“Why do I need to go back to school? I did better in remote learning anyway. Can I just stay home one more day? I promise I will go tomorrow. I really do not feel well, I cannot go to school today.”
When we return to full-time classroom learning in the new school year, these questions and statements are coming from students with school avoidance (also known as school refusal behavior). So how do we best prepare for and manage this issue?
What does school avoidance look like?
Children and adolescents who struggle with school avoidance are not one size fits all; they come in all shapes and sizes. School avoidance can appear on a spectrum from spending all day roaming the hallways or in the nurse’s office, to not being able to get out of the car in the school parking lot, to not getting out of bed all day, or never leaving the home at all.
Commonly, school avoidance is triggered by anxiety. The school avoidant student sees avoidance as the solution to anxiety. “If I can avoid the thing that is making me anxious then I will not be anxious anymore.”
This is why cellphones are anxiety’s best friend. “If I can just scroll through social media or spend time looking at TikTok videos then I will not have to deal with anything else for a few hours.”
However, by avoiding the thing that makes them anxious (which is school for students with school avoidance), the anxiety increases due to missed classes, incomplete assignments, social interactions, extracurricular commitments, and more. The compounded stress makes going into the school building an impossible feat.
School avoidance during remote instruction
Being school avoidant on remote instruction was seamless and easy. It was as simple as not turning on a computer and logging into class. During the past 15 months, students who never before showed signs of school avoidance have been demonstrating school avoidance tendencies because it was so easy to do so, with very little accountability.
This behavior can very easily translate into an in-person setting. Staying at home in sweats watching Netflix seems like a pretty good alternative to attending school without all the pressures to perform academically and the stress of trying to fit in with peers.
The signs of school avoidance may look different this year, so schools may not have people looking for the signs or processes in place to address the signs when they appear.
In preparation for returning to full-time, in-person learning, schools need to begin looking for signs that could indicate that a child might be school avoidant in the fall.
11 warning signs to look for
These are some signs that a student may present with school avoidance:
- Did not attend any portion of hybrid learning consistently
- Not on screen and not engaged in remote learning
- Not engaged in independent activities without a parent/guardian around
- Not socializing or wanting to see people
- Withdrawn from social activities and peer groups
- Shows excessive worry or fear about returning to full-time, in-person school
- Crying and/or tantrums when the topic of school is brought up
- Unspecified illnesses or sickness in the morning (“something is wrong with me”)
- Unsubstantiated issues with peers and family
- Irrational excuses from the student about why he/she/they cannot return to school
- Excessively angry, sad, or anxious about school or going into social situations
School staff can report on some of these signs that can help identify students who may be at risk. The next step is to reach out to parents who can report on other signs.
First steps to addressing school avoidance
If any of these signs have already been recognized during this past school year or at the end of this school year, the time to start intervening is in the summer months to begin preparing for the upcoming school year. The key is to address these concerns with a unified front: with school professionals and parents/guardians working together.
School staff should begin contacting parents/guardians to discuss a plan for the summer to begin integrating students back into social settings. Schools can also share the following advice for parents, and also connect the family with additional resources for support.
Advice for parents
Ask your child what you can do. Acknowledge that the transition will be difficult. Validate their feelings of concern and worry. Be the support system he/she/they need to get through it. By creating an open dialogue about the child’s feelings and anxieties about the return to the school building, you can learn the role you must play to help.
Come from a place of care rather than urgency of getting the student back into the building. You may be worried about their learning loss, unable to stay home due to work commitments, or simply need some time to yourself. However, you need to prioritize the need of the child first to understand how he/she/they is feeling and what you can do to help to make going into school seem more of a reality rather than a recurring nightmare.
Set small and manageable goals for the child. If they have been in their room this past year and only come out for meals, start there. Acknowledge when they do come out of their room and encourage them to spend a little more time out each day. Invite them to go shopping, run an errand, help with something outside, or visit a friend, for example. In preparation for the new school year, help your child to build up their social skills again as well as their stamina to interact with and feel comfortable around others.
Advice for schools
School avoidance is a complex issue, and it takes a team approach to successfully bring students back into the building.
To learn more about what your school can do to address school avoidance, listen to this podcast episode that details strategies for forming a team, and shares a multitude of proven ideas for programs that drive meaningful change.