The coming school year often brings excitement, anticipation and nervousness for children. As a child psychiatrist, I have witnessed firsthand the effect back-to-school anxiety can have on kids and their families, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic when we were all at home for varying amounts of time.
A 2023 study from Nemours Children’s Health found that 86 percent of school-age children reported worrying at least some of the time and that more than one in three children ages 9-13 worry at least once a week. The biggest worries that children had were about school (64 percent).
School avoidance, also known as school refusal, is characterized by a child’s reluctance or refusal to attend school. Parents and caregivers can develop effective strategies to address and alleviate the child’s anxiety by understanding the specific fears and concerns driving the student’s school avoidance.
While school avoidance can be seen at any point during the year, as we approach the first day of school and are thinking about how to best prepare our children for a successful school year, it is an opportune time to explore the causes behind school avoidance, its association with anxiety, and provide strategies to support children in overcoming these challenges.
—Differentiate Anxiety in Your Teens and Younger Children: Teenagers experiencing school avoidance often grapple with worries about their social standing, fear of embarrassment or feeling singled out by peers. Social situations involving larger groups or public areas within the school, such as navigating hallways or eating lunch in the cafeteria, can trigger significant anxiety for them.
On the other hand, younger children tend to worry more about being away from their parents or caregivers. Their concerns revolve around “what if” scenarios, such as something happening to their loved ones while they are at school, if someone will forget to pick them up or if someone won’t play with them on the playground. It is crucial for adults to identify and acknowledge these specific fears to provide targeted support and reassurance.
—Be Proactive: While intervention strategies are vital, prevention plays a significant role in managing school avoidance. If parents or caregivers are aware of a child’s previous struggles with anxiety and school avoidance, they can implement a preemptive exposure and anxiety reduction plan. This plan should be initiated two to four weeks before the start of the school year. Activities such as visiting the school, locating their locker, meeting their teacher, or having lunch in the cafeteria can help familiarize the child with the school environment and prepare them for that first day. By proactively addressing anxiety and establishing a reward system for attending and staying in school, parents and caregivers can create a positive association with the school experience.
—Talk About It: Be open and honest with your child about your own struggles with anxiety. Did you have a hard time going back to school as a kid? Did you have difficulty preparing yourself for the first day at a new job? Researchers found that 67 percent of kids will seek advice from their parents on school anxiety, so if parents can talk openly about their struggles with anxiety, past or present, it can help a child feel less alone and more open to expressing their concerns when they arise.
—Be Thoughtful About Re-entry: If a child or teenager remains out of school for an extended period, reintegration can become increasingly challenging. To address this issue head-on, proactive communication with the school is essential. I recommend initiating conversations with a principal, teacher or counselor to devise a personalized “re-entry plan.”
This involves exposing the student to school gradually, say coming to the school office or going in on a weekend or evening when fewer people are around. They can then work up to half days until, finally, the students feel they have mastered their fears and are more confident and competent to return full-time. This gradual exposure technique works, especially when coupled with support and rewards.
—Seek Professional Support: In some cases, the anxiety and school avoidance experienced by a child may require additional assistance. Parents and caregivers should consider involving a mental health professional who can provide specialized support and guidance. A professional can help identify and address the underlying causes of anxiety, develop tailored anxiety management techniques and collaborate with the school to create an individualized plan for the child’s success.
As the world navigates the continued challenges of a post-COVID era, it is essential to be attuned to the anxiety around returning to school, whether on the first day or mid-year. By understanding the distinct fears experienced by teenagers and younger children, parents and caregivers can implement targeted, thoughtful strategies to alleviate anxiety and encourage regular, uninterrupted school attendance.