The last 18 months of highly modified school days have provided welcome relief for students who present with School Refusing Behavior (SRB). However, school professionals know that this respite did not cure school refusal but just provided a way for it to lay dormant. Come the new school year, when schools will likely be entirely in-person, we can expect to see the resurgence of SRB in students who have displayed it in the past and newly emergent SRB in students not previously identified.
Parents and schools will need to be prepared to address SRB at levels that we have not experienced before. Here’s a primer to help you understand the basics of school refusal behavior.
What school refusal behavior looked like during the pandemic
Even during this modified school year, a significant number of students engaged in SRB by not logging on to remote classes, not putting on their camera, or not completing their work.
In some cases, this lack of participation is similar to a truancy type of behavior, which is more oppositional than anxiety-based. There were others for whom the absence of personal connection and structure of the typical school day led to depression and anxiety more typical of SRB. These more anxious and/or depressed students sometimes responded to attempts to get them re-engaged with extreme reactions that may have appeared oppositional.
Defining school refusal behavior
SRB can have many faces. Therefore, having a consistent description is essential. The Kearney (2008a) definition is the standard:
“School refusal behavior refers to child-motivated refusal to attend school or difficulties remaining in class the entire day. The term school refusal behavior refers to a collection of behaviors along a continuum ranging from the child who attends school but is under duress and pleads for non-attendance to a child who is completely absent from school for an extended period.”
SRB is generally driven by anxiety and depression and with the full knowledge of the parents or guardians in contrast to truancy, which largely lacks duress and parent knowledge.
When students do not return to school, it is essential to consider the severity level of the SRB and not jump to the conclusion that the behavior is just a “phase” that will pass. Looking at it as a phase ignores the potential problems that the behavior indicates.
“While school refusal is often minimized as ‘a phase,’ a stage of development, or a normal rite of passage, it would appear that in many situations school refusal is a predictor of more lasting issues which may persist into adulthood” (King, Ollendick, & Tonge, 1995).
“While school refusal may not be causative of adult problems, in many situations, school refusal, which is not addressed emphatically, is predictive of later problems. A review of the literature (Kearney, 2008b) indicated…a relationship between school refusal and academic underachievement, dropout rates, increased psychiatric care, and autonomy issues.”
The literature (Kearney and Silverman, 1996, Silverman and Kurtines 1996, and Kearney, 2001) identifies SRB as self-corrective when a student’s initial absenteeism remits spontaneously within two weeks. However, acute school refusal behavior (absenteeism lasting from 2 weeks to one calendar year) and chronic school refusal behavior (absenteeism lasting longer than one calendar year and overlapping two school years) require intensive and coordinated intervention.
Intervention for SRB starts with assessment
It is important to remember that successful intervention requires a clear understanding of the form and function of not going to school. The form of not going to school is the actual behavior. The function of school refusals is the purpose the behavior serves. Questions to evaluate form and function might include:
Is the student staying at home?
Are they in bed for some or most of the day?
Are they engaged in video games or other entertainment?
Are they caring for a family member?
Or are they leaving the home and, if leaving the home, what are they doing?
Are they meeting a girlfriend or boyfriend?
Are they engaging in illegal activity?
Are they going to work?
Not every student who stays home is doing so because they are depressed, anxious, or struggling with separation issues. And not every student who does not go to school is oppositional. One has to guard against having a mindset about “the typical school refusing student” because such a narrow perspective will likely result in ineffective intervention.
One way to clarify function is to use an assessment. The following links are for a student assessment, a parent assessment, and scoring guidelines:
Using these assessments lends diagnostic precision to our assessments, and this precision points to the best ways to intervene in a given situation.
Early intervention for SRB is essential
So as we brace for the fall, understanding the underlying causes and function of a student’s SRB will enable us to take appropriate action.
Although SRB doesn’t always indicate that more severe problems will develop, there is ample evidence in the literature that supports early intervention to prevent acute SRB from developing into chronic SRB. Chronic SRB causes significant disruption to the family and can severely hamper a student’s social, emotional, and academic progress.
In an upcoming blog, we will highlight some key considerations for intervention and reintegration plans.
Kearney, C.A. (2001). School refusal behavior in youth: A functional approach to assessment and treatment. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Kearney, C.A. (2008a). Helping school refusing children and their parents: A guide for school-based professionals. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Kearney, C.A. (2008b). School absenteeism and school refusal behavior: A review of contemporary literature. Clinical Psychology Review, 28(3), 451-471.
Kearney, C.A. & Silverman, W.K. (1996). The evolution and reconciliation of taxonomic strategies for school refusal behavior. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 3(4), 339-354.
King, N.J., Ollendick, T.H., & Tonge, B.J. (1995). School refusal: Assessment and treatment. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Silverman, W.K. & Kurtines, W.M. (1996). Anxiety and phobic disorders: A pragmatic approach. New York: Plenum Press.