One of the most troubling patterns that can develop in children with anxiety is refusing to attend or stay at school. Separation anxiety, generalized anxiety, social fears, and peer issues all contribute to school avoidance, and will be discussed in detail in Chapters 6 and 17. A pattern of school refusal, once established, can be extremely difficult to change, and may require intensive therapeutic intervention and close cooperation with the school. The best defense for this potential pitfall is a good offense, which you will find in Chapter 17.
What Are the Signs?
Most children who attempt to avoid school will do so by complaining of physical symptoms. Headaches, stomachaches, and vague complaints of not feeling good are extremely common in children with anxiety and will be detailed in the final section of this chapter. Complaining, pleading, dawdling, “disappearing,” and repeated attempts to avoid or be absent from school (for example, by regularly missing the bus) are common. Increases in these behaviors when tests or projects are due may indicate test anxiety.
What Are the Consequences?
The most obvious consequence of missing school is that your child may get behind in her schoolwork. For the child who is already anxious, missing homework can become overwhelming, spiraling into more physical complaints and additional attempts to avoid school. Another consequence, particularly for a child who is socially anxious, involves missed opportunities to build competence in peer interactions. The longer a child is away from school, the more daunting it becomes to go back into the fray of social demands. In this case, the proverbial “getting back on the horse after a fall” applies directly. The longer your child is away from school, the less confident and motivated she will be to return.
Classical conditioning is one of the strongest factors in the development of avoidant behavior. When your child experiences the repeated association of unpleasant emotions and school, this will increase the odds of school avoidance. Similarly, when your child connects feelings of relief with not being in school, odds are that he will repeat the pattern of avoidance.
What Can You Do?
If you feel your child attempts to stay home from school more than she should, you can use several approaches, depending on your child's particular pattern. Sometimes, friends or siblings attending the same school can be excellent supports for your child. You may wish to spend some extra time at your child's school, for example, by volunteering, if this encourages her to stay in school. However, be prepared to wean your involvement at some point so that your child can learn to tolerate being at school on her own. School nurses, psychologists, or social workers may also be called upon to help encourage a child with anxiety to stay through the day.
When All Else Fails
If you have followed the tips above and your child continues to avoid or refuse to attend school, try involving the school social worker, who likely has experience encouraging children with anxiety. You can also offer your child a small reward for regular school attendance. This could be as simple as having a chat and snack with your child after he returns from school, focusing on the positive events of the day. For an approach with a bit more bang, see the strategies for positive reinforcement in Chapter 19.
If your child continues to struggle with school avoidance after using the tactics discussed earlier, focus your attention on Chapter 17, which deals specifically with school issues. You might also want to consider seeking help from a qualified professional therapist at this juncture.