How to help students who refuse to attend school

School refusal and school truancy differ mainly in the intention of a student’s avoidance of attending school.

Students who are truant from school often are oppositional in nature and likely display inappropriate behaviors in other areas of their life (e.g. lying, stealing, breaking curfew, and fighting).

They often hide their truancy from their parents — maybe even pretending to go to school. They do not stay at home during school hours and are uninterested in completing missed schoolwork or meeting academic expectations.

A student refusing to attend school is typically not demonstrating oppositional behaviors, but is rather struggling with intense emotional difficulty and often has been avoiding aspects of school (e.g. particular classes, homework, hallways) long before they start to refuse to attend an entire school day.

“Through avoidance these students tend to lower their tolerance for distress and experience intense emotions quickly,” says Laura Koehler, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist with Linden Oaks. “As a result, most students who refuse to attend school due to anxiety also stay in their homes during school hours and often complete the missed schoolwork.”

These students are very open about their heightened level of distress regarding attending school and ask their parents to call school and report them as “sick.” In some of these cases, parents may truly believe they’re acting in their child’s best interest.

But, in reality, they’re making the situation worse by assisting the child in avoiding school. The healthier option in the long run, although more immediately painful, is to take advantage of the opportunity to learn how to manage difficult situations, a skill they’ll need in adulthood.

Megan Moller Schmitz, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist with Linden Oaks, has these tips to help students refusing to go to school:

Students always should be strongly encouraged to attend school on a daily basis.

Applied discipline (e.g. loss of electronics) and natural consequences (e.g. inability to make up schoolwork from the missed day) should be used if a student ultimately chooses not to go to school.

Students should be encouraged to manage their emotional experiences while remaining in their classes.

Students who visit or are sent to the office for support should not be sent home unless they are physically ill (i.e. fever over 100 degrees; excessive vomiting and/or diarrhea, as emotional distress can be exhibited physically).

Students should be allowed 10-15 minutes to practice a coping skill before prompting them to return to class.

If students need to talk, allow a brief summary of the problem and validate their distress, but do not allow them to dwell on the issue. Instead, empathetically shift the conversation to any topic other than their emotional discomfort (e.g. hobbies, friends), which is a distraction coping skill.

For more information on school refusal or truancy issues, contact Laura Koehler at 630-646-8028 or Megan Moller Schmitz at 630-646-8031.

For a free mental health assessment, call the Linden Oaks 24/7 Help Line at 630-305-5027. For more information about Linden Oaks, visit www.lindenoaks.org.

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