Author: Rachael Levine, PhD, Director of Young Child Program
The start of the school year brings about a lot of emotions. It’s expected to feel and observe excitement, hopefulness, eagerness, nervousness, stress, and sometimes fear or overwhelm. These emotions can occur in children and adults alike. Energy runs high as individuals work to gather materials, complete last-minute summer assignments, take end-of-the summer trips to see family, and prepare for scheduling, transportation, and childcare shifts. The end of summer and start of school inherently signals change. Change is hard. Change can be hard when it’s welcomed change, and is especially hard when it’s unwelcomed change. The good news: we can all do hard things.
With all the things listed above, it’s typical for individuals to experience increased stress levels leading up to and into the start of a new school year. Stress can look different from one person to the next. If your child is experiencing heightened stress, you might observe an increased desire to be with you, or an increased desire to be alone. Similarly, you might notice a decreased appetite or an increased appetite, wanting to sleep more, experiencing sleeplessness, and decreased tolerance for small frustrations (e.g., quick to tears, yelling, arguing, and otherwise big reactions to seemingly small problems). You may also notice these things in yourself.
While stress is uncomfortable, it can also be helpful. It might lead to double checking that materials are organized for the year, planning ahead to get through a new morning routine and out the door on time, and being motivated to learn new classroom expectations. Stress can be uncomfortable, and we can manage it.
Stress vs. Anxiety
It can be typical to experience these increased levels of stress for a couple weeks surrounding a significant change (like that of a new school year). Stress is also limited in time and intensity. If these symptoms last more than 2-3 weeks without improvement, or start to significantly impact daily functioning (e.g., getting to school on time, getting to work on time, being able to move through daily roles at home and outside of home), it can start to signify the presence of anxiety. Anxiety can look similar to stress, but is not tied to an observable, identifiable stressor and is more persistent. If your child is experiencing these symptoms without relief for several weeks, it would be helpful to reach out for support. Your child may already be connected with a support team inside or outside of school; be sure to be in touch with them, providing updates and actively collaborating on a plan. If your child does not have a support team, starting with your child’s school counselor or social worker can be helpful.
One of the ways that anxiety can manifest is through school-related anxiety and school refusal. “School refusal” describes a pattern of behaviors when children refuse to attend school for all or part of the school day. School refusal is typically anxiety-based, and it is possible for children who had enjoyed school, or enjoy aspects of school, to fall into school refusal patterns due to anxiety symptoms. If your child is facing distress at school, it could be due to various factors that lead to increased anxiety. These factors might include encountering challenging academics, dealing with bullying, or having concerns about their own performance and a fear of making mistakes. Additionally, your child might experience anxiety related to leaving home, such as separation anxiety or worrying about the safety of family members when they're not around. In such situations, school refusal might already be happening, or it could potentially develop into a recurring pattern.
You may find yourself in a battle each night at bedtime or each morning while getting ready to leave the house. Sometimes these behaviors don’t appear until you arrive in the drop-off line, or maybe even in 4th period when your child asks to see the nurse or call home. These behaviors don’t always make sense to others, can seem confusing, and can also be disruptive to daily responsibilities and functioning. Parents may find themselves feeling stuck, scared, and worried about judgment from others as to why they aren’t able to get their child to school.
For perspective, the US Department of Education defines “chronic absenteeism” as missing 10% of the school year. For school districts with a calendar including 180 school days, that is 18 days of missed school per year. In a review of attendance during the second year of in-person learning after pandemic-related virtual learning, one out of every three public school students was chronically absent. That is approximately 16 million students across the United States. This also means there are many adults presented with the challenge of helping young people through school refusal and school-related anxiety.
Parenting in the Presence of School Refusal: “Both, And”
It can be challenging for a caregiver to ride the wave of anxious moments and school refusal for many reasons: you may be feeling stressed yourself, you may find yourself fearing the worst-case scenario for your child, or you may be second-guessing your parenting decisions. These worries don’t help us out in the moment. As a caregiver or parent in these moments, you have two jobs: (1) continue to maintain clear boundaries and supports for your child, and (2) provide co-regulation to help them gain the confidence and messaging that they can work through hard things safely. This may be oversimplified, and for anyone who’s coached a child through an anxious moment of refusal, it can also be helpful to keep a clear, simple message in mind: “my job is to set boundaries and co-regulate.”
Setting boundaries in these moments can mean upholding an expectation that school is part of your child’s plan while also validating their feelings: “I can tell you feel scared, and I wouldn’t ask you to do something that I didn’t think you could do. Your job is to go to school and I’m going to follow my schedule. I’ll pick you up at 3:30.” You’ll notice that there are many examples of “both, and” in this blog post. It can be helpful to identify that two things can be true at the same time: you can validate your child’s feelings and maintain the expectation to attend school, you can also feel anxious yourself and remain outwardly calm for your child. There are endless examples of this concept, and once we let go of the idea that distress precludes us from participating in something, the door is open to work through anxious moments.
Anxiety can feel big and scary, it can seem overwhelming. And, we know that the only way to work through anxiety is to address it head on. Recognizing that we can do the things that we’re anxious about is the most powerful way to increase daily functioning and break the cycle of avoidance. This is where co-regulation comes in.
