Parents

If this is one of your first times seeking help for school avoidance, you are in a good position to help your child. We have exactly the right amount of information and resources on this website to assist you in helping your child.

You may have landed here because your child has been school avoidant for a bit, and you need more help.

We are going to help you by sharing evidence-based interventions and best practice strategies on this website.

We also offer our community support and tips in an understanding, non-judgmental environment and access to the leading voices in the school avoidance world.

Child sitting in bed next to lamp

"Avoidance is the lifeblood of anxiety, so school refusal is the ultimate example of avoidant coping"

Dr. Jonathan Dalton

Center for Anxiety & Behavioral Change, Rockville, MD

The Basics

What is School Avoidance?

School avoidance is when a child refuses to attend a school or has difficulty remaining in school the entire day.

It can start by missing a day or two sporadically over a few of your child’s school years and slowly increase to the point where you see it’s becoming a problem.

You may also have seen “soft signs” like avoiding a certain class, having serious problems with completing homework, faking illness to miss a day of school, miss a presentation or test at school.

School avoidant behavior can show as any of the following;

  • Completely absent from school
  • Goes to school but leaves during the day or escapes to the nurse’s office
  • May go to school, but only after crying, hiding in their bedroom, having an outburst, or refusing to move.
  • Has unusual distress about going to school and begs you not to make him go back. 

Does My Child Have School Avoidance?

If you are online searching for school avoidance information, you most likely see signs that concern you. You don’t need academic definitions to tell you if your child meets the parameters of school avoidance.

If your child’s reluctance toward school is causing stress within your family or your daily life, then it would make sense to get help now.

When it comes to your kids, your instincts and gut feelings are usually right. So, listen to them. Try not to talk yourself out of these observations.

It’s not uncommon to avoid or deny an issue with your child, which could be scary and overwhelming.

We are here to help support you as you take action to help your child.

If you like data or it will help you, click below for academic and clinical definitions:

What Causes School Refusal?

What are the four functions of School Refusal?

Kearny and Albano developed the four functions of School Refusal to help determine the underlying causes of a child’s school refusal and then use that information to determine a specific evidence-based treatment plan.

Dr. Kearny and Dr. Albano describe the four main reasons why children refuse school.

1. To stay away from objects or situations at school that make the child feel unpleasant physical symptoms or general distress

Examples:
  • Being on the school bus
  • Walking in the hallways
  • Being on the playground
  • Being in the lunchroom
  • Sitting in the classroom
  • Feeling fearful of not keeping up
  • The distress of not being able to do school work because of a learning difference
  • People at school, teachers, principals, or school staff 
  • Or specific people that the child may feel uncomfortable around
  • The other kids at school
  • A general feeling of discomfort from being surrounded by a lot of kids all day
  • Not wanting to be around particular kids or groups of kids, or feeling like they can’t relate to these other kids or a majority of them

2. To avoid social or evaluative situations at school that is painful to the child (school-related performance situations).

Examples

  • Tests
  • Reading out loud to the class
  • Speaking or presenting in front of others
  • Athletic performance in the gym
  • The playground
  • Or recreational school sports

The two reasons above are negative or aversive, representing things that cause feelings to escape or avoid.

3. To receive attention from a parent or significant other

Examples:

  • Having a hard time separating from a parent, sibling, or caregiver
  • Or feeling needed by a parent

4. To obtain tangible rewards that make staying home more enjoyable/comfortable than going to school

It’s also possible that a child who is avoiding school to escape negative feelings (function 1 &2) may start to gain the positive rewards of staying home. Like the safe cocoon-like feeling of being in the bedroom with all their favorite things.

Examples:

  • Wanting to stay home to play online gaming
  • Wanting to be online or watch movies
  • Wanting to spend time with a friend that is not in school

The School Refusal Assessment Scale - Revised

The School Refusal Assessment Scale is a psychological assessment tool that Dr.Chris Kearney and Dr. Wendy K. Silverman created to assess what is causing (one or more of the functions noted above) the child’s school refusal to then best inform the proper interventions.

