School Refusal

Over the years, I have worked with many families struggling to cope when their child or adolescent refuses to go to school. Typically, by the time parents call my office, the issue of school refusal is already a crisis.

There are many reasons kids refuse to go to school.  In my experience the common reasons are anxiety, depression, a sense of feeling overwhelmed by the demands of school, including the academic and social concerns. It is not an easy time to be in school. Schools conduct lockdown drills, the demands of homework can be overwhelming, social media has ramped up the social pressures, particularly in the middle school and high school age group.

There is a tendency to blame parents when a kid refuses to attend school. It is more manageable when your elementary age child won’t get in the car or won’t get out of bed. I am not minimizing this struggle. However, it becomes much harder when your 14- year old refuses under any circumstances to attend school.  Here is the advice I offer to parents with the caveat that no situation is the same. 

  1. Trust your instinct. You as a parent are much more likely to know the reasons your child is refusing to go to school.
  2. Call the school. If your child has an IEP or 504 Plan, this is a reason to have an emergency meeting with key school staff. The longer school refusal continues the harder it is to get a child back in school and on track again. Below are items for consideration for an IEP or 504 meeting.
  • Identify the problem and possible reason for the school refusal.
  • Discuss if an evaluation or reevaluation is necessary. Time is of the essence so a school’s willingness to evaluate promptly is a key consideration. If the school will not do an evaluation it is important that you consider a private evaluation in order to understand what is going on with your child.
  • Interventions should be put in place as soon as possible.
  • The school should conduct a Functional Behavioral Analysis (FBA) and develop a Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP).
  • Establish a communication plan with the school and home. It also may be helpful to include outside mental health professionals who are involved with the student.
  • Discuss the issue of truancy. Many of the schools I work with do not resort to charging a student or parents with truancy in cases of school refusal. In my experience, threatening a parent with legal action regarding truancy is unhelpful and damages the partnership that is needed to address school avoidance or refusal. School refusal is not the same as truancy.
  • All your communication with the school regarding the school refusal should be in writing.

3. Consult a mental health professional.

4. Research resources in your community for school refusal programs for students.

5. Think outside of the box. Are there alternatives to traditional schooling that may be an option?

6. Remember this is often a complex problem and one that requires interventions on several levels. It requires an all hands-on deck approach that research indicates requires both school and parental involvement, the use of cognitive behavioral approaches and other strategies to be effective.

Selected Resources:

            Practitioner Review: School refusal: developments in conceptualization and treatment since 2000. (Elliott, Julian, and Place, Maurice,) Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 60:1 (pp.4-15)

   Erika’s Lighthouse

Anxiety and Depression Association of America

            Call our office to discuss options for working with your school and other professionals if your child and your family are dealing with school refusal. (312)-640-0500

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About Micki Moran

Micki Moran is the founding partner of The Child and Family Law Center, Ltd. She dedicates her practice to providing legal assistance to children and families who are in need of representation in the areas of special education, disability law, juvenile and young adult criminal law, abuse and neglect, guardianship, and mental health issues. Micki's practice is founded on the principle that children and their families require and deserve excellent legal representation with a multidisciplinary approach that works with multiple systems of care and creates communities that support and improve the quality of all peoples' lives.
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