces, packing their schoolbag, or finding their way to and from the restroom. This can make a child feel anxious and uncomfortable.

  • What you should do: Practice is the key to success. Help your child understand what she is expected to do in school. Make her practice all those little things she finds difficult to do without your help. With encouragement, she will eventually learn to do everything on her own.

5. Repetitive and boring: Children who are exceptionally creative or gifted are more curious than their peers. They tend to ask a lot of questions, not only from the lessons being taught but also, from outside the curriculum. It’s possible that a gifted child may find what is being taught at school unchallenging and boring.

  • What you should do: Identify your child's abilities and the areas of concern. Set up an appointment with his teacher to find out if there are any special programmes or courses in the school for gifted children. Together with the teacher, you can also come up with a plan of your own to make academics more challenging, and interesting, for your child.

6. Emotional and psychological issues: Refusing to go to school is the symptom, not the disorder. Some children who avoid going to school may be suffering from mental health issues like anxiety or panic attacks, depression, and ADHD.

  • What you should do: Most young children are unable to convey to their parents what is troubling them and why. As a result, when your child feels anxious or panicky, she may throw a tantrum or behave in a stubborn manner. If you find that your efforts to address this behaviour have not made a difference, consult an expert to ascertain if your child has any undiagnosed mental health issues.

As parents, it is our responsibility to see that our children receive a good education. If your child refuses to go to school, the best way to help is to find out why and address the issue. Do seek the help of your child's teachers and other experts, if needed. 

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