Dr. Kearny and Dr. Anne-Marie Albano developed the revised version (-R).

The SRAS-R will help establish the function of the child’s school refusal to help you, your mental health professional, and your school determines what course of action to take to help your child.

The SRAS-R will be of most value when you are first addressing a child’s school avoidance and are unsure if it’s caused by aversion to school or obtaining positive feelings from staying at home.

You’ll find the version for parents (as noted by the “P”) as well as the child version below:

Click the pages of the SRAS-R below for better viewing.

Scoring Example

In this example, since the mean score is highest (4.3 ) in column 1. The function with the highest mean score is considered the primary cause (function) of the child’s school avoidance.

Co-ocurring Causes of School Avoidance

School avoidance behavior is often associated with the following disorders, learning differences, and other factors, as noted below.

You may hear the terms comorbidity and co-occurring, which are similar, meaning having more than one disorder. For example, it is very common for kids with anxiety disorders also to have depression.

Also, there can be an undiagnosed learning difference that causes anxiety or depression.

For school avoidance, also note that there are usually co-occurring factors that are not a disorder.

But most likely other feelings brought on or exacerbated by a trigger (s) relating to the school. (for example, trouble starting papers, trouble translating the words in your head onto paper, or increased workloads, being called out by a teacher, the culture of performance, changes in friend groups, or their feelings and ability to relate to their friends

Common Causes Associated with School Avoidance

Anxiety Disorders

  • Panic disorder
  • Social anxiety
  • Separation anxiety
  • PTSD
  • OCD
  • Specific phobia
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
  • Selective mutism
  • Emetophobia-fear of vomiting, see this wonderful site and podcast
  • Defiant Disorder

Learning Differences

  • Processing Speed Disorders
  • Dyscalculia-” Math Dyslexia,” Not Math Anxiety
  • Disorder of Written Expression Dysgraphia
  • Executive Functioning Deficits
  • Working Memory Deficits

Other Causes

  • Developmental Trauma
  • Perfectionism
  • ADD/ADHD
  • Bullying
  • Prolonged absence due to Injury or Illness
  • Death or Illness of parent or pet
  • Changes in class or school
  • New teacher
  • Toxic teacher
  • Feeling unsafe at school

Signs and Interventions

Anxiety-based School Avoidance

Anxiety-based school avoidance is a classic fight or flight response (also known as fight, flight freeze). Anxiety is normal, but it becomes problematic when our amygdala (part of the brain) misinterprets or magnifies a particular level of threat, keeps reinforcing it, which establishes it as a learned and valid response and transforms into anxiety pathways.

Signs

The signs are when you start seeing avoidant behaviors toward school or schoolwork for a week or two. It can be in the form of crying, tantrums, anger, distress, fear, or avoidance around homework or going to school.

School Avoidance Interventions and Treatment

Researchers and clinicians who are experienced in helping get school avoidant kids back to school all agree that evidence-based mode of therapy;
cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy (ERP)
are the first-line treatments for school avoidance.

On our Types of Therapy/Modes of Therapy page, we also cover the value of dialectical therapy (DBT) and SPACE Treatment (new protocol out of YALE ).

It is hard to say this but important to note that no evidence supports just utilizing talk therapy for anxiety-based school avoidance without including proper exercises of CBT or ERP.

Academic Definitions

Researchers note the following:

  • Less than an 80% attendance record over the past two weeks (excluding legitimate absences).
  • The presence of an anxiety disorder as identified in DSM IV (APA,1994) [excluding obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)].
  • Parents could account for the whereabouts of the child on the days marked by school absence.
  • No concurrent DSM-IV conduct disorder (although mild forms of oppositional defiance are permitted).
  • Clear commitment on the part of parents to help the child to achieve full school attendance except when for legitimate reasons.
Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry Julian G. Elliott, and Maurice Place Durham University, Durham, UK (2019)

Avoid Common Pitfalls! Learn How Your School Can Help Your School Avoidant Child

Coming December 6th

We will send it to you for FREE on release day

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