School phobia, school avoidance and school refusal are terms that describe an anxiety disorder in children, who have an irrational, persistent fear of going to school. It’s likely to hit young children at some point, and is usually a nightmarish ordeal for parents. School avoidance manifests itself in approximately one to five per cent of school-age children, and the usual age between which this occurs is five to 11 years. Boys and girls are equally prone to school phobia.

Understanding it better

Between the ages of 18 and 24 months, children develop separation anxiety, which is typical of that age. Children may cling, cry and/or have temper tantrums, when they are separated from their parent. But if an older child is showing difficulty being away from home, then it could indicate school phobia. School-phobic children are often insecure, sensitive, and do not know how to cope with their emotions. They show excessive fear, anxiety, undue temper and depression when told to go to school. Refusal symptoms are usually absent on weekends and during long vacations.

What causes the phobia?

Some children adapt well to a new environment; others may not. The following family situations may either lead a child developing school phobia or worsen irrational fear in a child already prone to anxiety.

  • An illness; either the child herself or a family member might be suffering from it
  • A recent divorce/separation or a family bereavement
  • Any change disturbs a child and could manifest itself as a school fear. These include changing in caretakers (such as a new house help); grandparents moving into or out of the home
  • Arrival of a younger sibling causing attention to shift
  • Caregiver issues (mother may have just begun work/one of the parents may be depressed or stressed)

Certain school-related factors could also be the cause.

  • Fear of failure
  • Teasing by other children
  • Anxieties over having to use a public bathroom
  • A perception that the teacher or other school personnel are “mean”
  • Threats of physical harm (as from a school bully) or actual physical harm.
  • Existing learning difficulties or disabilities, which cause the child to feel “different”

How can you help?

Find the source:

Most school-avoiding children to not know why they are phobic and may have difficulty talking about the source of their anxiety. It will be left to parents to figure out where the problem is – whether at home or school (or even a combination of both). The following questions are good pointers to check for this:

  • Is there a bully the child is avoiding? (not just classmates but also teachers and school staff)
  • What are the recent changes in the child’s life?
  • Is the child lonely and without friends?
  • Is schoolwork too taxing?

Take action to reduce the fear:

If the doctor has cleared the child of medical complaints, try to send him/her to school as much as possible. The best way to deal with a phobia is to gently confront the situation. The parents will need to equip the child with coping skills to deal with the fear.

  • Make school sound like fun: Share your own positive memories of school days, and also how you dealt with your own fears/challenges in school. Prepare your child about what to expect. Create interest and curiosity for learning by reading stories, for example,
  • At school: Keep goodbyes brief. A school-fearing child usually feels secure carrying a little bit of home with them such as a family photo. Parents can put a small card with ‘have a good day’ in the tiffin box, or give a hand-drawn clock saying what time they will come to fetch the child. Such tiny but effective things make the child feel secure and reassured.
  • No Shirking: If the child has stayed home, restrict TV or play time. Instead, make the child do some school work. The idea is to create an attitude of discipline.
  • Teach the child a few life skills: assertiveness in dealing with bullies, scheduling and time management to deal with workload, social skills to deal with lack of friends. If you have your own grey areas about these issues, read up or surf the net for information.

Seek help outside

  • Sometimes the child may refuse to go to school because of a scholastic problem. Getting your child evaluated by a School Counsellor for learning disabilities is always a good idea.
  • Is there a genuine medical problem? Don’t be hasty in dismissing school refusal as “drama”. Get a doctor to check the child.
  • Seek professional help from a psychotherapist. This is especially important if you can identify that the school phobia has begun after divorce, death, relocation). Therapy will help equip you with a few coping skills. The Counsellor can also use behaviour modification techniques to help the phobic behaviour.

Don’t blame yourself

You are not alone if your child is afraid of going to school. So never blame yourself as a parent. Instead, look beyond the current fear to see how the child can be helped.

This article first appeared in the Mumbai Mirror on December, 10th 2019