Lately, I've been hearing more talk of kids refusing to go to school. With "school anxiety" seemingly becoming a hot topic, I decided to spend some time in this area to try and figure out why kids are actively avoiding school.
I started with the stats. According to Statistics Canada, the proportion of high school students who did not return to school has actually dropped over the last 10 years1, which raises the question of whether the recent increased awareness around mental health has also made us more aware of those struggling to go to school. I was, however, unable to find anything on Statistics Canada on school refusal in elementary school so I consulted an expert: a local elementary school teacher who has been teaching for over 25 years. She noted that, from her experience, school anxiety has been becoming more of a problem. She has observed an increasing number of children refusing to go to school and the ones
who are going, tend to be more stressed overall.
Although I wasn't able to find very much research on the current prevalence of school refusal in children, it seems it has been around for a while2. The Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM V) classifies persistent school refusal or frequent truancy as a symptom or sign of other mental health disorders3, which makes it all the more important to pay attention to. After spending some more time perusing through the research available, I realized I wanted to know more.
As someone who liked school enough to do an extra eight years of it, I wanted to gain some perspective on why a child would all together stop going to school, so I consulted another expert. This time, I spoke with a 16-year-old, grade 10 student who has been struggling with going to school since grade 7. We'll call this expert Bob.
Bob and I sat down together to try and come up with some reasons of why a 12-year-old might decide to stop going to school. Here's what we came up with.
School is irrelevant
I found Bob's choice of words here rather interesting. I think he was referring to the value of the information he was being taught in school and how it wouldn't really be useful for him in the real world. His attitude toward the "relevance of school" fell in line with a recent viral video about the school system not pertaining to the needs of each individual student. He even clarified his position with saying "It's relevant for some people, just not for me."
Why I found his word choice interesting was that Bob was also dealing with his parent's separation in grade 7. The school curriculum doesn't currently offer much in terms of coping with life stress or guiding a child through their parent's divorce4, especially if teachers aren't aware of their students' home life. I could see how Bob may have started to see math problems as irrelevant, or how it may have started to feel like his teachers didn't care about his well-being when he was trying to get a handle on very real stress at home. I think all of this only highlights the need for more individualization in our education system.
Feeling connected to the school community has not only shown to be important for doing well in school but it also happens to be a strong protective factor against mental illness5. When I asked Bob if he felt any sense of community or connection to his school, his answer was not surprising, "No. Never." He had friends to hang out with and preferred to hang out with them outside of school. School was a place Bob really did not want to be.
Feeling left behind
Bob had a difficult time remembering when and why he exactly decided to stop going to school. He just remembered getting into fights a lot in grade 7 and then eventually deciding one morning not to go. Now, he says he regrets that choice but doesn't really know where to go from here. He says the embarrassment of being a year behind his friends is holding him back and the work he has to do to catch up is all the more challenging because he has no interest in it and gets bored with it quickly. All the while, Bob keeps getting further and further behind and in talking to him, I could really sense how demotivating all this was for him.
Lack of routine
As I talked more with Bob, it became clear to me that he was missing a regular routine. He talked about sleeping at different places every night, whether that was mom's house, grandma's house, or a friend's house. He, understandably, found it especially difficult to get himself to school on mornings where he had spent the night at a friend's house. With family routines and rituals being such an integral part of child development6, it comes as no surprise that Bob's lack of routine was affecting his daily function.
With such an erratic schedule, Bob was finding his eating patterns weren't great either. He would grab snacks while out with friends, eat on the go, and wasn't really having three meals a day. As a Naturopathic Doctor, I have definitely seen the impact nutrition has on mental health and can see how these suboptimal eating habits would only compound Bob's situation.
As you may be able to tell after reading through Bob's story, getting back to school only became harder the longer he avoided it, which is why it helps to intervene early in situations of school refusal. If your child is refusing to go to school, it would definitely be worth sitting down with them and having a non-judgemental conversation about why they don't want to go to school. Really try to understand where they're coming from. Then ask for professional help. Working with a trusted healthcare professional to help guide you and your child in the best direction could make all the difference in the long run.
Statistics Canada. “Back to School... by the Numbers.” Government of Canada, Statistics Canada, 29 Sept. 2017, www.statcan.gc.ca/eng/dai/smr08/2016/smr08_210_2016#a13.
R., M. I. “School Refusal and Psychiatric Disorders: a Community Study.” Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, vol. 24, no. 5, 2003, p. 389., doi:10.1097/00004703-200310000-00028.
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. American Psychiatric Association, 2013.
Government of Ontario. “The Ontario Curriculum: Elementary.” Grade 7, Government of Ontario, www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/elementary/grade7.html.
Shochet, Ian M., et al. “School Connectedness Is an Underemphasized Parameter in Adolescent Mental Health: Results of a Community Prediction Study.” Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, vol. 35, no. 2, 2006, pp. 170–179., doi:10.1207/s15374424jccp3502_1.
Spagnola, Mary, and Barbara H. Fiese. “Family Routines and Rituals.” Infants & Young Children, vol. 20, no. 4, 2007, pp. 284–299., doi:10.1097/01.iyc.0000290352.32170.5a.