Ever “fake sick” to get out of going to school? I’d be willing to bet that most of us have tried to fake some sort of illness to get out of school. Maybe you tried the old standards (heating a thermometer by placing it close to a light bulb, coughing and moaning like a Victorian heroine slowly dying of consumption, squishing up your face to indicate such extreme pain that you just may die if you go to school).
We had to be careful not to overdo it. It’s easy to go from almost getting a day off to a lengthy and awkward trip to the local emergency room. Other parents played the “if you’re sick enough to miss school, you’re too sick to watch TV” card. Or, worse! – you found yourself sitting uncomfortably in a doctor’s waiting room, reflecting miserably upon the life choices you’d made and how much you’d really rather have been in math class.
We have all – well, most of us, anyway – tried such strategies to avoid school once or twice. But what about kids who have a pattern of school refusal?
School refusal affects approximately two to five percent of the school-aged population, and is typically associated with anxiety related to being at school. It refers to a specific set of behaviors the child uses to prevent them from attending school, often due to perceived or real negative expectations about what may happen at school that day. Generally, school refusal becomes more problematic as children age (it is most common at ages five to six, and again at ten to 11 years old) and previous avoidance strategies are reinforced. Essentially, if they are permitted to avoid school and stay home with no natural consequences, they learn to repeat those behaviors which prevent them from being exposed to the perceived negative situation.
For instance, school refusal often starts with a negative expectation about something that may happen at school – teasing, getting an incorrect answer in class and being embarrassed in front of one’s peers, not being able to perform academically, athletically, or socially. It is human nature to engage in the fight/flight/freeze/please response (specifically, these are all anxiety responses that are common in almost all of us – fight is taking on an aggressive stance; flight is avoidance, freeze is typically panic, and please refers to a strong impulse to make others happy so that they are no longer seen as being threats).
School avoidance is often a flight/avoidance response. If it works once and there are no consequences, or, as is often the case, even positive consequences (i.e. being able to stay home and play video games), such refusal will become a frequently occurring behavior that is notoriously difficult to change.
Why do some children refuse to go to school?
Again, it is often a perception (or misperception) of things that may or may not happen at school – typically, the student perceives these potential situations as being events likely to occur and from which escape may be impossible.
It is therefore somewhat logical, although irrational, that they elect to avoid such situations. Avoidance is logical in the sense that doing so in relation to unpleasant experiences is a very typical human instinct. On the other hand, it is also quite irrational, as negative events at school (while possibly real), may not be as negative or intense as the child thinks they are.
More critically, if we do not confront and learn to deal with uncomfortable situations, we learn to avoid – which in turn leads us to avoid almost any situation in which risk may be involved (work, relationships, new hobbies or activities, social engagements, new skills, and so on). So, school refusal is important to identify and treat very early on.
What can parents do?
Parents are the first line of defense and, in fact, even without thinking about it, we can have a significant influence on potential school refusal.
Dr. Brent Macdonald is a frequent guest on CBC, Global Television, Breakfast Television, and CTV. He is currently the lead psychologist with his own practice, Macdonald Psychology Group (complexlearners.com), which in addition to providing counseling and assessment services, also provides consultation services to educators and parents.
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