Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Oppositional Defiant Disorder and ADHD

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When Kids Won't Go To School

"How do I get my 10-year-old daughter to school? She seems to have stomach aches or headaches constantly, and misses several days of school each week. When we tell her she must go – she screams and cries and seems to be genuinely afraid of going to school. What can we do?"


You need to be firm with her. Don't count on the problem going away if you ignore it. She could end up not ever going back. However, don't be angry with her as her anxiety and distress are real.

You need to find out what is troubling her. It could be school phobia ( a fear of school), separation anxiety (fear of leaving you or the home) or agoraphobia (fear of crowds and public places). These are all very real disorders.

If someone is bullying, teasing, embarrassing, or abusing her, then it could be the first diagnosis. Talk to her teachers to find out what they know and to inform them of your experiences with your daughter.

Take her to the doctor for a complete physical examination. Tell the doctor the whole story and ask him to rule out any serious illnesses.

If he rules out an illness, then believe what he says. Don't have a lot of expensive tests. Assume that your youngster is physically well and needs to go to school. Keep assuring her firmly and confidently that she'll be fine (and so will you) once she arrives. If she still claims of physical ailments, you have two options;

First, get her to school unless you determine that she truly is sick. In that case she would be running a fever, or have nausea and/ or diarrhea, etc. If she just tells you she doesn't feel well, that isn't enough to let her stay home. Adults often go to work with uncomfortable symptoms.

The second option is to believe her. Since she says she is too unwell to go to school, then clearly she is too unwell to be up and about the house. If she is sick then she is sick, and so she goes to bed: lights off, curtains closed, no TV, no special snacks. Ignore her and go about your normal daily routine. Make sure that the option of staying home is boring. If she is not sleeping then, ideally she should be doing some school work. Certainly there should be no friends or visitors to entertain her.

You can also establish some rewards for going to school.

Be firm and remain calm. Let her know that you expect her to go to school, but don't argue with her if she resists. The goal is for her to want to go back to school. Once she goes and finds out that she's fine, her previous symptoms should disappear.

Kids with school refusal are scared to go to school. They may be so scared that they won't leave the house. School refusal is most common in 5- and 6-year-olds and in 10- and 11-year-olds, but it can start at any age.

The problem might start after a youngster has been home for awhile, such as after a holiday, summer vacation, or brief illness. It also might happen after a stressful event, such as moving to a new house or the death of a pet or relative.

Kids who won't go to school often say they feel sick. They might wake up and say they have a headache, stomachache, or sore throat. If they stay home from school, the “illness” might go away, but it comes back the next morning before school. Some kids may have crying spells or temper tantrums.

Kids with school refusal may worry about the safety of their moms and dads or themselves. They may not want to be in a room by themselves, and they may be scared of the dark. They also may have trouble falling asleep by themselves and might have nightmares.

Kids who are truant (or “playing hooky”) are not scared to go to school the way kids with school refusal are. The table below compares some of the characteristics of school refusal and truancy.

School refusal:
  • The youngster usually wants to stay home because he or she feels safe there.
  • The youngster might pretend to be sick or say he or she doesn't want to go to school.
  • The youngster is unreasonably scared of going to school.

  • The youngster chooses not to go to school.
  • The youngster may have antisocial behaviors such as delinquency, lying, and stealing.
  • The youngster skips school and doesn't tell his or her parent.

Take your youngster to the doctor. Anxiety or a physical illness might be causing the problem. You also should talk to your youngster's teacher or school counselor. Your youngster's doctor will be able to rule out any illness that may be causing the problem.

Unreasonable fears about leaving home can be treated. Moms and dads must keep trying to get their youngster to go back to school. Your youngster's doctor may want your youngster to talk to a psychologist, social worker, or youngster psychiatrist. The doctor also might prescribe medicine to help with your youngster's anxiety.

The longer your youngster stays out of school, the harder it will be to return. The goal of treatment is to help your youngster learn ways to reduce anxiety and return to school.

Kids who do not go to school for long periods may develop serious learning setbacks or social problems. Kids who do not get professional help might have emotional problems such as anxiety when they get older. Early treatment of this problem is important for your youngster's well-being.

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