When your child says ‘no’ to school

Returning to the grind after spring break


Marcy Darin


Trudging back to the office after a few days off is tough for most adults. But for some children, the prospect of re-entering the classroom after spring break can cause them to dig in their Reeboks and refuse to leave home.

“Certainly it’s harder to detach from mom or dad after an extended break,” observes Joyce Bartz, a social worker at Lincoln School in Evanston. “The child who has spent a lot of time with their parents sometimes finds it difficult to separate, because they are not emotionally prepared.”

There are a few tricks of the parenting trade to help ease the transition back to the classroom, according to Bartz. “Be clear with your child, and reassure them you will be there at the end of their day,” says Bartz, who works with 350 kindergarten through fifth-grade students.   But what happens when the problem is a bit deeper? Sometimes the onset of school phobia is more than just a seasonal dilemma with a quick fix. Sometimes, it can take a lot of perseverance and patience—and even professional help—to overcome.

Experts estimate that school phobia—intense emotional distress over entering the classroom—affects 1 to 2 percent of elementary-aged children, and is the third most common reason for ab-sences. Clinicians actually distinguish hard-core school phobia from first-day jitters and distress over a specific fear, such as a playground bully or conflict with a teacher.

And it’s hardly a new phenomenon. Experts have been writing about school refusal since the 1940s, even though professionals continue to debate its roots. Some emphasize that family stress—divorce, death or moving—plays a major role. Others say a fragile emotional makeup, or shyness, makes some children more vulnerable to this behavior.

“The causal factors are still not well understood,” explains Patrice Keleher, a social worker with 20 years’ experience at Lincoln Elementary School in Oak Park. “But everyone agrees on two points: early detection and a collaborative approach enlisting efforts by the parent, teacher, social worker and even school nurse are essential for success.”

Sue Mecozzi, a psychologist with Homewood School District 153, stresses that many cases of school phobia can be attributed to situational factors. “A kindergartner can be much more fearful of separating from mom if she has been sick or hospitalized recently,” Mecozzi says.

But as with chicken pox in the pre-vaccination era, no family, not even the most stable one, is immune.

It can be a nightmare For Kim Humphrey, the nightmare began when her daughter reached preschool. Reluctant to leave home, her 4-year-old engaged in a daily battle of wills that erupted in tears. By kindergarten, she was throwing tantrums; by third grade, the youngster was complaining daily of headaches, stomachaches and other ills.

 “I spent a lot of time and energy every day just getting my daughter to school,” recalls the Oak Park mother of two. “By third grade, I was pretty good at it, but collapsing emotionally.”

According to experts, Humphrey did all the right things.

She communicated with her daughter’s teacher and the school social worker, who met with the distressed kindergartner regularly. Before beginning kindergarten, Humphrey’s daughter underwent a psychosocial evaluation by Oak Park Elementary School District 97 personnel. Therapists later diagnosed her with severe anxiety and social phobia. At the start of each school year, Humphrey would meet with her daughter’s teachers to plan a strategy for coping with her daughter’s school refusal.

But it has taken time, and Humphrey has had to continually look for strategies while re-evaluating her daughter’s situation. One step Humphrey took that helped was arranging for her daughter to come home for lunch. “It was much less stressful than the noisy lunchroom,” she says. 

For children experiencing separation issues, tucking a small security object in their backpack, such as a small stone or book, might soothe jagged nerves.

Tom McSheehy, an 18-year veteran teacher who is now a licensed psychotherapist with an Evanston-based private practice, also suggests staging a puppet show, encouraging your child to write in a journal or reading a book that talks about a child’s fear of school. “Making a connection with a classmate or two outside of school might also help,” McSheehy observes.

McSheehy also advises parents to ask their child what would make their school better. “Giving a child some power to make choices is a good thing,” McSheehy says.

Look for early signs Fortunately, most cases of school refusal are not as severe. If detected early, the great majority of schoolchildren can get back on track with help from parents, teachers and the school social worker.

While school refusal can easily shatter the nerves of even a veteran parent, Keleher advises that manipulation by their children is not the culprit here. “Parents and teachers have to understand that there’s a real anxiety, and sometimes depression,” says Keleher.

