Overcoming School Phobia
By Leah Davies, M.Ed.
School phobia, school avoidance and school refusal
are terms that describe an anxiety disorder in children
who have an irrational, persistent fear of going to
school. Their behavior is different from children who
are truant and express no apprehension about missing
school. Children who have school avoidance want to
be in close contact with their parent or caregiver,
whereas truants do not. School phobic children are
often insecure, sensitive, and do not know how to cope
with their emotions. They appear anxious and may become
physically ill at the thought of attending school.
Normal separation anxiety typically occurs between
18 to 24 months. Children this age may cling, cry and/or
have temper tantrums when they are separated from their
parent. However, some older children continue to have
difficulty being away from home. The parents of these
children are often attentive and loving, but may be
overprotective. As a result some students lack self-confidence
and the ability to cope with school life. A child who
shows a higher risk for school phobia is one who has
no siblings, the youngest child or a chronically ill
Most children object to going to school at one time
or another. However, a school phobic child often misses
many days for vague reasons. Parents should be concerned
if their child appears irrationally anxious, depressed,
scared, and/or regularly says that he or she feels
too sick to attend class.
Symptoms of school phobia are:
- Frequent stomachaches and other physical
complaints such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, exhaustion,
headaches that cannot be attributed to a physical
- Clinginess, tantrums, and/or panic when required
to separate from a parent or caregiver.
- Fear of
the dark or being in a room alone.
- Trouble going
to sleep and/or having nightmares.
- Exaggerated fears
of animals, monsters, school, etc.
- Constant thoughts
concerning the safety of self or others.
Both home and school issues need to be considered
when searching for the reasons that contribute
to school avoidance.
Home Issues: A child may…
- Be experiencing a family change like
a move, illness, separation, divorce, death,
depression, or financial problems.
- Have been
absent from school due to a long illness.
a parent's undivided attention when not in school.
- Be allowed to watch television, play video
games or with toys rather than complete schoolwork.
- Have an overprotective parent who reinforces
the idea that being away from him or her could
- Be apprehensive of an impending tragedy
- Fear an adult at home might hurt a
family member while the child is at school.
afraid of neighborhood violence, storms, floods,
School Issues: A child
- Fear criticism, ridicule, confrontation or
punishment by a teacher or other school personnel.
- Have learning difficulties -- for example,
afraid to read aloud, take tests, receive poor
be called on to answer questions or perform
on a stage.
- Be afraid of not making perfect test scores.
- Be sensitive to a school activity such as singing
a certain song, playing a specific game, attending
a school assembly, eating in a lunchroom,
or changing clothes for physical education in front of peers.
- Exhibit poor
athletic ability, being chosen last for a team
or being ridiculed for not performing well.
teasing due to appearance, clothes, weight, height,
- Feel socially inadequate due to poor social
- Be a victim of peer bullying
during school, walking to or from school, or
on the school bus. (see Educator's Guide to Bullying).
- Receive threats of physical harm.
- Have difficulty
adjusting to a new school (see Helping Children
Cope with School Transitions).
- Have toileting
issues concerning the use of a school restroom.
- Be environmentally sensitive to new carpet,
fragrant cleaning supplies and/or poorly ventilated
Usually, school refusal lasts only
a short time, especially if a parent insists
on school attendance.
However, if the problem
school personnel will be necessary to form a unified home and
school approach. If
ignored, chronic school phobias can result in the deterioration
of academic performance,
peer relationships, work quality, and possibly lead to adult
anxiety, panic attacks, or psychiatric disorders. Therefore,
of a child with
must be addressed early so that his or her fears can be abated.
The essential steps are recognizing the problem, discovering
causes for the child's discomfort, and working with school professionals
the difficulty. Parents need to view themselves as part of a
team working together for the good of their child.
What can parents do?
1. Have a physician examine
the child to determine if he or she has a legitimate
2. Listen to the child talk about school to detect
any clues as to why he or she does not want to
3. Talk to the child's teacher, school psychologist, and/or school
counselor to share concerns.
4. Together determine a possible cause or causes for school avoidance.
5. Develop an appropriate plan of action to modify the school
and home environments to help the child adjust to school.
Ideas for School Modifications
- Have the teacher
or other school professional, such as the school
counselor, establish a caring relationship
with the child.
- Arrange for a school staff member
greet the parent and child at the door
and take the child to the class.
- Discuss the situation with
the school nurse who can attend to the child's
complaints and then return him or her to class.
- Help the child
build self-confidence by discovering his or her
strengths and by providing opportunities for
the child to excel.
- Identify particular activities
the child enjoys doing and those that produce
- Monitor bullying activities that may
be taking place.
- Include the student in a friendship
group facilitated by the school counselor.
work assignments to match the student's academic
- Have a child with poor academic skills
tested for special education services.
- Use a
behavior contract to be reinforced with a reward
such as a sticker (see Rewards in the Classroom).
Ideas Concerning Home Modifications
- Assist the
child in overcoming his or her fear by gradually
increasing exposure to it.
- Eliminate any "fun" activities
at home when school is in session.
- Have the parent
who is better at encouraging attendance take
the child to school.
- Use a car pool or include
a peer to accompany the child.
- Read books which
encourage the expression of feelings and teach
coping skills such as Kelly Bear Feelings. Role
and discuss various ways to relate to others.
- Provide play dates with classmates
to encourage friendships.
- Attend school related
- Reassure the child that the family
will be safe through hugs, kind words and positive
- Teach the child relaxation techniques
(see Helping Children Cope with Worries).
constructively with family concerns and parenting
issues, perhaps with the assistance of a mental
The goal is to have the child return to school
and attend class daily. In the best case
scenario, the student's confidence
of school will increase
when a plan is implemented and changes are made. However,
the school phobia
is extreme, a therapist or psychiatrist's assistance
may be necessary.