From Cincinnati Children's Hospital
With summer ending and school underway, parents are transitioning from hearing their children moan about not being able to swim everyday, to hearing their child complain about homework, their new teachers or being in a different class than their friends. Many parents also begin to hear more complaints of tummy aches and headaches as a result of their child returning to school.
The psychological term for illnesses a child may develop when he or she is trying to avoid school is School Avoidance, or School Refusal. Symptoms may include nausea, fatigue, headaches and abdominal pain. According to Lori Crosby, Psy.D., Associate Professor, Pediatrics, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, in general, if children complain about stomachaches and other ailments and do not have symptoms of fever or a contagious illness, parents should feel comfortable sending them to school. "If the parent is unsure about whether to send a child to school, scheduling a visit with the child's pediatrician to rule out a ‘true' medical problem may be helpful. The parent may feel more confident sending the child to school with a clean bill of health" said Dr. Crosby.
Approximately 1-5 percent of children in the United States suffer from School Avoidance. An article in the American Family Physician states that School Avoidance/Refusal should be considered when a student will not go to school and experiences emotional distress of physical symptoms.
Dr. Crosby says there are several reasons why a child may begin to display characteristics of School Avoidance, among them are social problems such as being bullied or isolated; having problems with learning, taking tests, giving presentations; or the child being worried about family issues such as divorce, moves, deaths, parent's job changes/losses. Many young children experience School Avoidance when they learn that they will be spending a lot of time away from their families and their familiar settings.
Dr. Crosby suggests that while School Avoidance is not out of the ordinary, parents can seek professional treatment if they want to help their child overcome fears associated with attending school. "Brief counseling with a psychologist or mental health professional may be helpful. In addition, parents should talk with school personnel. Psychologists are very familiar with such issues and can be very helpful with implementing a plan for the child," she said.
Dr. Crosby says that children who have School Avoidance issues usually go back and forth between liking school and not liking it. "Often children with these histories wax and wane in that they have good phases and more avoidant phases," she said. "Children usually start the year off with a great outlook about attending school, and after a brief honeymoon of high hopes and good attendance that may last for a few days to a few months, they slide back into some School Avoidance behaviors," said Crosby.
Children may not outgrow their School Avoidance issues. However, Dr. Crosby says that there are some actions that parents can take to help solve the problem.
"The best approach is for parents to remain consistent with getting their child to school, setting limits, and establishing a regular routine," she said. "The routine should be very predictable and consistent in the morning. Children benefit from having everything ready and set out before they go to sleep which reduces the morning rush."
Dr. Crosby says that this helps to reduce anxiety. She adds that parents also need to be aware of their own anxiety related to sending their child to school because children pick up on subtle messages and may use them to their advantage.