The collective trauma of the pandemic on families — including deaths, job losses and a year or more away from classmates and familiar routines — has pushed rates of “school refusal” among K-12 students skyward, according to experts around the country.
School refusal takes place when children resist going to school or, while in school, refuse to engage in instruction or emotionally shut down. Education experts say they are seeing far more of it than in previous years since children returned to in-person school.
“We have students in the building, but education does not look the same,” says Halley Gruber, co-founder of Educational Access Group, a Colorado nonprofit that trains schools in methods to address trauma. “They are not able to participate in school due to a lot of these factors that the pandemic exacerbated. We are seeing it from rural to metropolitan, from young to old, from lower income to higher income.”
The rate of school refusal can be difficult to track. Studies conducted before the pandemic estimated the rate of school refusal at 1 to 5 percent of students, and a 2016 survey by the U.S. Department of Education found that 16 percent of K-12 students were chronically absent. In the post-pandemic return to school, many experts say that number has gotten even higher.
Katie Lohmiller, co-founder and director of programming and evaluation at Educational Access Group, estimates school refusal may impact 13–24% of students in the Colorado schools where the nonprofit operates. Catherine Eaton, clinical supervisor with Tri-County Youth Services Bureau, a nonprofit that contracts with school districts in Maryland to supervise counseling services, says it could be 30% or higher.
“There has been significant grief and loss with this pandemic, affecting every student in every grade,” Eaton says.
What is School Refusal?
Originally called “school phobia,” school refusal is often associated with transition or a stressful event, such as starting school or moving to a new home, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, known as the ADAA.
During remote learning, children became accustomed to different school habits, such as sleeping in, attending school for fewer hours each day, attending school fewer days a week and watching recorded classes. Now, Eaton says, children must return to their old routines, comply with new restrictions such as wearing masks, and deal with teachers and students in person.
As a result, some children have difficulty arriving at school on time and are exhibiting increased anxiety and behavioral disruption. Eaton says many now have a lower tolerance for frustration and struggle with learning.
School refusal is seen in both boys and girls. It is traditionally more common in children ages 5-6 and 10-11, according to the ADAA. However, experts say they now see it at all grade levels and that it affects children of different ages in different ways.
For example, Eaton says, children in kindergarten and first grade did not have an opportunity to socialize outside of family or “pods” during the shutdown, so there are reports of extreme behavioral difficulties in these grades. For students in high school, academic performance may have declined.
Intervention is Important
School refusal is not considered a disorder, but it may be a symptom of a larger problem, such as anxiety or depression. Experts say children may exhibit fearfulness, panic, crying episodes, or temper tantrums, or experience physical symptoms of anxiety, like headaches or stomach aches.
The longer a child is out of school, the harder it is to return, as the child falls behind academically and starts to feel socially disconnected from classmates and teachers, psychologist Julia Martin Burch wrote in a post for Harvard Health Publishing. Furthermore, the child doesn’t have the chance to learn that it’s possible to handle school-related anxiety and cope with the challenges that a regular school day can pose. This can keep the child in a vicious cycle of school avoidance.
But experts say school refusal can be addressed successfully when parents, educators and mental health professionals collaborate. For example, schools can create more structure and rhythm to calm down teachers and students and create a sense of safety, Gruber says. This can be as basic as consistently using the same rule for how children ask to go to the bathroom.
“Just be aware of emotional contagion and how very infectious our emotions are,” Gruber says. “A dysregulated adult is going to create dysregulated little humans.”
Suggestions for Parents
Experts say there are many things that parents can do to help their children adjust to regular school attendance. Burch offered several suggestions in her post:
— Act quickly. “Missed schoolwork and social experiences snowball, making school avoidance a problem that grows larger and more difficult to control as it rolls along,” Burch wrote. “Be on the lookout for any difficulties your child might have around attending school on time and staying for the full day. If the problem lasts more than a day or two, step in.”
— Find the cause. If your child is being bullied, falling behind academically, or having anxiety about classroom activities such as public speaking, that may be the reason they are avoiding school. Burch suggests a gentle conversation about what is making school feel difficult.
— Work with your school. Parents should speak with the school guidance counselor, psychologist or social worker to explain what you are seeing. Together, you can create a plan that addresses problems incrementally. “Let’s say fear about speaking in front of the class is a problem,” Burch wrote. “A child might be permitted to give speeches one-on-one to a teacher, then to his teacher and a few peers, and gradually work up to speaking in front of the class.”
— Be empathetic but firm. Explain to your child that you are confident they can face down fears and that any physical symptoms of anxiety often subside as the school days rolls along. “It’s important for anxious children and teens to learn that they can persevere,” Burch wrote.
— Eliminate temptation. Burch recommends making a day at home less appealing. For example, parents can collect screens and devices and have teachers send homework. As she wrote, “make staying home boring.”
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