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School Avoidance

By Stephen Brian Sulkes, MD, Professor of Pediatrics, Division of Neurodevelopmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, Golisano Children’s Hospital at Strong, University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry

  • Some psychologic and social factors may cause school avoidance.

  • Children may fake illnesses and make up excuses to avoid going to school.

  • To re-establish regular attendance at school, open communication among the child, parents, and school personnel is recommended.

  • Sometimes psychologic therapy may be needed.

School avoidance occurs in about 5% of all school-aged children and affects girls and boys equally. It usually occurs between age 5 and age 11.

The cause is often unclear, but psychologic factors (such as stress, anxiety, and depression) and social factors (such as having no friends, feeling rejected by peers, or being bullied) may contribute. Sensitive children may be overreacting with fear to a teacher’s strictness or rebukes. Younger children tend to fake illness or make other excuses to avoid school. Children may complain of a stomachache, nausea, or other symptoms that justify staying home. Some children directly refuse to go to school. Alternatively, children may go to school without difficulty but become anxious or develop various symptoms during the school day, often going regularly to the nurse’s office. This behavior is unlike that of adolescents, who may decide not to attend school (called truancy or "playing hooky”—see School Problems in Adolescents).

School avoidance tends to result from

  • Poor academic performance

  • Family difficulties

  • Difficulties with peers

Most children recover from school avoidance, but some develop it again after a real illness or a vacation.

Home tutoring usually is not a solution. Children with school avoidance should return to school immediately, so that they do not fall behind in their schoolwork. If school avoidance is so intense that it interferes with the child's activity and if the child does not respond to simple reassurance by parents or teachers, the child may need to be seen by a mental health practitioner.

Treatment should include communication between parents and school personnel, regular attendance at school, and sometimes therapy involving the family and child with a psychologist. Therapy includes treatment of underlying disorders as well as behavioral techniques to cope with the stresses at school.

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