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Understanding and Helping Children with School Phobia

Understanding and Helping Children with School Phobia

by Jennifer Jordan

Many children experience anxiety about school occasionally— feeling nervous about a new class, getting butterflies about an upcoming test or performance, or undergoing separation from mom and dad for the first time. 

After a few days, most children feel better and enjoy learning and attending school. Some children, however, suffer from deeper anxiety over school.  School phobia or school refusal, defined as a sudden fear or aversion to attending school, affects between 2-5% of children every year, according to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. This condition can be debilitating for children and concerning for parents, but there are measures that can help.

Causes of School Phobia

School phobia is most common between ages 6-13. Times of transition, such as moving up to middle or high school, beginning kindergarten, or even returning to school after a long holiday, can set off a child’s anxiety. A specific event can also trigger school phobia. Family difficulties such as a parent’s illness or divorce can influence children to want to stay home, where they can control the situation. A bullying incident or performance anxiety is a common cause for older children.

Symptoms to Know

Children will often show physical symptoms, such as upset stomach, sweaty palms, vomiting, headaches, and frequent bathroom use. These symptoms are similar to those of adults with anxiety disorders.Children can throw tantrums and act hysterical, refusing to leave the house or get out of the car at school.

If a child begs to stay home from school, parents can recognize that a child is exhibiting true anxiety by watching a child calm down immediately if parents allow the child to stay home.  This instant relief and cessation of physical symptoms indicates that the child is not just faking an illness to play hooky.  The child also does not show as many symptoms on weekends or holidays. 

To determine if the child is really suffering from school phobia, ask probing questions about why he does not want to attend school and what is worrying him.  Getting to the root of the problem is key to resolving it.

How to Help a Child Get Better

The longer the phobia continues, the harder it is to treat.Consult the child’s pediatrician to rule out other illnesses.If a diagnosis of school phobia is made, maintain a normal routine and keep open communication with the child.Reassure the child that school is not something to be feared, and make positive associations with school and its activities.

See Also

When bringing a child to school, do not prolong goodbyes. Consider having someone other than a parent or caregiver take the child to school if this will ease the transition to class. Seek support from the child’s teacher and school administrators. Work out a plan if the child exhibits symptoms during school, such as taking a break in the nurse’s office and then returning to class.

If the child physically resists returning to school, do not force her. Inform the school and gradually resume attendance.

Start off slowly with a couple of hours, build to half-days, and proceed from there.  It is important to understand that if refusal to attend school lasts this long, consultation with a child psychiatrist is a necessary step in treatment.

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