"I Don't Want to Go to School": What You Need to Know About School Phobia

The school-phobic child:

  • wants to stay home because he has intense anxiety over being away from either parent
  • acts stressed and worried the night before school

It is not uncommon for children to not want to go to school at times. But the child who develops school phobia, or school avoidance, is different. The school-phobic child:

  • wants to stay home because he has intense anxiety over being away from either parent. Most often the anxiety is over separating from Mom.
  • acts stressed and worried the night before school
  • behaves desperately prior to having to leave home for school

The mornings are the worst for parents of a school-phobic child because these children often will cry, vomit or act as if there is some horrifying experience waiting for them at school. 

Normally, when a child claims to be sick to avoid school, parents are suspicious that the child is putting on an act. But with the child who is school phobic, parents become worried because these children are convincing about having a headache or a stomachache.

Rule out medical and school problems first

If you are experiencing the behavior described above, check some things out to decide if your child has school phobia. Visit your child’s pediatrician to see if he has an illness. If all tests are normal, chances are your child has school phobia.

But it is possible your child is being bullied or has had a bad experience in school. Schedule a meeting with your child’s teacher. Tell the teacher what you are experiencing at home and ask the following questions:

  • How is my child in school?
  • Do other children value my child as a playmate?
  • Has anything upsetting happened lately in school, such as news of the death of another child’s parent?
  • Has my child been scolded by anyone in school?
  • Is my child being bullied?
  • Does my child perform up to grade level in class?
  • Does my child complain of headaches or stomachaches or cry at times?
  • Does my child ask to call home?
  • Does my child seem unhappy in school?

These are a lot of questions to remember, so write them down. Your goal is to rule out medical problems and then see if there are any school problems. 

If your child is like most children who are school phobic, nothing upsetting is going on at school and your son or daughter is physically healthy. So why is your child so terrified about going to school? Your child is terrified about leaving her parents. School-phobic children often are overly attached to their mother. They also have very little confidence that they can handle things without her.

School-phobic children also have another worry. Since they feel they need their mother so much, they worry she will die or get killed while they are in school. The school-phobic child reasons that if he is with his mom, he can be sure she is not going to disappear.

What to do

If your child has school avoidance:

  • Tell the principal, the teacher and the school nurse about what you experience in the morning so they will be ready to help you when you arrive with your child.
  • Tell your child that her doctor could find no problem and that she has to go to school. Remind your child that there is a law that children must be in school and you can’t break this law. Let your child know that to be sure she is not sick, you will take her temperature when she says she is not feeling well. Most likely your child will not have a temperature.
  • Get your child to school. A brother or sister or friend on the same school bus can help. Your goal is to be supportive but firm. If necessary, carry your child into the car. If she has refused to completely dress herself, then put her clothes in a bag. Let her know that she can dress in the car. Call the principal to let her know you are on your way. If you have a very resistant child who is too heavy to carry, ask your partner or a friend to drive with you to school. 

The goal of this approach is to get your child to school every day, even if he is spending the day in the nurse’s office, the library or the principal’s office. School phobia becomes worse when a child is allowed to miss school. If you are not a single parent, then make sure your spouse is there to help you in the morning. It is very difficult for a child to overwhelm both parents. 

Chances are you will begin to see progress by the second week. However, be prepared for Monday mornings. Mondays can be hard for a child with school phobia because the child has been home from school for a few days.

If things are not better after 2 weeks, then consult a professional. Your pediatrician can recommend a child psychologist who has experience with this problem. In extreme situations, a child may need medication for a while to quiet down the anxiety. These children often are born predisposed to easily experiencing intense anxiety, and the anxiety is too much for them to handle without some help.

School phobia can often be managed by parents. Once your child is attending school regularly, look for ways he can build his confidence and practice spending time away from home.

By Kenneth N. Condrell, PhD
© 2007 Achieve Solutions