Initially it may not seem worrisome to parents when a child doesn’t want to go to school as missing a single day doesn’t qualify as chronic absenteeism. We all have an occasional day when we’d rather just play hooky. But chronic absenteeism because of school refusal or school avoidance is more than a rare instance of not being in the mood for school. It’s a serious issue and a growing problem across the country, at all grade levels. What’s more, the chronic absenteeism that results from school refusal can have serious consequences, not only for learning and academic achievement but in a wide range of areas. Chronic school avoidance has been linked to poor outcomes later in life, from relationship and employment difficulties to poverty and diminished health. Some experts consider school refusal to be the next big crisis facing young people.
School refusal is just what it sounds like: students resist, avoid, and ultimately refuse to go to school. Some kids might be able to get to school but then find themselves unable to stay and need to go home. School refusal leads to chronic absenteeism, which is generally defined as missing at least 10% of the school year, roughly 18 days a year. And while school avoidance isn’t a new problem, like so many other challenges affecting kids, the problem was made worse by the pandemic.
Chronic Absenteeism and School Refusal
Precise numbers vary, but Attendance Works, an organization working to solve the school attendance crisis, estimates that before the Covid shutdowns, about 8 million students were chronically absent, and that the number has doubled since the start of the pandemic. In the 2021-22 academic year, 30% of students in California’s public schools were chronically absent, more than three times the state’s pre-pandemic level. In Michigan, chronic absenteeism shot up form 20 percent to 39 percent; in Virginia, the rate tripled from 10 percent to 30 percent; and in New York rates hit 40 percent. That number improved slightly in the most recent academic year, but not very much – last year, 36 percent of kids in the state habitually missed school.
Not all chronic absenteeism is caused by school avoidance or refusal. A report from 2016 issued by the Department of Education noted a variety of reasons kids miss school. “Many students experience tremendous adversity in their lives—including poverty, health challenges, community violence, and difficult family circumstances—that make it difficult for them to take advantage of the opportunity to learn at school.” And the pandemic only intensified some of the difficulties these young people face. Health issues, food insecurity and economic challenges have been exacerbated in many families over the last few years, adding to the instability that can make it hard for children to regularly attend school.
But in parallel with these larger barriers, there are a growing number of students who are otherwise able to go to school but are unwilling to do so.
What’s Behind School Refusal?
While missing school might once have been viewed as a behavioral problem, it’s more helpful—and more accurate—to recognize it as a mental health issue. Unsurprisingly, there’s not one, catchall reason that young people avoid school. Yet for many, the underlying issue is an anxiety disorder. Some of the most common are separation anxiety, social anxiety, panic disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder.
Separation Anxiety: Separation anxiety usually occurs in younger children who become fearful and anxious when they’re away from parents or other family members, which can lead them to resist going to school.
Social Anxiety: School is fundamentally social, and students may avoid school due to social anxiety, a form of anxiety that causes them to feel uncomfortable in social situations. Students with social anxiety often feel an intense fear of being judged or rejected by others. They may also feel extreme fear and discomfort when they’re the center of attention, making normal school experiences like reading aloud or speaking in class unbearable.
Panic Disorder: Young people who have panic disorder experience episodes of intense fear or distress, seemingly out of the blue. These panic attacks often include symptoms such as a racing heartbeat or shortness of breath and a fear that something terrible is about to happen.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Students with generalized anxiety disorder feel worried and fearful about a wide range of situations and experiences. Any event in the school day can be a trigger for excessive fear, worry and dread.
In addition to these and other anxiety disorders, depression can also lead young people to avoid school. The feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and despair that come with serious depression can impair concentration and make participation in normal activities feel impossible.
While many children and teens who refuse to go to school suffer from anxiety or depression, there are other reasons that young people may feel extreme distress at school. Kids who are being bullied may find going to school scary and upsetting. This is true whether the bullying takes place face to face or online because the latter exposes students to shame and humiliation among their peers. For young people who are being bullied, it’s not hard to see how avoiding school altogether can feel like a solution.
Learning challenges are another reason some young people all but give up on school. Students with learning differences or difficulties that haven’t been properly addressed may perceive school as one experience of failure after another. This can lead them to conclude that school simply isn’t for them.
What Can Parents Do?
