School Avoidance

Lots of students don’t want to go to school. Some students, however, face a daily struggle to get into school or class.

School refusal, school phobia, truancy, chronic absenteeism, school avoidance. These are just a few of the terms you may have heard to describe the problem of poor attendance. Some families may identify more with some of these labels than others and for good reason. Children struggle with attendance for a variety of reasons. 

For students that struggle with attendance, school and everything that comes with it (homework, tests, quizzes, the cafeteria, other students, teachers, etc.) can trigger strong emotions like anxiety and depression. Parents may also struggle to send their child to school, as they worry about their child’s mental and physical health. Some parents struggle with how to break the cycle of school avoidance.

School avoidance can start for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons include:

  • Illness
  • Bullying at school
  • Problems at home (e.g. divorce, parental illness)
  • Transitions to a new school
  • Academic difficulty
  • Onset or worsening of psychiatric illness

These situations that can trigger school avoidance need attention. They suggest there are valid real world problems that need to be addressed so the student can begin the journey back to school.

The Center for School Engagement works with students, their families, and their home school district to understand the problems surrounding attendance issues. We seek to create collaborative relationships with families in order to learn more about each student and their particular struggles. Through collaborative relationships an ideal learning environment can be designed. 

What do these terms mean?

School refusal: This term is used in research and clinical settings to describe students that miss school due to an emotional reason (e.g. anxiety, depression). Parents/guardians are aware that the child is missing school. School refusal does not mean that the child does not want to go to school; it means that when it comes time to go to school and their emotions run strong, their tendency is to say “no.” Sometimes students identified with school refusal may develop other challenging behaviors such as poor sleep habits, excessive electronics use, and over-reliance on adults. Over-reliance on adults may mean spending lots of time with adults and/or relying on adults to manage emotional situations for them (parental accommodation). It is the job of the school, treatment providers, and families to help this child to learn how to manage emotions and to provide a healthy learning environment.

School phobia: This term is no longer in use, but was one of the first terms used to describe children that were afraid to go to school. It is no longer used as  trouble with attendance is more than just being afraid of school. It may relate to a variety of issues, as noted above. Children who experience difficulty attending school may be diagnosed with a variety of psychiatric diagnoses.  Some students may not have a diagnosis at all.

Truancy: Truancy has different definitions used by the state and in research/clinical settings. The Connecticut State Department of Education (2013) defines “a truant” as a student who “has four unexcused absences from school in any one month or ten unexcused absences from school in any school year.” 

In clinical and research settings, truancy has been used to refer to students that avoid school in order to pursue more enjoyable activities. These students are different from those identified with school refusal, as they are not avoiding school due to an emotional reason and they try to hide their absences from adults. 

Chronic absenteeism: This is a broad term used to describe excessive absences for any reason. Students missing more than 10% of school due to excused (e.g. illness) issues, unexcused issues, truancy, school refusal, etc. would all be defined as chronically absent. Given the impact that attendance has on learning, it is important for schools to identify chronically absent students, regardless of the reason. It is important that the schools help all students. 

School avoidance: We use the term school avoidance to describe the students that come to the Center for School Engagement. They may be missing school due to school refusal or for other important issues that need to be addressed including academic shortcomings, problems with the learning environment, family issues that may be impacting school attendance, etc. Some students may need help with credit recovery, psychiatric difficulties, or both. 

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