Most children experience a few days here and there across their school life when they don't want to go to school. That's normal. However, for some children, the feeling is longer-lasting and can impact them on many levels, including academically, socially and psychologically.
What school avoidance and anxiety can look like
Crying, whinging, yelling - meltdowns
Silent and frozen
Refusing to get dressed; not getting out of bed; hiding
Tummy aches, headaches (real and pretend)
Being constipated or frequently needing the toilet
Tired (anxiety is exhausting for many reasons)
Complaining the uniform is uncomfortable or irritating
No absences but always late or leaving early
Three Broad Categories
There are many reasons which may contribute to a child feeling anxious about attending school. Below are the ones I came across the most as a teacher then school counsellor, but of course there could be others.
We can broadly fit the many reasons for school refusal or school anxiety into three categories as follows:
1. To avoid something at or about school
They might not like the teacher and/or believe the teacher doesn’t like them.
Friendship / peer issues – maybe they are being bullied, teased, feeling left out or don't know how to find friends.
Difficulty understanding the work. In addition to poor grades, this might also look like: not completing work; distracting others; misbehaving; crying or getting upset.
The noise and crowds (especially in playgrounds and wet weather days inside).
Sensory sensitivities - being irritated or distracted by noises, smells, textures or visual stimuli that others are able to ignore.
Concerns about getting Covid due to the crowds of people in a school (especially if there are family members who are immunocompromised or frail elderly).
Not liking the school toilets. Maybe they're worried about having an accident which would then lead to being embarrassed and possible teasing.
Undiagnosed or known health issue, eg: lactose or gluten intolerant. The child genuinely feels unwell -> worries about not making it to the bathroom in time or passing lots of gas or vomiting -> embarrassment.
Being the centre of attention. EG: putting their hand up in class; being called on to answer questions; giving news; getting an award; etc.
Not feeling comfortable in the uniform (sensory issues; body esteem issues; uniform old or not like the other children’s).
A teacher with a loud voice. Many children equate this to the teacher being angry. They can feel scared even if the teacher is not addressing them specifically.
The teacher leaving permanently or a planned short absence. EG: maternity leave, long service leave, a training course etc
Work too easy; not stimulating; they're bored.
A child who has been off school for a while, perhaps with Covid then the flu might be worried about how much they have missed, if their teacher will remember them or even about getting sick again.
A child might have low self-esteem or low body-esteem, leading to not feeling confident or comfortable around others.
2. To NOT miss something or someone at home
Separation anxiety from parent. This is quite common near the start of school terms but two years of Covid lockdowns has also meant children experienced less ‘sleep overs’ or time being cared for by anyone other than their parents.
Some children worry their parent won’t be back in time to get them or will have an accident on the way so they decide it's better not to go.
Preferred learning at home during lockdown – more time with family, work was less and easier for many primary children. They often had 1:1 help with work, could eat and move whenever they wanted.
A new baby might bring about some jealousy or feelings that's it's not fair they cannot stay home too.
A sibling at home sick can also bring ‘not fair' feelings.
Some children think they are missing out on something fun either with their parent or playing (often online games).
The child might be worried about a parent’s safety. This could be due to family DV or illness (especially if the parent has previously been in hospital).
The child might be worried about the safety of a pet if no-one is at home.
3. A parent is intentionally or unintentionally encouraging the child to stay home
The child might be caring for a parent or another family member.
A parent might have their own mental health or physical issues. EG: anxiety or depression = unable to get out of bed on time; might be sleepy; forgetful; intoxicated; suffering chronic pain. A parent might have their own anxieties being alone or they might worry about the child attending school.
A parent may have had their driver’s licence suspended and they are unable to get the child to school.
A parent or child might have visible injuries due to domestic violence.
The good news
There is hope and help available.
There are a number of strategies to support a child and family when it comes to school anxiety and refusal. If you would like support in this area, I invite you to contact me to organise a time to chat - email@example.com