Back-to-School season is upon us – if you couldn’t tell by the uniforms and school supplies strewn all over every department store. And, as the yearly routine goes, there are a few tykes somewhere in the world begging their parents not to leave them at school.
There may be an actual reason behind your child’s unwillingness to go to school besides what some parents perceive as cute stubbornness. Ever heard of school refusal? According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, your child’s refusal to go to school or stay in school may be the first sign of a mental disorder.
This anxiety-based illness usually affects two to five percent of all school-age children. Experts say the refusal occurs during those transitional –sometimes-scary – school years, such as entering kindergarten, middle and high school.
The main symptom is complaining of physical illness shortly before it’s time to head to school:
Your child was feeling fine last night. But all of a sudden, around six a.m., as you all prepare for the school day, your little one is complaining of a headache or stomachache. Then, if you let your child stay home, the symptoms disappear without any treatment only to return the next morning.
Here are four ways to help your child:
1. Talk to your child about their feelings and fears.
Sometimes, especially at early ages, children may have developed a fear that something will happen to their parents while they are at school. It’s best to have an open discussion with your little one to find out what’s bothering them and how that may be triggering their fear of going to school.
It’s important to create an environment where your child feels comfortable expressing their concerns and worries. You can start by initiating open conversations about school, addressing their fears and acknowledging their feelings. Let them know that their emotions are valid and that you’re there to support them.
2. Help your child establish a support system.
It’s great if your child comes to you for advice on any and every topic. But some children may feel like they can’t have deep discussions with their parents. Help your child create a list of family members and teachers that can step in and give trustworthy advice when needed.
You can also reach out to friends from their previous school year or arrange playdates with classmates they’ll see again. Reconnecting with familiar faces can help ease the fear of the unknown.
3. Expose your child to school in small doses.
Dropping off your little one at kindergarten can be frightening if they haven’t had any exposure to school before. If your child didn’t attend preschool, find some extracurricular activities that could get your child acclimated to the social elements of a classroom setting.
It may also help to arrange a visit to the school before the academic year starts. Walking through the hallways, locating classrooms, and meeting teachers can help alleviate some of the unknowns and reduce anxiety associated with the new environment.
A consistent daily routine provides a sense of predictability that can ease anxiety, but remember to start small so you don’t overwhelm your child. For example, you can gradually adjust their sleep schedule and meal times to align with the school routine. Having a structured plan can help reduce uncertainty. If your child’s stress is particularly intense, consider creating a transition plan. Start with shorter visits to school, gradually increasing the duration until they feel more comfortable.
Involve your child in back-to-school preparations. Let them choose their school supplies, backpack, and even their first-day outfit. This sense of ownership and control can boost their confidence and excitement.
4. Speak with a therapist.
If your child’s school refusal continues for more than a couple of weeks, it may be best to speak with a therapist. There could be some other event that triggered your child’s anxiety about school that only a professional can detect and help treat.