Although most children like going to school, it is a real fear for other kids. A fear of schools can escalate to avoidance or refusal, resulting in physical symptoms and missed opportunities for learning. Parents and educators may experience immense stress trying to fill the gaps.
This post will explore the five most common causes of school phobias. Most importantly, it will outline essential steps to help your child overcome school refusal and thrive academically, socially, and emotionally.
A fear of schools, known as didaskaleinophobia, is intense and persistent fear, worry, or distress over going to school. School phobia occurs most often in childhood. Didaskaleinophobia may develop in response to a traumatic event (e.g., bullying) or the anticipation of the event (e.g., returning to school after summer vacation).
Roughly 5% of kids say they feel afraid to attend school at some point in their academic journey.
School phobia may escalate to school refusal (commonly called school avoidance). Children may have difficulty completing a full day of school or even entering the building. In these instances, parents and educators should work in collaboration to:
Identify the source of fear.
Implement interventions and supports to help the child overcome their fear and access their education.
School phobia can have a widespread impact on the lives of children and their families. Signs and symptoms in children may include:
Constant thoughts and worry over going to school
Difficulty separating from their parent (more common in younger children)
Physical symptoms, particularly in the morning (e.g., a child may feel nauseous or sick, complain of headaches, or experience an upset stomach)
Stress over getting on the school bus
A decline in school attendance or becoming identified as truant
Efforts to skip school or specific classes (more common among middle school and high school students)
Difficulty completing schoolwork or showing a decline in grades
Begging to stay home without a specific reason
Anger or mood swings
Tantrums over not wanting to go to school
Depressive symptoms, including physical harm to self or suicidal ideation in severe cases
Related post: How to Handle After-School Meltdowns
Children may struggle to identify or articulate why they are afraid to go to school. However, families and schools should work to pinpoint the underlying reason to help kids overcome school avoidance.
There are five primary causes:
In many instances, feeling afraid of school can be a normal, healthy part of development. We can expect many children to feel nervous for a short period when:
Starting school for the first time (e.g., preschool, Kindergarten)
Starting a new school year
Moving and transferring to a new school building
After an extended break (e.g., vacation, long-term illness, distance learning, etc.)
Note: Young children who are already acquainted with their school setting can experience a brief period of separation anxiety seemingly out of the blue. Often, this is normal as kids become more aware of their environment and emotions as they grow and develop.
A change in a child's behavior always warrants a conversation about his or her fears and an effort to rule out other causes.
Also, note that Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD) can emerge as early as third or fourth grade.
Victims of bullying often face school phobia and may avoid seeing their perpetrator(s).
Bullying can be physical, verbal, or emotional and can happen in person or online. If someone bullied your child, they may fear retaliation and might not want to report the problem to teachers or parents.
Another cause of school phobia is social problems. Kids might feel like they do not fit in with their classmates. They may also face significant worry about peers making fun of them (even if it has not necessarily happened).
Neurodivergent and LGBTQIA+ children and adolescents are at an increased risk for bullying and social challenges at school.
Related post: How to Raise Kids who Thrive
Children may shut down in response to academic pressure placed on them by others or themselves. Avoiding school becomes a way to cope.
For example, kids may become overly worried about school work and grades, experience severe test anxiety, or worry about being seen as unintelligent by peers or teachers.
School avoidance can occur among low and high-achieving students. Children with perfectionist tendencies may fall into all or nothing thinking and avoid school when stress levels get too high.
Fear of school violence is a widespread concern, particularly among older children. This fear may spike after a personal trauma or national tragedy. A survey provided to teenagers shortly after the 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Florida revealed:
57% of teenagers worried about a shooting happening at their school
24% of teenagers were "very worried" about the possibility of a school shooting in their building
Kids with mental health conditions are more likely to fear school. An anxious child may even experience a panic attack over the thought of attending school. Underlying causes for school avoidance can include:
Low self-esteem or self-confidence
Social and test anxieties
Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD)
Other anxiety disorders
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 9% of children have received an anxiety diagnosis and 4% a depression diagnosis.
Unfortunately, mental health conditions are often further compounded by other school avoidance factors such as social and academic stressors.
Related: Watch interviews here with some of the world's leading experts on education and child development.
If your family struggles with school avoidance, you are not alone. Also, know that you are likely a phenomenal parent (after all, you're researching how to best support your child)!
Take a moment to breathe. Remind yourself you are doing your very best to work through a highly complex and challenging life problem.
Even if you don't know the cause of your child's school refusal, there are simple, actionable steps you can take to help them through their fears.
Research shows that minimizing feelings or reassuring your child that things will be okay can worsen fears. Trying to convince your child to love school typically falls flat.
Instead, your child will be more likely to open up and try out solutions after they feel heard. Let your child talk more than you. Then, listen and answer questions.
Parent Response Examples:
“You have a huge test coming up this week in math class. It makes sense to feel afraid.”
