School Duels: Parenting Specialist Dr. Carly Orenstein with Tips for Handling a Child Who Just Won’t Go

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According to parenting specialist Dr. Carly Orenstein, parents need to get to the root of the problem known as school refusal. But no need to panic, it’s not that unusual and may be easy to correct with the appropriate interventions early on.

Dr. Carly Orenstein

We call it school refusal if the child misses a week or more or shows significant distress or avoidance measures when it’s time to go.

Most kids want to skip school at one time or another—but what if a child refuses to go? Not once or twice, but consistently? Parents need to get to the root of the problem, which is known as school refusal, says Dr. Carly Orenstein, a clinical psychologist and parenting specialist with the Morris Psychological Group. “But don’t panic,” she says. “It’s not that unusual—and may be easy to correct with the appropriate interventions early on.”

School refusal can happen at any age, but it’s most common between the ages of 5 and 7 and, later, between 11 and 14, both times of transition (starting kindergarten or graduating from elementary to middle and high school). Although school refusers typically have average-or-above IQs, staying away from school (and its academic and social lessons) can create problems for even the brightest of kids.

“We call it school refusal if the child misses a week or more or shows significant distress or avoidance measures when it’s time to go: crying and protesting, ‘accidentally’ missing the bus, or developing a headache or stomachache that disappears if the child is allowed to stay home,” Dr. Orenstein says. This isn’t playing hooky: Skipping school on the sly is called truancy, but school refusal is when a child routinely refuses to attend or has problems staying in school (asking to be sent home or see the school nurse, for example).

According to some estimates, as many as 25 percent of kids show signs of school refusal at one time or another and the behavior becomes routine in about 2 percent. Although some children have clinical problems (like anxiety or depression) or undiagnosed learning disabilities or other disorders, the biggest reasons are fairly simple, says Dr. Orenstein. If something at school—gym class, tests or certain social interactions—makes him feel anxious, the child might be trying to avoid that bad feeling. Or maybe he’s looking for attention by acting clingy or throwing a tantrum. In other cases, he’s seeking a reward—getting to watch TV or hang out with Mom instead of going to school.

Dr. Orenstein offers these tips for dealing with school refusal:
Call the doctor. Make sure that your child’s behavior doesn’t have a physical cause, especially if she’s complaining of somatic symptoms. If your child has been showing signs of anxiety or depression for more than a few weeks, talk with a mental health practitioner.

Hold the line. When it comes to school refusal, many parents are too quick to cave, Dr. Orenstein says. But going to school should be the go-to plan—and that expectation goes for both parent and child. “If you acquiesce, it won't take long for a pattern to develop.”

Talk to the teacher. Make an appointment to speak with your child's teacher and other school staff. They may tell you about any goings-on at school (like bullying or a problem in a particular class or setting) that might be contributing to the problem. If your child has difficulty being dropped off in the morning, ask the teacher or another staffer to walk her from car to classroom. If she’s missed a significant amount of school, ask them to reduce (or even forgive) the makeup work she’ll have to do to catch up.

Stay calm and parent on. Try to stay relaxed—and rational, even if you child’s behavior is wreaking havoc on the rest of the family. Maintain your position that school is a required, non-negotiable activity.

Secure the home front. Consider what you can do at home to help get your child back on track. De-stress your mornings by streamlining your routine, re-think your priorities (is it really important that your child’s socks match?) and routinely talk to your child about school (and his feelings about it). “Quite often, just talking about things that make them feel anxious can help kids feel better,” Dr. Orenstein says.

Dr. Orenstein advises that if these tips don’t help, you should seek assistance from a mental health professional with expertise in the area of school refusal.

Carly Orenstein, PsyD., is a clinical psychologist with the Morris Psychological Group in Parsippany, NJ who practices cognitive-behavior therapy with children, adolescents and adults through individual, family and group therapy. http://www.morrispsych.com

Morris Psychological Group, P.A. offers a wide range of therapy and evaluation services to adults, children and adolescents. http://www.morrispsych.com

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Melissa Chefec
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