Imagine this: Your child has been attending school without any problems when suddenly one day they come down with an unexpected ailment. The next thing you know, this scenario starts to play out more often, until you realize your child doesn’t want to go to school anymore. A struggle ensues each morning as you watch your child becoming anxious, withdrawn and depressed.
It can happen to any child and for many reasons – a bully, a difficult subject or even a strict teacher – so, what can parents do who are struggling to get an anxious, depressed or scared child back to class? Here are some tips to help your child feel better and start learning again.
It Starts with School Sickness Prevention
Your child needs to understand what to expect when they tell you they are not feeling well long before it happens. Here’s how to make sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to staying home from school due to sickness:
- Create a sick policy before school starts. Discuss the rules with your child before classes begin. They can include going to school when feeling under the weather unless your child is vomiting or has a fever. If you don’t see any symptoms, send them to school with instructions to see the school nurse if they feel worse, so the nurse can determine if they need to go home. Try not to show your child excessive concern, which will reinforce their behavior, especially if your physician has checked them and found nothing medically wrong.
- Don’t make it fun to stay home sick. Tell your child ahead of time that if they say they feel ill and want to stay home from school, you will need to take them to the doctor or keep them in bed all day without their favorite electronic entertainment. Avoid going overboard with the sympathy and concern, so they understand that staying home is not going to be any more fun than going to school.
- Maintain a learning environment. If your child is at home and doesn’t appear to be sick, allow them to study, read or sit upright at a desk.
- Ask for help. If you are a working parent, get some help from a non-working friend or relative, so you won’t miss too many days. Ask your doctor to recommend some resources where you can get some support. Talking to a counselor or attending one of those professional school refusal programs could help your child get back on track faster and more comfortably. Knowing they are not alone could make all the difference in the world for you and your child.
Is It Physical or Not?
The first thing to do if your child is refusing to go to school is to check for physical causes. If your child is complaining about any symptoms, take them to the doctor as soon as possible. Avoid assuming they are faking it, and try to find out what is wrong.
If your child regularly complains of illness, look for a pattern by finding out if they:
- Wake up feeling bad or the symptoms occur only after eating or other activities.
- Feel better when they are watching TV, playing video games or are busy with friends.
- Never feel sick on weekends or on vacations, but once school resumes, the illnesses also resume.
- Complain about school often or someone who is bothering them in class.
Take Time to Talk
Excessive days off from school can lead to missed tests and assignments, lowering grades and making your child’s anxiety even worse. Get the conversation started using these tips:
- Ask your child to explain what is bothering them. Tell them you can work together to get them back to school. Let them know you believe in them and are there to help them.
- Avoid the temptation to lecture. Avoid engaging in long arguments or power struggles, which will only make matters worse. Too much attention to the problem will only escalate and reinforce it.
- Validate your child’s feelings. Put yourself in your child’s shoes. At some point, most children want to avoid school, and there’s a good chance you’ve experienced this situation in your past, too. Comfort your child by letting them know you understand and you are there for them.
- Arrange a teacher conference. Meet with the teacher to find out what they’ve observed during the school day and to get insights into what your child is experiencing. This also lets the school administration know you are working to resolve the problem as fast as possible.
- Avoid pointing fingers. Never assume the school or teacher is at fault any more than the teacher should assume it is yours. Seek solutions based on the realities instead of wasting time and energy playing the blame game.
- Create a retreat at school. Children who are dealing with problems at school are emotional and often worry about feeling embarrassed in front of classmates. Ask the school to provide them with a safe place to go when they need to collect themselves, such as the school nurse, social worker or guidance counselor’s office, for example.
It is upsetting to watch your child struggle with school attendance, but if you stay calm and supportive, they can overcome any obstacles that block their path to learning and growing. Empower your child by showing them they possess the inner strength to help them deal with any situation they encounter in life.
Libby Hewitt is a school counselor who sees many anxious and depressed children. She posts her articles on many family websites to help parents and their kids live happier, healthier lives.