5 strategies to address student school refusal

When anxiety is causing a refusal to attend school, educators and support staff can take several actions to help, including teaching coping strategies and promoting social modeling.
By: | December 2, 2020
Getty Images, MoMoradGetty Images, MoMorad

When school buildings are open to students, there’s no guarantee that a child or young adult will willingly go, paticularly during COVID. A student with anxiety may refuse to come in despite his family wanting him to attend and his lack of engagement in remote learning.

If a student refuses to attend school because of anxiety, educators must take steps to help the student return to the classroom so he can learn. To start, find out the root of the student’s anxiety.

“You have to figure out what is triggering the irrational thought that is creating the anxiety,” says Jessica B. Petronis, a nationally certified school psychologist and licensed psychologist at South Middleton (Pa.) School District. “If you can’t get to that thought, you can’t intervene.”

Use these strategies from Petronis to address a student’s school refusal:

1. Investigate the reasoning. Verify where the student’s anxiety about returning to school stems from. The student could be concerned about contracting COVID-19 or she could be experiencing social anxiety after being away from her peers for most of the year. The response may differ slightly depending on the student’s source of anxiety.

2. Provide psychoeducation. If the student is afraid of being infected with the novel coronavirus at school, share facts to reduce his fears, Petronis said. For example, emphasize that the infection rates in schools are low overall. Also discuss ways to stay safe, such as using masks, social distancing, and not sharing materials. “Students need accurate information to make good, rational decisions,” says Petronis.

3. Break the cycle of avoidance. If avoiding school is the student’s coping mechanism and the student feels better with each day she avoids school, you must find ways to break the cycle of avoidance. Start by asking the student to engage in a videoconference with a counselor or teacher she trusts. The adult can share video of how the school looks now, with new desk arrangements, touchless water fountains, and signs on the walls, so the student knows what to expect. Have the student attend an in-person class via videoconference with the support of that counselor or teacher. Then have the student return in person to one class she enjoys. “Create a structured timeline with high expectations for that child to come back to class for a half day or full day,” Petronis says. “For many students with anxiety, after they get their toe in the water, it starts to go away a little bit. They see that reality is not as bad as they thought. It’s super important to get students to come in and experience that school is a safe place and experience the realization that maybe their thoughts and behaviors were irrational.”

4. Help the student cope appropriately. Let the student know he can take a break when he needs to when he comes back to school and set up a system for how he will indicate when he needs a break. The student may take a timer and take a short, timed walk to calm down. Also ensure the student’s teachers know signs that the student is becoming anxious and when to ask the student if he wants to take a break. For example, he may stop participating in class, put his head down on his desk, and breathe more heavily.

While students can’t share materials in school, advise the student to bring fidgets, such as a squeeze ball or Silly Putty, to use when he becomes anxious. Allow the student to keep the items in his desk.

5. Promote social modeling. If implementing a schoolwide social-emotional learning curricula to help all students return to learning after being away for months, recognize that the student with anxiety will benefit from lessons on problem-solving, coping and other skills. While this work will help the student with anxiety build a relationship with her teacher and feel more comfortable and see school as a safe place, it’ll also afford the student an opportunity to see her peers put the strategies into practice. “Social modeling is huge, so if the student sees other kids coping well, it does help lessen that anxiety,” Petronis says. “It helps the anxious student significantly.”

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.