Co-regulation: School Can be Hard, and We Can do Hard Things
Co-regulation can occur when an individual is able to regulate their emotions and behaviors with the support of an individual who is regulated. Children and teens are often not yet able to self-regulate and are dependent on their caregivers to help them in challenging moments. As their anxiety is driving them with thoughts of “I’m going to fail my math test today,” “nobody likes me at school,” “today is going to be the worst day ever,” and “I’ll never be able to do this,” children are looking to the adults around them as a barometer for safety. If this anxiety is met with increased anxiety and heightened response from the adult (e.g., yelling, threatening, having a big reaction), a child may accidentally get the message that they aren’t safe, which can set off alarms even further.
On the other hand, if an adult responds with removing the stressor all together (e.g., endorsing staying home), this can inadvertently give the message that the task is too challenging for the child, or school is a scary place and those worries above are true.
So, where does that leave us? Luckily, as said before, two things can be true at one time: school can be hard, and we can do hard things. Children can refuse school and parents are good parents. Children can experience anxiety, caregivers can validate their emotional experience, and hold the boundary that school is necessary.
If you have an anxious child, it can helpful to think about what’s in your control and what’s out of your control as a parent. The more a person focuses on things out of their control, the more frustrated and stuck they can get. In the case of school refusal, it rarely works to drag your child into school and you may have found that you can’t talk your child into going. You can’t control your child. What you can control is how you set the stage for your child and how you respond to your child.
Anxious children are often seeking structure and clarity. There are a few things that you can do to try to start the school year off smoothly:
- Partner with your child.
- Check in with your child about how they are feeling. Encourage them to work to identify their emotions and seek to understand their perspective.
- If your child is able to engage in conversation about this, validate their experience while also maintaining the goal (“It sounds like you’re feeling really nervous. I’ve seen you be brave, and I know you can work through this. Let’s make a plan together”).
- In developmentally appropriate ways, seek your child’s input on what might be helpful in their daily schedule being mindful not to make promises that stressors will be removed.
- Let your child know that you’ll be working with other adults (your child’s teachers, supports, therapist, etc.) to help make a plan that works for everyone.
- Set a clear bedtime and morning routine and practice it.
- While children often state that they prefer summer and freedom from a schedule, clear times and structure can be soothing to an anxious individual.
- You can collaborate with your child on developmentally appropriate aspects of the routine (e.g., parents set the bedtimes and time to leave in the morning, while children can help decide the order of tasks).
- Make the plan and review it together.
- Try to stick to this schedule as much as possible at the start of the school year.
- You might also consider using checklists and reward charts for these routines.
- Arrange for social activities with friends from school, and spend time around your child’s school during non-school hours.
- Reminding children that there are positive aspects of school can be helpful evidence when combatting a worry that the day is going to be terrible.
- Make space to facilitate a play date with a peer in your child’s class.
- Arrange to carpool or walk to school with a friend.
- Play at the school playground before and after school or on the weekends.
- Drive by school while running errands.
- When your child starts to refuse school or has an anxious moment, remind yourself of your job and try to stay calm.
- Rely on scripts of validating and holding the boundary: “I know your stomach hurts, and I’m going to have you go to school today. I know you can do it.”
School refusal can feel overwhelming and frustrating. Once a child experiences immediate relief of their anxiety by avoiding the thing that has made them anxious, it’s natural to seek that immediate relief and avoidance again and again. It’s not uncommon for one missed day to turn into two, and then one day each week, and all of the sudden no attendance days at all.
The longer school refusal and avoidance patterns have been occurring, the longer they will take to reverse. That does not mean it is impossible, it just means that plans need to be intentional and scaffolded to help support the child through their anxiety. “Ripping off the band aid” techniques, or jumping right back into a full day of school, after significant avoidance is often an unreasonable expectation.
If you’re starting to see avoidance and refusal behaviors, connect with your child’s school team early. The sooner they know about patterns at home, the sooner they can start to support and help during the school day.
Your child will also benefit from learning skills and tools to help them manage symptoms of anxiety. This can be done through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) with a therapist. Starting with a weekly therapist may start to help your child work through their avoidance patterns and tackle challenges differently.
In some cases, when school refusal patterns become strong, higher levels of care, such as Partial Hospitalization (PHP) and Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP) might be necessary to help change the cycle. These programs would work with your child, your family, and your school to build a plan that will address your child’s needs and help them ease back into school.
Regardless of level of care, skill building can be an empowering tool for children and parents. School-related anxiety and school refusal do not need to dictate everyday life and your child’s success. It can be hard, and we can all do challenging things.
The start of a school year is a whirlwind of emotions for both children and parents, with excitement often mixed with stress and anxiety. Remember, it's natural for these feelings to arise during transitions. But when these feelings evolve into a chronic pattern, such as school refusal, proactive measures and support become essential. Partner with your child, establish routines, seek professional help if needed, and remember that as overwhelming as it may seem, challenges can be surmounted. With understanding, patience, and the right tools, both children and parents can navigate the stresses of the new school year and turn them into opportunities for growth and resilience.
- Taking Ownership of Our Story: How School Planners, Journaling, and Narrative Reframing Shape Our Well-being https://blog.compasshealthcenter.net/taking-ownership-of-our-story
- Compass Health Center Launches Innovative Program to Combat Rising Screen Addiction in Children and Teens https://blog.compasshealthcenter.net/screen-addiction-in-children-and-teens
- Rewriting the Narrative: From "I Can't" to "I Can” https://blog.compasshealthcenter.net/school-refusal