“I understand you feel sick and want to stay home today. It’s uncomfortable going places when you don’t feel your best.”
“Your classmates were unkind to you last week and you feel scared to see them today. You have a right to feel safe in your classroom.”
Note: Validating does not necessarily mean giving in to school refusal. Trust your child and your intuition about how best to support them.
Talking through each part of the school day with your child can help:
Increase your child's confidence by knowing what to expect in a new school environment.
Identify potential triggers of fear within your child's existing school day.
Ask open-ended questions and take ample time to listen. Avoid why questions, which can put kids on the defense. Note any changes in your child’s speech or body language as they talk about their life at school.
Parent Response Examples:
"Who is the first person you usually see when you enter your classroom?"
"Tell me about what subject/class is easiest for you. Which one is most challenging?"
"When does your stomach hurt the most during the day? When do you feel your best?"
"Where were you yesterday when you realized you wanted to come home?"
Rather than telling your child exactly what they need to do to combat their school phobia, brainstorm, teach and practice coping strategies* together.
*Research shows children who report using coping skills such as "controlling negative thoughts" and "remaining calm when angry" are more resilient during the early stages of school refusal.
Rather than giving quick advice, get curious about what’s on your child’s mind and explore potential solutions together. Offer choices that encourage your child to gain control over their school day.
Parent Response Examples:
“You feel stressed about preparing for your group presentation. What is one small step you can take today to feel proud of?”
“I understand you're feeling nervous and don’t want to go to science class today. Which calming strategy would you like to try first: deep breathing or coloring?
“I understand you keep thinking about the unkind names your classmate called you. What adults in the building will you talk to if you need help?”
Always be upfront and honest with your child's teacher and school stakeholders. Unless you're making the formal switch to home education, avoid strictly isolating your child from school.
Repeatedly calling your child out sick or staying home without seeking proper mental health treatment does not address the root of the problem. The more separated a child becomes from school, the more avoidant they may become.
Furthermore, if a student is flagged for truancy per compulsory school attendance laws, the stress on a family can grow.
Your child’s school would likely rather have you call and say, “I don't know what to do! My child is hysterical and refuses to get in the car,” than to be left in the dark. His or her teacher and school staff are there to help your child and family.
You can learn more about how to advocate for your child and maintain a peaceful parent and teacher partnership here.
If your child’s school phobia interferes with their ability to attend school on time each day or engage in learning, it’s time to partner with school staff.
Teams should include an adult family member/parent/guardian and all relevant school stakeholders, including:
Your child's teacher
School psychologist and/or school social worker (if available)
Always request the presence of a school mental health professional. As a parent, you may need help advocating against punitive disciplinary measures for mental health concerns, which can cause further emotional turmoil.
Teams should convene to discuss potential interventions to help your child through their fears and encourage regular school attendance. If age appropriate, your child may also benefit from attending the meeting (depending on the concerns).
School refusal can have serious consequences. It is essential to seek professional help if you suspect your child may have an underlying mental health condition.
If your child expresses suicidal ideation or threatens self-harm over going to school, maintain close supervision and seek professional help immediately by calling 911 or visiting your local emergency room, or contacting the appropriate emergency resources in your area.
If your child works with a professional outside of school, such as a child psychologist, licensed clinical social worker, or board-certified behavior analyst, they should collaborate with the school staff to develop a school refusal treatment plan.
Parents must sign a release of information form to allow outside professionals to communicate directly with the school.
Supporting your child through the stress of not wanting to go to school can evoke intense feelings for parents. Frustration, heartbreak, and fears are common at any age.
Children quickly pick up and respond negatively to our stress levels as parents. Self-awareness of emotions, coupled with self-care, is critical.
I invite you to learn key ways to become a safe, calm space for your child through times of family stress here.
While processing your own emotions, strive to keep an open mind. Avoid comparing your child to other children. While their school phobia might seem irrational, empathize without judgment.
Remember, the most powerful parenting tool at your disposal is always unconditional love.
Guest Writer: Tana Amodeo
Tana Amodeo is a mother of two, former professional school counselor, Certified Positive Discipline Parent Educator, and founder of suchalittlewhile.com. She has partnered with thousands of parents internationally to foster healthy social/emotional child development through foundational positive parenting tools.
The American Academy of Pediatrics. (2017, September 5). School avoidance: Tips for concerned parents. HealthyChildren.org. Retrieved May 1, 2022, from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/emotional-problems/Pages/School-Avoidance.aspx
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Separation Anxiety Disorder in Children. Cedars Sinai. (n.d.). Retrieved April 30, 2022, from https://www.cedars-sinai.org/health-library/diseases-and-conditions---pediatrics/s/separation-anxiety-disorder-in-children.html
Separation Anxiety Disorder in Children. Stanford Children's Health - Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford. (n.d.). Retrieved April 26, 2022, from https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=separation-anxiety-disorder-90-P02582
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