I Don't Want To Go To School!!!

From the desk of Dr. Jonathan Lasson

Six-year-old Billy was brought to my office by his mother after one week of school. Mrs. Brown* literally had to peel Billy off of her in order to get him to sit on the couch. Mrs. Brown had called me to ask for an appointment and from what I was able to make out from her message was that her Billy, was refusing to go to school. The reason it was so difficult to hear her on my machine was because Billy was crying so loudly that Mrs. Brown’s message was muffled. When I called to schedule her first session, it sounded like Billy was in her arms the entire time.

Mrs. Brown explained that Billy was transitioning into kindergarten and he was having a difficult time. She elaborated by telling me that the teacher was new to the school and she was probably inexperienced in dealing with kindergarten children. Apparently Mrs. Brown was not very happy with Billy’s previous teacher and withdrew him from school in the middle of the year. She home-schooled Billy for the rest of the year and was planning to home-school him again for this year. However, her husband said that he needed to be in school. I sat there quietly as she told me over Billy’s history and then listened to a five minute diatribe about the problems with education “these days.”. After a while Mrs. Brown looked at me and said, “You don’t understand, Dr. Lasson. Billy NEEDS me!”

I tried to explain to her in a calm tone that Billy really would benefit from socializing with other children and that there are many ways to make him more comfortable in the school setting. What I really wanted to say was that it seems like you need Billy, more than Billy needs you. Mrs. Brown was projecting her own anxiety onto Billy, which I have seen with other parents who have children with school refusal issues.

Why do children refuse to go to school? There a several reasons but most school refusal is anxiety based. Sometimes there is a social anxiety component that translates into the school setting. Children with school refusal will often display physical symptoms such as stomachaches and headaches and will make frequent trips to the school nurse. Some children will even make themselves vomit due to their apprehension.

In most cases, these children are not trying to avoid class because it is too difficult or that the children in the class are mean. On the contrary. Most cases of school refusal involve children who are quite intelligent, however there is usually a severe form of anxiety that causes this phenomenon. As my first psychology professor always said, Anxiety breeds anxiety!

So if anxiety breeds anxiety, do we shift all the blame on to the Mrs. Browns of the world? That would be too convenient. What could be done instead is educate parents as to how they should prepare their children as they enter school age years.

Here are some practical suggestions to help deal with school refusal.

  • During the summer, parents can meet with other parents who will have children in the same class and arrange “play dates” for their kids. Having some familiarity with other children prior to the start of the school year helps decrease anxiety in children.
  • Parents should treat the problem as early as possible. Not treating the problem early, will lead to early drop out from school in as many as 40-50% of children, according to a research study conducted in 2008 by Christopher Kearney.
  • Parents should focus on the positive aspects about the school. Children need to hear that their school and teachers are the best and that they will enjoy being in school because of these amazing teachers.
  • Perhaps, most important is for parents to make sure that they do not project their own anxieties onto their children. When a parent is constantly saying that he NEEDS me, what they are really saying is that I need him and I don’t trust anyone else to care for my child.
  • Meeting with the school psychologist or a therapist outside of school is certainly a good idea to help deal with the child’s fears in a responsible, non-threatening way. Parents do not always have the answers. Competent therapists can assist parents in brainstorming ideas to help get their children off to a great start to the school year.

In conclusion, school refusal affects approximately 25% of the population generally between ages 6 and 7. Understanding the anxiety component of school refusal can give parents a good starting point in helping their children.

*This name was given just for the case study.

Dr. Jonathan M. Lasson is a certified school psychologist, writer and speaker who lectures frequently to parents and teachers about school related issues.