Since early detection is crucial, what are some of the early signs? Often the first clue is a barrage of somatic complaints. “Kids may complain of headaches, stomachaches, nausea and may go to the school nurse often. Parents should watch for a pattern of illness and absences from school,” explains Keleher.

While a physical condition is usually not the source, parents should have their child examined to rule out medical causes. If the problem persists beyond a few days, parents should call the school to inform the teacher and seek help from staff, especially the social worker, to map out a strategy for moving the child back to the classroom.

Experts agree that early intervention is key, whatever strategy is hammered out.

“If caught early, this behavior is relatively easy to treat,” says Dr. John Lavigne, chief psychologist at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. “Getting back to school is harder as peers begin to notice the absences.” Lavigne advises that parents contact the school by the third consecutive absence. “You’ve got to get moving early,” he says, adding that there are often significant delays in scheduling appointments with therapists or other mental health professionals.

According to Lavigne, children in kindergarten through third grade have a good chance of overcoming this distress.

For those younger children, school social workers often recommend a gradual transition to the classroom. This might translate into attending half-days, or even an hour spent with the school social worker in his or her office. Sometimes the mother can remain with the child for a short period, then leave.

“Our goal is to wean the child away from the parent, usually the mom,” observes Mecozzi, who reports that the majority of school-phobic children she sees are back in the classroom within one week.

Older children, old-fashioned ideas For older children in seventh or eighth grades, the onset of school refusal often involves more serious underlying emotional problems requiring clinical intervention—another reason for parents to get involved as soon as early as possible.

Other successful strategies? Sometimes anxious children are encouraged to arrive in the classroom early, before classmates do, for some less-pressured settle-in time. Since the chaos of the lunchroom or recess can be especially harrowing for these children, making arrangements for the child to eat in a classroom might also help.

Regardless of the child’s age, school officials and professionals agree that a strong partnership between the parent and the school is essential to easing a fearful child back into the classroom. “You’ll get a lot of cooperation,” says McSheehy. “When teachers feel it is not an attack on them, they are willing to do a lot.”

Unfortunately, not all parents receive the same level of cooperation from their child’s school.

“Schools vary considerably in their experience and ability to help with the problem,” explains Lavigne. “In some cases, it might be necessary for the parents to enlist a therapist to help set up a strategy for getting the child back to school.”

No one knows this better than Theresa Reich. A single mother of four from Elmwood Park, Reich waged an uphill battle for years as she sought cooperation from school officials.

Her eldest son, who was diagnosed with severe social phobia, started avoiding school in kindergarten. Despite help from therapists, the problem escalated. By the time he was 16, he dropped out of high school.

“I was getting no help from the school,” recalls Reich. “One teacher even said I was a terrible parent.”

Reich remembers dressing her son in sweatpants at night so he would be ready to be carried to the car and off to school the next morning. “I was as frustrated as a parent that I couldn’t make him do the right thing,” she says. She asked the school to help her connect with other parents facing similar challenges, but to no avail.

Her eldest son was later hospitalized, which just made the situation worse, Reich remembers.

Reich’s middle son, now 16, has also started refusing to go to school. Rather than deal with the public school system again, she plans to enroll him in an alternative school. “I’m trying every venue I can,” she says.

For stressed-out parents coping with an anxious child who just says no, the feeling of isolation can be overwhelming.

Says Oak Parker Kim Humphrey, “My husband and I felt very alone. When any one issue takes up so much of your energy, life becomes very stressful.”

As a remedy, Humphrey advises family and individual therapy for reoccurring cases. “This gives you coping skills for dealing with difficult situations,” she explains. “There is no magic formula—it’s just day-by-day.”

Currently a sixth-grader, Humphrey’s daughter has made significant progress. On the recommendation of a teacher, Humphrey encouraged her daughter to join the school newspaper staff to help her find a comfortable niche.

However impossible the situation appears, Humphrey advises parents to persevere. “Talk to teachers, the school social worker, principal and therapist. Do whatever it takes to get your child to school. They have to understand they need to hold it together,” Humphrey says.

For children struggling with school phobia, the journey back to the classroom can teach them lifelong lessons.

As McSheehy observes: “This can be a great opportunity for children to develop coping skills and strengths that will serve them for a lifetime.” 

Marcy Darin is a writer and mother of three living in Oak Park.

Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in the Wednesday Journal, a sister publication of Chicago Parent.

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