Every parent has heard their kid say, in response to being told it’s time to get up and go to school, “my stomach hurts.” “I don’t feel good.” “I don’t want to go to school today.” “Can I just stay home today?”
I’ve had a recent surge in kids who refuse to go to school in my practice. Naturally, it causes a lot of stress for parents. Does my child really have “a stomachache or headache?” Or are they just feigning illness to avoid going to school? What is a parent to do about the child who simply won’t get out of the bed? Unfortunately, it is not generally one of those problems that get better with time. The more a parent allows a child to “not go to school,” the worse the problem tends to get. So the question remains: What does one do about a kid who refuses to go to school?
Step 1: Determine the Reason
The key to getting a kid to go to school is figuring out why the kid doesn’t want to go in the first place. There are a hundred different reasons kids don’t want to go to school, but they all essentially fall into 3 categories.
- Psychiatric causes: When a kid has an underlying psychiatric illness, doing seemingly simple things like attending school can be an insurmountable task.
- Examples include: anxiety and depression.
- Behavioral component: This area has a much broader scope. Examples include:
- Trying to escape an uncomfortable situation, like bullying by another student, a “mean teacher,” a stressful math test, etc.
- Seeking more attention or time with an important person, like a parent or peer.
- Desire for more entertaining activities, like playing video games at home or going to a local hangout.
- Special circumstances: These are much less common, but happen nevertheless
- Helping at home. If the parent is incapacitated or unable to do things necessary at home, the kid may stay home to care for the parent or younger siblings.
- Abuse. Kids may fear having bruises or injuries witnessed/reported by others.
- Truly sick kids. I categorize this as a special circumstance because parents usually know when their kids are sick and don’t make them go to school. I wouldn’t say a vomiting kid is a “refusal to go to school.” I’d just call that a sick kid. Occasionally, a child will really be sick and the parent won’t recognize it as such. This is rare (usually, the kid is trying to pull a fast one on the parents and feigning illness.)
Step 2: Make a plan
Once you’ve determined the reason for the school refusal, create a plan of attack.
- Psychiatric causes need medical help.
- Consider a therapist (psychologist)
- Determine if medication is warranted (with the guidance of your child’s doctor).
- Create a Behavior Plan
- Address any issues that can be feasibly dealt with (e.g., the bully, get a tutor for difficult subjects, etc.)
- Motivate successfully going to school. Create rewards or incentives for going to school (e.g., keeping a cell phone, earning media minutes, time with friends, etc.). School accommodations may need to be made for students in some circumstances (e.g., when a child is overwhelmed at school, the child may be allowed to go to the counselor’s office, etc.).
- Make the alternative (staying home) a horrible choice. Make staying home absolutely miserable for the child (e.g., no media, no cell phones, a Cinderella style list of chores, etc.).
Step 3: Follow through
- Once the plan has been established, get everyone on board. Discuss the plan with the school and the kid. Make sure everyone knows the plan and the consequences.
- If the kid refuses, hold him/her accountable.
I acknowledge how difficult this scenario is for parents, it’s much easier said than done. And every situation is so unique, what works for one kid, doesn’t necessarily work for another. In the last few months, I’ve helped many families come up with “a plan.” Here are examples of actual plans I’ve created with patients and parents that may help you to model your own plan.
I always start the conversation with the simple statement, “School is not optional.”
- Example A: Child has underlying depression, lacks motivation, and can’t seem to get up and to school. Consequently, child is failing and getting further and further behind.
- Plan: Parents and child to meet with the school counselor and teacher. The child agrees to: 1) Attend 100% (only excusing doctor approved medical illnesses), 2) Make an effort while in class, 3) Turn in at the end of class any work done in class (whether complete or not). The child does not then have to do any make up work or homework, simply show up and make an effort from here on out. The teacher agrees to: 1) Give the child a passing grade. I’ve yet to meet a teacher who isn’t willing to give a kid at least a “D” for simply showing up and making an effort while there. The life lesson is that you have to at least show up.
- It’s worth noting in this example that the kid also had to agree to take prescribed medication (and school was aware of underlying medical condition).
- Example B: Child refuses to go to school (stays at home playing video games while mom is at work).
- Plan: Neighbor takes child to school (since mom is at work). Video games removed and only given as a reward for going to school and getting homework done.
- Example C: Child complaining of daily stomachaches, “can’t go to school.” History revealed child was being bullied at school.
- Plan: Mom to meet with school counselor and parents of the other involved child and create strategy for helping bullying to stop. My patient was empowered with knowledge of “safe grown-ups” to talk to if it happens any more.
Caution: A word of caution about using “a home or an online” school program as a solution. I have had many parents, in desperation, resort to “home school” or “online” school when a child refuses to go to school. Every single case I can think of ended up going poorly when school refusal was the reason for initiating “home school” or “online” school. Ultimately, every parent says they wished they hadn’t, because it ends up compounding the problem. The child doesn’t magically start wanting to engage in academics at home as the underlying problem is not usually solved by home schooling. Usually, it just gives the child a stronger foothold for resisting school (because they no longer have to go to school and the struggle/conflict intensifies between the parent and the child). So be cautious if deciding to go down that road.