It is fairly common for children to fear school. It’s also fairly common for parents to misunderstand the reasons why. Parents, generally speaking, are many years removed from the educational process and have moved on to worry about more pressing matters, like work and taxes and mortgages and relationships. For parents, it is easy to forget or even to romanticize the negative experiences they had in school. Time has a way of diluting and distorting memories. Adults also have fully developed cognitive abilities that are tempered by experience and wisdom. In short, adults have perspective. We are able to look back on childhood experiences through the lens of adulthood and see those experiences for what they actually are – moments in time that molded us into who we are today.
This is not the case with school aged children, who are actually experiencing this process in real time. While some kids absolutely love school, many succumb to its various stressors. After all, school is equivalent to a 40 hour work week, so it is not unlike their job. It’s also their primary source of social interaction. This is wonderful for children who are extroverted and outgoing, but not so much for kids who still struggle with boundaries issues, social nuances, sexuality and their own identity. If your child has a fear of school or even flat out refuses to go, it’s important that parents take the time to understand why their child feels the way they do. Here are 3 things to keep in mind:
1. School can be a miserable experience for many children.
Children are often anxious because they have very little control over their lives. In most cases, they have no say in which school they attend, which teachers they are assigned, when they get to eat or even when they get to use the bathroom. Imagine being in that situation. Many mental health issues stem from the feeling that we have no control in our lives. It may well be the dominant source of anxiety for us all. For children, they really do have no control and on some level they know this. High achieving students seem to accept this and even thrive in school settings, where structure and consistency and positive reinforcement in the form of grades and feedback from teachers provides motivation and security. But what if a child has a learning disability or an attention-deficit disorder? For them, the exact opposite becomes true.
As adults, we’ve all had jobs where we have become burnt out or frustrated with our bosses. While it is not an easy task, we do have the option to find employment elsewhere. Children, on the other hand, are stuck. They have no choice but to remain in school, regardless of how miserable the experience. If a child starts to struggle in school in the first grade, that struggle compounds with interest. They don’t have the option to reexamine their lives and make a career change. They are stuck in that situation for twelve years!
Because children lack adult coping skills, there is a correlation between poor academic performance and disciplinary problems. A child who struggles with reading gets frustrated with their Language Arts class so they act out, because misery is terrible, especially when you are a child and you have no say in your situation. There is a phenomenon in psychology known as “learned helplessness,” which is basically when a person stops trying because they are convinced there is no solution to the problem. While it may not actually be true to say that there is no solution, learned helplessness is about perception, and our perception is our reality. If your child has reached this point, is it really surprising that they would fear school or even refuse to go?
2. Perception is reality.
We all experience things differently. This is also true for trauma and explains why some soldiers come home from wars and resume normal lives while others suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and never recover. Trauma is not so much about an event but rather our perception of it.
Consider Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005. Social psychologists conducted research by interviewing local residents and what they discovered was remarkable. People who experience trauma (like, say, a hurricane or a school shooting) tend to fall into one of two categories. The first category is the Victim. People who are “victims” tend to see themselves as helpless victims of circumstance, unable to control the outcome of their lives. The second category is the Survivor. People who see themselves as “survivors” tend to draw strength from the experience. They recognize that a terrible event has befallen them, but they also know that they have control over what happens next. In short, victims perceive helplessness whereas survivors perceive strength.
Does your child see themselves as a victim or a survivor? Bad things happen to victims. Survivors persevere. While our attitude is not a singular factor, how we perceive ourselves is critical to self-esteem, and self-esteem can be an Achilles heel for a child.
Children can adopt the “victim mentality” as well, sometimes for very real reasons. Bullying is probably the best example of this. Bullies come in many forms. When we think of bullies we tend to think of kids bullying other kids, which is true, but some teachers, coaches and administrators are perfectly capable of adopting these roles as well. Educators are human beings and are thus subject to the same failings as the rest of us. They can play favorites, hold grudges and even flat out dislike certain children. This again goes back to the power of perception. If a child perceives that a teacher “is out to get them,” it might as well be true. And of course there is also the reality of “same age” bullies who may often threaten actual physical harm. These days, social media sites like Facebook and SnapChat have made it all too easy for bullies to terrorize and humiliate their peers. “Cyberbullying,” as it is called, is a phenomenon most parents never encountered, as it is a fairly new tactic for bullies. Parents who are not aware of their children’s interactions with and on social media sites will find themselves at a distinct disadvantage.
