Research suggests that at least 5-8% of school-age children experience school refusal (Kearney & Silverman, 1993; Sewell, 2008). Simply defined as a clear difficulty to remain in or attend school, school refusal can be very challenging for parents to deal with. Especially in small children, as school refusal is often comorbid with behaviors such as tantrums, verbal aggression, non-compliance, and even somatic complaints (stomach aches, headaches, fake colds, the gamut). Things can become even more complex in older children who are often nifty and completely capable of finding new and innovative ways to avoid going to school.
Moreover, school refusal can have a very negative impact on children and their families. School refusing children are at risk for diminished academic performance, increased stress, alienation from their peers, family conflict, and a decrease in supervision (Kearney & Albano, 2000). Luckily, there are strategies available for parents dealing with school refusal.
School refusal is thought to be maintained by two functions: positive and negative reinforcement. In positive reinforcement, a reward is given following the desired behavior. This increases the likelihood that the behavior will occur again. In negative reinforcement, a response or behavior is strengthened by stopping, removing, or avoiding a negative outcome. From these two functions, researchers have developed four profiles of school refusing children that can be used to figure out which direction to take to impede their behavior.
The first profile is the child who refuses school to avoid school-related situations. This profile is most congruent with a child who has fears and phobias.
Dealing with the behavior: Self-reinforcement and relaxation techniques. Deep breathing is a perfect strategy for dealing with fears in the school setting and self-reinforcement requires a child to provide themselves with a reward after completing a task they fear. These rewards can be in the form of a sticker, a favorite snack, or even a favorite toy during playtime.
In this profile, the child is most likely to stay home to escape aversive situations, such as presentations, exams, or reading out loud. This profile of school refusal is more difficult to detect, since oral presentations, tests, and reading aloud do not always follow a regular schedule.
Dealing with the behavior: Expose children to the situation they are trying to avoid while in the home. This will provide them with opportunities to be successful outside of school in preparation for school. Parental modeling of the behavior they find difficult can also be helpful.
The third profile represents the child who refuses school to get attention. This profile includes children with attachment issues, and by refusing school they are often allowed to remain with their attachment figure.
Dealing with the behavior: Establish routines and systematic rewards for good school behavior. Because tantrums and oppositional behavior are often associated with this profile, parents should learn to give their child structure, specific demands, and consistent rewards for their good behavior. Negative behavior should be followed with appropriate punishment.
Lastly, the fourth profile describes the child who receives tangible rewards by refusing school. These rewards will vary based on the individual, but often include access to television and video games, treats, etc.
Dealing with the behavior: Structure, problem solving and organization is the best strategy for children in this profile. Depending upon the age of the child, parents can collaboratively create a contract that includes rewards and punishments for how the child follows through with their school behavior.1