With four sons under age 7, I’ve heard my fair share of “I’m not going”s followed by a kid rolling over and throwing their blanket back over their head, hiding under a coffee table, or other equally annoying shenanigans in the morning rush. But none will be as memorable as the very first day of kindergarten. My oldest son had informed me not only would he never be attending school — “as long as he lives” — but that if I made him, he’d run away from the bus. Can’t say he didn’t warn me.
As the bus approached, things seemed to actually be going somewhat better than I’d pictured. He stood dutifully at the curb, watching it pull around, even commenting on how big it was, or how yellow, or some other kindergartener small talk. Then the door opened, I kissed him goodbye, and he bolted. This wasn’t a little game of catch, but a full-blown sprint across a nearby side street, far away from where he knew I couldn’t catch him. Oh, and I was quite pregnant at the time as well.
After some chasing, cajoling, and bribery, I finally shut the door at the front of the school after he made it in, my work schedule and other kids’ drop-off plans completely destroyed. Since then, we haven’t had as dramatic of an exit, but have battled many bouts of school refusal, due to gripes with friends, the wrong kind of chocolate milk in the lunchroom, and a few more serious issues.
What causes school refusal?
If you are just now experiencing your kid pushing back on jumping on the bus, even weeks or months after the first day of school, you aren’t alone. School refusal can rear its trying head at any point in the school year. Psychologist Dr. Carl Pickhardt, author of Holding On While Letting Go: Parenting Your Child Through The Four Freedoms of Adolescence, gave me five pretty solid ones, including:
- Separation anxiety in a young elementary child: missing the comforts and security of home.
- Control testing in the willful older elementary child: challenging parental conditions.
- Social cruelty fears in middle school: avoiding mistreatment by peers.
- School failure in high school: can’t keep up or catch up.
- Early independence: dropping out to make one’s own way.
School refusal manifests in lots of different ways, from my runner who took off, to kids throwing tantrums and complaining of random pains.
“Transitions are harder after holidays and summer,” Reena B. Patel, educational psychologist and the author of Winnie & Her Worries, notes, adding that children of any age can experience any of the above issues at any time during the school year though.
School can be particularly hard on kids with anxiety, or perfectionist tendencies — like my son, the runner. If they’re worried about performing poorly, they might try to avoid it entirely. Family therapist Maribeth Henry who hosts the Everyday Parenting Podcast, says, “Very often the reason is a feeling of failure. It presents differently at different ages, but even a preschooler is very much aware of what other children are doing and recognizes if he is not able to do the same.”
What should we do when our kids refuse to go to school?
When I was pregnant with a chronic back issue and a 50-pound kindergartener, picking him up and moving him into a car seat was impossible, let alone physically hauling him into a school. When refusal means not getting ready for school or just straight-up not moving, parents can feel like their options are limited. I sure did.
Henry says it’s important, though, to successfully establish that they do, in fact, have to go to school.
“We don’t want to let our children stay home. We don’t want to start that pattern because once that begins, it will continue and be difficult to break. Encourage small steps to solving the problem and being very clear with the child about what your expectations are,” she says. “Don’t let teenagers stay in bed. Get them up in the kindest way that you can. Encourage them to get dressed and eat breakfast.”
If you do let them stay home, she encourages parents to have them do schoolwork, reading, and other tasks they’d do at school, not have a “fun day” with TV and video games.
While it can be tough, try to pinpoint the reason for refusal.
“Look at the big picture,” she says. “From the minute your child leaves to the time they get back, look at their whole day to try to find the cause of his school refusal. Is there something happening on the school bus or on the walk to school? It’s not always about what’s happening at school. What are they experiencing?” she says, explaining that in middle and high school, parents should work to understand what is happening with friendship groups. “Where do they eat lunch? Do they have friends to hang out with? Do not discount this. Be alert to what your child is saying and ask them questions.”
There are also steps you can take the night before to alleviate anxiety, Patel adds. Prepare their work, outfit, meals, and anything else to make the next day smoother. “Reinforce expectations with fun rewards after they accomplish attending and doing their work,” Patel says.
Finally, communicate with the child’s teacher and counselor if the problem persists, as they might have additional insight on what’s causing the refusal and might be able to help while the child is at school to alleviate stressors. Patel says if the problem persists over weeks, and interventions aren’t helping, or if you see changes in sleeping, eating, or moods, it might be time to seek help from a mental health professional.
Otherwise, hold space for them to chat. “Younger children are generally quick to share. Teenagers often have no response or will say ‘I don’t know.’ Stay in the silence with them,” Henry says. “If you stay in the silence with a teenager, they will be uncomfortable and they will fill it in. Tell them, ‘I need to go to work. You need to go to school. We’ve got to figure out how to make this work.’ Then be quiet.”
While this strategy didn’t work immediately with my own child running from the bus, it did work in future instances of school refusal. The middle months of the school year especially can drag, when their beds are cozy and school seems too “boring,” but the consistency and patience our experts recommend helped, and I’m sure will help again as the next one tries to hide in a closet right before the bus pulls up.
Alexandra Frost is a Cincinnati-based freelance journalist, content marketing writer, copywriter, and editor focusing on health and wellness, parenting, real estate, business, education, and lifestyle. Away from the keyboard, Alex is also mom to her four sons under age 7, who keep things chaotic, fun, and interesting. For over a decade she has been helping publications and companies connect with readers and bring high-quality information and research to them in a relatable voice. She has been published in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Glamour, Shape, Today's Parent, Reader's Digest, Parents, Women's Health, and Insider.
Alex has a Master of Arts in Teaching, and a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communications/Journalism, both from Miami University. She has also taught high school for 10 years, specializing in media education.