School Refusal

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Cindy Baleskie, MA, LCPC

Riley is a 15-year- old sophomore. She typically gets straight A’s, and her teachers praise her for being a model student. She plays on the varsity volleyball team and is involved with student government. During first semester, she missed two weeks of school due to an illness. Since returning to school, she frequently complains of headaches and stomachaches in the morning. She has stayed home from school at least once a week, and when she is at school, she often calls her parents from the nurse’s office, asking to go home. At home, she naps or binge- watches TV shows all day. She is failing three classes due to incomplete assignments. When her parents try to discuss her school work, she cries and becomes angry. Her parents are becoming increasingly concerned because she seems to have lost her enthusiasm and motivation for everything, including her friends.

Unfortunately, Riley’s story is one that many families can relate to. Parents frequently seek support from our therapists for school avoidant behaviors in their children. We tend to view school refusal as a symptom of emotional distress.

Common reasons students refuse to attend school include the following:

  1. Avoid feelings of anxiety, fear, or incompetence related to academic pressure
  2. Avoid social situations that cause anxiety, such as attending a new school or being bullied
  3. Gain benefits of staying home, such as special attention or the ability to play video games
  4. Lack of motivation and energy due to depression, anxiety, or substance abuse

Parents and teachers often notice the following symptoms:

  • -physical complaints, such as headache, stomachache, vomiting, and fatigue
  • -frequent requests to stay home from school, tardiness, or visits to the nurse’s office
  • -drop in grades due to incomplete work
  • -change in mood, such as increased irritability, sadness, tearfulness, or feelings of being overwhelmed or hopeless

What can parents do?

Get Support from the School: First, meet with the school counselor or social worker to create a

plan of action. School personnel will often collaborate with the teachers to create a modified schedule for missing assignments that is more manageable to the student. They will help identify a safe space for the student to go if they feel overwhelmed, such as meeting with the social worker to discuss the source of the stress, rather than avoiding the stress by going home. If there is a difficult social situation, the school will do their best to help the student become more comfortable or cope with a situation that cannot be changed.

Don’t Enable the Behavior: If your child is refusing to attend school, be honest with school personnel rather than saying that they are sick. This will only delay the consequences and decrease the school’s ability to support your child in an appropriate way. Eliminate the Rewards of Staying Home: This may mean taking away video games, WiFi, or TV. Do not allow your child to participate in recreational or social activities if they do not attend school.

Listen: Create a safe environment for your child to express their feelings. Avoid shaming your child or minimizing their challenges. Empathize with how difficult, scary, or frustrating situations like these can be. Collaborate with your child on finding solutions so they feel more empowered.

Provide Structure: Create healthy morning, afternoon, and evening routines that support time management, organization, and positive momentum.

Seek Help from a Professional: A therapist will help your child learn to communicate about their concerns more effectively, cope with difficult feelings in a healthy way, and build upon your child’s strengths. A therapist can also collaborate with school personnel to support their efforts in the classroom. An added benefit of working with a therapist is that they will provide support and encouragement to parents who can feel discouraged about their efforts to help their child.

For additional tips, check out these suggestions published by Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health.

If you would like to consult with one of our licensed therapists about your child’s behavior,

please call 630.718.0717 or visit our website at


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