School refusal: How to help your child cope

School refusal: How to help your child cope

Many families feel stressed about back-to-school this year. And some kids may be so anxious that they resist or refuse school. That’s true whether they’re going back to a school building, continuing distance learning, or doing a mix of both. Kids with anxiety and kids who learn and think differently are more likely than others to react this way.

Having your child flat-out refuse school can create more stress and worries for you. You may wonder: Why is my child acting out like this? What if my child is never willing to go back to school? How will I manage my own work if my child won’t deal with school?

Different kids resist or refuse school in different ways. Here are tips for managing refusal, based on what you’re seeing in your child.

Your child has crying episodes or tantrums over school.

Acknowledge that the feelings behind the tantrum are real. Suggest that you talk about ways to make things better — when your child is calmer.

You can say, “I know there’s something about school that worries you. When you’re able to speak calmly, then we can talk about what that is. I’d like to try to help you find a way to make it easier to go to school.”

Be clear that even though you’re supportive and will help problem-solve, not going to school (whether it’s in-person or virtual) isn’t an option.

Your child has meltdowns over school.

Be patient and make it clear that your child is safe and you’re there to help. Kids aren’t in control of meltdowns , so there’s nothing more you can do when they’re happening. When the meltdown lets up, use short and concrete sentences to manage the moment.

You might say, “That was a big reaction. Let’s figure out if you need a break before we talk about school.” Have that conversation at a quiet time when everyone is calm.

Moving forward, you can work on coping skills and help your child find more appropriate ways to communicate being overwhelmed.

Your child won’t get dressed in the morning.

Going to school isn’t optional. But going in pajamas might be. If this is your child’s form of refusal, decide whether it’s more important for your child to participate in school or to get dressed. You may need to send your child to school in pajamas, whether school is in-person or online.

Just drop the teacher a quick email or phone call to explain why your child isn’t dressed for school. And make sure your child knows that you can’t control what classmates will say about what your child is wearing.

Your child refuses to do schoolwork or go to school, saying “You can’t make me.”

Acknowledge that it’s true — you can’t make your child go to school. But you can’t do much about any consequences, either.

You might say, “You’re right. I can’t force you. I also can’t control how your teacher chooses to deal with makeup work or grades.”

Then, offer to have an honest and calm conversation about why your child is refusing to do the work or go to school. Make it clear that you want to understand what’s going on and help fix the problems.

Your child won’t get on the bus or in the car, or won’t turn on the computer.

At this point, your child’s refusal might be getting in the way of your own schedule and ability to start work. Try not to engage at that very moment.

Instead, you could say, “I see you’re really struggling today. Let’s plan on talking later, but I’m not going to spend time arguing with you about it now while you’re so upset.”

Later, ask your child to try to explain what the concern is. If you can’t come up with a quick fix, work on finding a longer-term strategy. (Your child’s teacher may be able to help with that.) You can even make a behavior contract that spells out rewards for getting to school calmly and consequences for making it an issue.

Your child leaves class and begs to come home.

Try to figure out what your child is worried about. Some kids are afraid bad things will happen to their families while they’re at school. If that’s the case, let your child know you’re safe and share your plans for the day.

You can also talk with the school about having your child text or call you at certain times of the day to check in. And for younger kids, having a picture of you or a small comfort object on hand can help, too.

When your child does make it through, even if it’s just part of the class, praise the effort. Use words that show you know how big an accomplishment this is, like “I know how hard this was for you. You must be proud of yourself for trying!”

Your child skips class, whether in person or online.

Take both the behavior and your child’s fears and worries about going to school seriously. Skipping school is the tipping point for kids. They’re not involving you anymore in refusing school — their anxiety is so overwhelming that they’ve decided to just not go.

Talk with the school counselor and your child’s teachers about developing a 504 plan with accommodations for anxiety . Your child may need to work on going to school a little at a time or participate in distance learning at a different pace from other students.

Your child gets stuck on “what if” scenarios.

Respond with as much empathy as you can. Getting stuck on negative thoughts can be a response to feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and powerless. It’s important to try to reduce the anxiety enough to talk about what your child is stuck on.

Then, talk about the difference between “what if” and “what is.” For example, your child might say, “What if the kids who are mean to me are in my class?” You can respond with, “What we do know is that your friend Jonathan is in your class.”

Find out what it might mean if your child refuses school . And know that it isn’t something you have to manage alone. Talk with your child’s teacher or school counselor about it. Explain what you’re seeing at home, so they can help you create a plan to get your child back to school. They can also provide you and your child with support along the way.

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