Children are dealing with threats their parents never encountered (i.e., Cyberbullying) and doing so with limited cognitive and emotional resources. Adults can reflect upon childhood events through eyes tempered with wisdom and the passage of time, but children are dealing with these issues for the first time, with little insight and no perspective. For a child, a slight by a friend or a mean word from a teacher is nothing short of a calamity.
3. Social Anxiety and Phobias are real, too.
In the clinical world, one of the ways in which a trait becomes a disorder is by its “clinically significant” behaviors. We all experience anxiety from time to time, but anxiety that impairs your ability to function is clinically significant. Anxiety and Panic Disorders have different classifications and diagnostic criteria; social anxiety and phobias can fall under these two categories, depending on severity and other key factors. The more common disorder, social anxiety, presents as marked fear or anxiety in social functions (e.g., school). One nervous instance does not a diagnosis make, so it is best to leave actual diagnosis to a trained professional. This goes for phobias as well, which are irrational fears that cause significant distress. The keyword there is “irrational.” If a child gets bullied every day at school, that is not a phobia. That’s a normal response. However, if a child has an irrational fear of anything, this is cause for concern. Phobias tend to have roots in actual trauma. In other words, phobias don’t just show up for no reason. People who suffer from phobias have usually either experienced or witnessed something traumatic, even if seems like is has little to do with the phobia itself.
For parents, the key thing to understand here is that social anxiety disorder and panic disorder and phobic disorders are mental and/or medical health issues that do not respond to traditional parenting techniques or behavioral consequences. For some children, social anxiety is maddening and overpowering, and professional intervention is usually a must.
Statistically, these types of disorders are not the likely culprit, but parents should be aware that in some cases children are legitimately terrified of school, and forcing them to go without offering them help is at best counterproductive.
Recommendations for Parents
So what should a parent do if their child refuses to go to school? Here are some general suggestions to help you, the parent, make the decision that is best for your child.
1. Therapists are taught to believe everything that their client tells them and nothing that their client tells them. This is a good suggestion for parents as well. Listen to your children. Kids are often paranoid and prone to exaggeration, but listen to what they have to say. Ask questions. Use reflective listening skills. If your child says “I hate school!” say something like “So, I hear you saying that school is difficult and upsetting for you.” This may sound trite, but people love to be understood, and reflective listening lets them know that you both listen and understand. Often, kids just need to be heard.
2. Remember that adults and children think differently. Under the age of 12 or so, children have difficulty understanding abstract concepts like responsibility, ethics, or justice. Telling a 7 year old that they are screwing up their future is a waste of time. Instead, focus on solutions. If a child is nervous about social interactions at school, have them practice with you. Remember, your child is experiencing these issues for the first time and lacks your experience and perspective.
3. If your child tells you that a school official has physically touched them or made sexual advances, make a report to Child Protective Services. They can be reached through the local sheriff’s office. You can make a report to the school as well, but CPS is obligated by law to investigate. A school official might dismiss the accusation, whereas CPS will not.
4. If your child is truly struggling, consider finding a qualified play therapist in your area. Play therapy has an innocuous sounding name, but it is quite effective with children. The idea behind it is that children communicate through play, and therapists can use play as a therapeutic intervention to build self-esteem and self-confidence and get to the root of what is truly going on. In many cases, children are not actually aware as to the source of their anxiety. Play therapy can help bring these issues to light, and equip both parents and children with tools to use for emotional self-regulation.
5. In some cases, there is a medical component to maladaptive behaviors in children. Hyperthyroidism, for example, looks a lot like depression. Hyperactive children often really do have an actual issue with their brain chemistry. Often, it is beyond their control. A medical professional can determine this one way or the other. At the very least, it is wise to rule out any underlying medical causes for behaviors.
Whatever the reason that your child won’t go to school, it’s very serious. Truancy charges are possible and obviously missing school will set your child back. Your child should be evaluated by a profession to determine what's actually going on. You have a legal right to request that your school district complete an evaluation or, in certain situations, allow you the opportunity to obtain an independent educational evaluation that the district funds.
To learn more about your legal rights when it comes to requesting an independent evaluation, give us a call at 215-650-7563.
Note, nothing in this article or on this website is to be considered medical or legal advice.