As any parent who has dealt with serious school avoidance knows, children and teens can’t simply be “talked into” going to school. If school refusal is a symptom of an underlying issue, the first step to solving it and getting children back to the classroom is understanding what that underlying issue is. For parents, this may simply mean asking children why they don’t want to go to school. Depending on the child’s age, they may be more or less willing to open up about what’s going on.
With kids who are less inclined to share, Dr. Anne Marie Albano, an anxiety expert at Columbia University, advises parents to be patient and nonjudgmental. She suggests approaching youngsters at a moment when they’re quiet and relaxed: “Just sit down and say, ‘How have you been doing?’ You might get nothing the first several times you ask,” she notes. “Just say, okay, give them a pat on the knee and move on, but do it again at another time.”
Deciding what to do next depends on what the young person reveals. A child who’s being bullied requires a very different response from a child who’s dealing with an anxiety disorder, for whom support from a mental health professional may be needed.
Dr. Albano encourages parents of young children to watch for early signs of avoidance. Young children may not have the words to identify what’s going on, which is why help from a mental health professional can be essential Once interventions have begun and kids are actively addressing the issue, parents can be supportive coaches and cheerleaders, helping them stay on track.
How Mental Health Professionals Can Help
Partnering with a mental health professional, either in the community or through the student’s school, is often needed to help families conquer school avoidance. Youngsters who are depressed may need both medication and therapy. Children and teens with anxiety disorders can be helped with a variety of treatment modalities, including cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, and dialectical behavior therapy.
Experts say that for someone experiencing severe anxiety, avoidance makes perfect sense. It’s normal to want to steer clear of frightening situations. But in anxiety disorders, the fear and anxiety reactions are out of proportion to the trigger. What’s more, as a coping strategy, avoidance works too well. When kids avoid the situations that trigger anxiety, their anxiety abates, and they feel better. Avoidance then becomes self-reinforcing, and the problem only gets worse. Jonathan Dalton, a school refusal expert in Maryland, says the key is to treat the avoidance rather than the anxiety.
Dalton says education is an important component of successful intervention. Helping kids understand that their reactions are over-reactions, which he likens to a faulty alarm system, can help them slowly begin to override their anxious feelings. By treating the avoidance, the anxiety lessens on its own.
James Wallace, MD, a psychiatrist who works with anxious kids and teens, says that even the most anxious young person can be helped with the right interventions. And while early intervention is best, he says it’s never too late. He’s seen many teenagers overcome their avoidance and completely turn the situation around and succeed in school.
What Can Schools Do To Combat Chronic Absenteeism and School Refusal?
When it comes to solving school refusal, collaboration is vital. The most effective interventions involve a four-way partnership between parents, the school, mental health professionals, and the child or teen.
First and foremost, schools and educators must understand the many facets of school refusal and recognize it as a mental health issue rather than merely a behavioral problem. A recent article on school avoidance in USA TODAY reported that some families dealing with school refusal felt schools didn’t fully understand the issue. “Some educators don’t take school avoidance seriously, families told USA TODAY. Schools sometimes threaten students’ graduation or take students to family court.”
While many families feel the problem falls entirely on their shoulders, schools should be working partners with families, and that means understanding the complex issues affecting families and kids. Some districts are thinking up creative ways to tackle excessive rates of absenteeism and to help kids come back to school. In Michigan’s Kalamazoo Public Schools, where absenteeism remains high, district leaders held a “Knock and Talk” event in October, visiting the homes of students who’d already missed 10 or more schooldays this year. A district in Virginia, Alexandria City Public Schools, has developed an app to track absenteeism in grades 6-12. Knowing which students aren’t showing up can help schools work with parents to find effective solutions.
A Multi-Tiered Level of Supports (MTSS) is an essential framework to meet the needs of school-avoidant students, no matter the underlying issues. Effective School Solutions (ESS) works with districts to provide training for staff, education for families, and comprehensive therapeutic interventions that help families implement the best practices to help students feel better and get them back on track. For all families struggling with this challenging issue, things can get better.
1. What is the definition of chronic absenteeism?
While each school district is different, chronic absenteeism is typically defined as missing 10% or more of a yearly instructional period e.g. missing 18 or more days of school out of 180 days of instruction.
2. How prevalent is chronic absenteeism in the US?
More than a quarter of students missed at least 10% of the 2021-22 school year, making them chronically absent, according to the most recent data available.