School Avoidance and School-Related Anxiety: What to Look For

The school year is in full swing and many students have settled into their classrooms and friendships. However, some parents are still noticing school-avoidant behavior and continue to wonder about the worries and fears that attending school might bring. Consider these questions when thinking about your student’s school avoidance: 

  1. Is there a pattern to missing or leaving school? 

Many students experience worries or fears on the first day of school, especially if they haven’t been to school in-person for a while. However, when school avoidance occurs several weeks or months into the school year, it often follows a specific pattern. Are you noticing increased anxiety or irritability on Sundays or sick days that mostly occur on Mondays? Many anxious students will notice that school gets easier as the week wears on, but the Sunday Scaries and Manic Monday feelings aren’t just for adults. Some students might also have a pattern of missing certain classes or times of day. Maybe Jo dislikes math and tries to leave class early on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Maybe Jamal is just trying to avoid his least favorite teacher (or a least favorite peer) by skipping out on afternoon specials. Noticing these patterns can help to identify the cause of the behavior. 

  1. What does the student say or do in order to avoid or leave school early? 

Worries, fears, and anxiety often cause physical symptoms (such as headaches, stomachaches, and other discomforts) that bring students to the nurse’s office. What’s worse, regular cold and allergy symptoms can make our bodies feel even less prepared to handle the worry we are feeling. Some students are very specific about their reason for avoiding school (“I didn’t study for my science test”) and some are much more vague (“I just don’t want to go”). Notice your students’ words and actions to better understand what might be contributing to the problem. 

  1. What happens after a student stays home or leaves school early? 

The consequences of a behavior can sometimes be accidentally increasing the behavior we’d really like to see less of. For example, many students enjoy staying home for a sick day or mental health day if it involves unlimited TV and video game time. Many of those same students would much prefer to be at school if they knew that staying home would mean resting and relaxing without their favorite toys and games. Make note of what happens when your student stays home or comes home early, and consider what might happen if this consequence were changed. 

  1. What close relationships does this student have at school?

Students returning to school are having a tougher time reconnecting with peers and teachers. Make note of your student’s friends and favorite staff members. If the list is sparse, consider how this student might connect with their school through sports, clubs, and social activities. If the list is long, ask about how these relationships might be leveraged to support regular attendance. A special lunch date with a teacher or extra time with friends can work wonders for a student’s willingness to make it through the school day. 

  1. How can adults best support this student? 

Consider how the student’s parent(s)/guardian(s), teachers/school staff, and community mental health providers might support this student’s social and emotional needs. Parents are experts in their own students, and teachers often have strategies that have worked for students in the past. A community mental health provider who is trained in working with anxious kids and teens can be helpful in understanding students’ emotions and behaviors, allowing the treatment team to determine what will be most helpful in ensuring the students’ success at school. 

© 2020 Erika J. Vivyan. All rights reserved.

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