School Phobia

Maureen Hogan, Ph.D.

This article first appeared on the community interest page of the Nassau County Psychologist, published by the Nassau County Psychological Association.

When a child doesn't want to go to school, it is often assumed by school professionals the reason lies at home. Perhaps the child is afraid to leave home out of an unrealistic belief he or she must stay behind to mind the store, or to guard against some danger. The hypothesis is the child feels unbearably anxious unless he or she stays home, where the parents' well-being may be confirmed. The child's parents, on the other hand, may search for something in school that has intimidated their child. A school psychologist understands that school avoidance is probably the result of many factors, and the child may be reacting to both home and school stressors.

Current thinking about school phobia suggests there are some children who refuse to attend school because of separation anxiety. These are mostly younger children who are less accustomed to being away from home.

The majority of children who refuse school, however, are between eight and thirteen years old. Some are trying to avoid uncomfortable feelings associated with school. They tend to be sensitive, overactive boys and girls who don't know how to deal with their emotions. They may fear being criticized or evaluated. A few are truly frightened by a particular activity, such as riding the school bus or attending an assembly.

Many of these children do attend school but with great discomfort. They tend to be highly anxious and lack the skills needed to handle social interactions. Perhaps they have had negative experiences in the past and are afraid something else will happen.

Research indicates many children experience school events as stressful enough to produce such symptoms as withdrawal, aggression, moodiness or anxiety. Studies conducted at the National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment (reported in the Monitor, the newspaper of the American Psychological Association) indicates many of these events involve disciplinary methods which are punitive in nature and attack the child's self esteem. A child's behavior may even resemble symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. In this condition, memories of a traumatic event continue to interfere with daily functioning, long after the actual event took place.

While severe stress responses may be unusual, any child who does not want to go to school is experiencing stress, and an important part of solving the problem is for the adults involved to assess what may have gone wrong. When a child seeks to avoid school, the parents are advised to quickly request consultation with both the classroom teacher and the school psychologist.

If this is done, parents, teacher and psychologist may explore clues from both home and school to determine how the child's needs are not being met. While most children are adaptive and resourceful and able to adjust to a certain amount of challenge, there are limits to adaptation. Children whose skills are weak in areas needed for school success may encounter demands beyond their abilities. Sensitive children who are highly in tune with others may encounter an experience which overloads their finely-tuned empathies. Whatever the cause, the parents need to see themselves as part of a professional team working to solve the problem.

But first of all, parents must bring the child to school. They will probably be strongly ambivalent about subjecting the child to what seems like a piece of unbearable stress. However, by working with the school psychologist to find ways to modify school and home environments for the child's benefit, some of the discomfort will be resolved. Sometimes simple interventions, such as a planned focus on the child's positive behaviors, or special time with an important person in the child's life, may help the child comfortably resume going to school. At school, short-term counseling, opportunities to engage in favorite activities, or a chance to earn a privilege could be options. If necessary, the psychologist will also help find a therapist to work with both the child and the family.

The experience of joining with school personnel to successfully reintegrate a phobic child into the school will allow parents to learn what works and what doesn't for their boy or girl. They will have an ally in the school psychologist, who will act as a liaison among the various people involved. If the child has other difficulties beyond school refusal, they will be addressed. Intervention will give the child a chance to benefit from the educational environment and to master academic tasks in a supportive and encouraging setting where the child may thrive.

Reference: The Legend and Myth of School Phobia, School Psychology Quarterly, Spring 1995.

Dr. Hogan is Past-President of the School Psychology Division, New York State Psychological Association.
Reprinted with permission of the author.

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