If your child has repeatedly refused to go to school, please don’t wait to take proactive steps to address this behavior. School avoidance is when a child refuses to attend school or has difficulty remaining in school the entire day.

It can start by missing a day or two and slowly increase to the point where you see it’s becoming a serious problem.

You may have seen red flags like avoiding a certain class, having serious problems with completing homework, faking illness to miss a day of school, excessive tardy or class truancies.

School avoidant behaviors can look like any of the following:

  • Completely absent from school
  • Goes to school but leaves during the day or escapes to the nurse’s office
  • May go to school, but only after crying, hiding in their bedroom, having an outburst, or refusing to move.
  • Has unusual distress about going to school and begs you not to make them go back

There are four functions of school refusal behavior that cause a child to not want to go to school.

1. To avoid something that causes them stress or anxiety.

  • Being on the school bus
  • Walking in the hallways
  • Being on the playground
  • Being in the lunchroom
  • Sitting in the classroom
  • Feeling fearful of not keeping up
  • The distress of not being able to do school work because of a learning difference
  • People at school, teachers, principals, or school staff
  • Or specific people that the child may feel uncomfortable around
  • The other kids at school
  • A general feeling of discomfort from being surrounded by a lot of kids all day

2. To avoid social situations or school-related performance situations.

  • Tests
  • Reading out loud to the class
  • Speaking or presenting in front of others
  • Athletic performance in the gym
  • The playground
  • Or recreational school sports

3. To receive attention from a parent or significant other

  • Having a hard time separating from a parent, sibling, or caregiver
  • Or feeling needed by a parent

4. To obtain positive feelings and rewards that make staying home more enjoyable/comfortable than going to school

  • Wanting to stay home to play online gaming
  • Wanting to be online or watch movies
  • Wanting to spend time with parent or a friend that is not in school

What is School Refusal?

School refusal is a real symptom caused by an underlying disorder. The term school refusal is actually used to help diagnose certain neurological and psychiatric disorders. (Click the link to learn more about school refusal: https://www.emedicinehealth.com/school_refusal/article_em.htm)

“School refusal occurs when a student will not go to school or frequently experiences severe distress related to school attendance. Comprehensive treatment of school refusal, including psychiatric and medical evaluation when appropriate, is important since studies show that psychiatric disorders are the cause for a large percentage of students who fail to complete high school in the United States.

Parents can do several things to help their child who refuses to attend school, and medicinal treatment may be necessary. With treatment, the rate of remission is excellent. A majority of children with school refusal who were treated with cognitive therapy were attending school at a one-year follow-up. School refusal is considered more of a symptom than a disorder and can have various causes.”

– John Mersch, MD, FAAP

Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) for school Refusal

If your child is experiencing school refusal, don’t wait for the school to offer to conduct an FBA, most likely they won’t. As soon as you suspect your child is experiencing school refusal behaviors, request an FBA.

The FBA should be done with the School Refusal as the target behavior. It will be up to you as the parent, to advocate to have the FBA meet the behavioral needs of your child. The school district will try and skirt their mental health obligations and act as though it is your job to get your child to attend school. You have to be relentless if you think the FBA is not sufficient to address the needs of your child.

Make sure specific and measurable goals are written to target your child’s school attendance progress. Once a Positive Intervention Plan is established based upon the FBA antecedents, function of the behavior, and replacement behaviors, data should be collected daily to help guide the team with moving forward to systematically increase students time in the school setting.

For example: Increasing Length of the School Day or Increasing Time in the School Setting. If the student currently attends school until after lunch, then goes home, it is recommended that the team agree upon a criterion for increasing the student’s time in the school setting. For example, this may mean 80% on task for 4 out of 5 days for two consecutive weeks. Another example could be 0 rates of elopement or aggressive behavior for 4 out of 5 days for two consecutive weeks. The team should agree to a criterion, then use their daily data collection to evaluate progress and systematically increase the time (e.g., once criteria is met, a half hour is added to his school day).

Familiarize yourself with truancy laws.

The school may be fully aware your child will not attend school because you are dealing with school refusal behaviors, but they will still send you the truancy letters in the mail. That’s because you are still accountable under your states truancy laws and can still be prosecuted. This is why it is so important to develop a paper trail and that YOU initiate the request for an FBA and call an IEP meeting as soon as school avoidance becomes a problem for your child. You want to have data and documentation that you have been trying to solve your child’s school refusal problem and work with your local school district to meet your child’s school avoidance behaviors.

As soon as you see a pattern emerging, act quickly and ask for help. Be proactive, collaborative, and cooperative. Things can spiral out of control quickly. This is one issue that causes family/school relationships to deteriorate quickly. Don’t wait until you’re looking at truancy letters in the mail or failing grades. If your child has refused to go to school and you let them stay home even once, you’ve opened a door that is very hard to close, so do not wait.

Document everything. Why doesn’t your child want to go to school? What is their reason for refusing school? Document everything that you see and what is occurring and include your child’s teacher and IEP team. You need to get your paper trail and documentation going as soon as possible.

The school should not make you feel like a criminal because you are not able to get your child into the classroom. In fact, the school has obligations under IDEA when your child shows evidence of behaviors, disorders, or deficits that impede their ability to access the curriculum and make progress toward their goals.

Seek treatment outside of school. The IEP process is long and is often delayed past state timelines. From a letter requesting evaluations to having an FBA presented at an IEP meeting to having a Behavior Intervention Plan in place could easily take more than 100 days. While you are waiting, pursue your insurance plan coverage. Or if your state may offer Wraparound Behavioral Health options. These steps will also assist in strengthening your paper trail to protect you against truancy allegations.

When parents are informed and take the required steps to protect themselves from possible truancy allegations and with the right intervention from school staff and medical counseling, your child can make progress in getting back to attending school.

Cheering you on always!

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