More than one in four U.S. school-aged children refuse to go to school at some point during their education, according to the New York University Child Study Center. It’s equally common to both boys and girls and most prevalent from 10-13. Spikes in “school refusal behavior” are associated with transitions to new schools, and although it is “considerably more prevalent in some urban areas,” according to NYU, it cuts across socioeconomic classes.
The term “school refusal” is a new one to me. Truancy and absenteeism are far more familiar words. In a New York Times blog, pediatrician Perri Klass describes her introduction to the phenomenon, courtesy of an “anxious and somewhat quirky” first-grader who “seemed to be spending his whole first-grade year sick with one thing or another.”
“I didn’t grasp the extent of the situation until I got a call from the school nurse. If my patient missed another couple of days, she told me, he would be required by law to repeat first grade; the school year wouldn’t count. Would I please make sure I was giving him all those absence notes for a very good reason?”
Klass says experts now look at school refusal in terms of the child’s motivation.
“Children may avoid school because they are trying to avoid negative feelings, like anxiety and depression, or negative experiences, like exams or troubling social interactions. On the other hand, they may be pursuing some positive reward — a parent’s attention, the chance to play video games all day or, for older kids, more illicit pleasures. And there is overlap, the experts point out: a child who misses a great deal of school for reasons that look like truancy may become increasingly anxious — and embarrassed — about going back. In fact, missing school intensifies both the academic pressures and the social pressures that are waiting when a child returns, setting up a dangerous cycle in which the more you’re absent, the more you want to stay out.”
School refusal is “not a diagnosis,” points out Dr. Helen Egger, a child psychiatrist at Duke University Medical Center. “It’s not a disorder; it’s a symptom,” she tells the Times. “But it’s an important symptom, with consequences that can be harsh. It should send parents — and pediatricians, educators and psychologists — looking for ways to help,” Klass writes.