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By Jay S. Cohen, M.Ed
Supervisor of Transitions/Balance Programs

Some students feign illness to skip going to school. Here, at First Children Service’s Transitions and Balance programs, it’s often anxiety about school that is making them really ill. There is an actual phobia of school, referred to as school phobia, school refusal or didaskaleinophobia. According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, it affects approximately five percent of school age students. Most often, it occurs during periods of transition such as the start of middle school or higher education. Kids who are afflicted with school anxiety usually exhibit average and above intelligence when their academic performance levels are evaluated through standardized testing.

The initial manifestations of school anxiety will probably be actual physical symptoms of the illness. The student will feel that they have no energy or feel listless. They might faint or complain about having a headache. They might state that they are feeling queasy. Often, these symptoms are quite authentic. In fact, they are probably similar to or equal to the exact symptoms of anxiety which are disseminated by adults.

A commonly known reason for school phobia is performance anxiety. Students who demand absolute perfection from their own academic performance will often suffer. Internally, this is much for young students to understand and deal with. Although adults confront daily pressure, kids do the same, but with greater intensity and impact on their individual mental well-being. They might be focused on success, which causes true concern about not succeeding, or even failing.

Other causes could include an unpleasant or traumatic event within the student’s daily life, such as a divorce. Should the cause be impacted by divorce, students might not want to go to school because they want to control what is going on at home, to protect their mothers, or to make their fathers stay. For these kids, journeying off to school means they will lose control.

Bullying is a common cause of school avoidance. Some students will refuse to go school because they are being picked on. Imagine how challenging it is for a child to find reason when their friends turn on them or they are being bullied to the point of disgrace and humiliation. In the minds of a child and teen, this may forecast the termination of their lives, and that can induce stress that physically manifests itself in school refusal.

School phobia in students might just be caused by the parents or caregivers. Fear and stress are learned behaviors, often absorbed by kids from the adult(s) with whom they reside. Students panic when their parents/caregivers panic. These students easily contract the emotions of their role models, especially their parents/caregivers. If parents/caregivers react to a situation with extreme panic, the students will probably react with intensity of their own. In instances such as these, remaining calm in front of your children will serve well to diminish their emotional pain.

The primary way to tell if your child suffers from school anxiety is to be cognizant about whether your child begs you to stay home from school. If you acquiesce and the child experiences an instant recovery, true school phobia might exist. If their anxiety is making them so upset that they are physically ill, there is real school fear, not to be taken lightly.

So, how do parents/caregivers put on their battle gear to confront actual school refusal in their child? The primary thing to do is to ascertain if this is a real illness and if concerning issues really do exist. Once the root of the problem is discovered, staying positive in discussions about school with your child might just help to bring relief to the situation. Always keep the communication lines open when discussing school attendance with your student. Let them know you are there for them. Contact the school and put in place a line of communication so that they can recognize the signs of what is going on with your children. Make them aware of your child’s school refusal. If these supports do not work, it’s time to have a discussion with your child’s school administration or child study team case manager about the possibility of your student attending a program such as Transitions or Balance. Please understand that our professionally trained staff of clinical social workers and educators is here to listen, help, and act quickly in time of need.

We are here for your child and you.