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As a school counsellor, one of the most challenging issues I come across is school avoidance and refusal. There are many complicated reasons a child stops coming to school: extreme anxiety around academic performance, peer conflict, body image issues, low self-esteem, perceived “meanness” of the teacher, medical problems. Solving the puzzle of why is half the battle; the other half is restoring the child’s confidence in school as a safe, caring environment. Unfortunately, the child may not perceive school as safe or caring. So what can you do as a parent when your child is afraid of school or has been away from school for a period of time?
1. Start gradually. Make a plan that allows your child to ease back in to school. Start with bringing them to school for an hour or two at a low-stress time of day, during an activity that your child enjoys. Slowly work up to a full morning or afternoon, and then a full day.
2. Connect your child with at least one caring adult in the school. This can be a teacher, youth worker, counsellor, education assistant, or administrator. Pick someone who your child likes and is comfortable approaching. If your child can’t identify someone he or she knows and trusts, foster a new relationship; seek out the school counsellor or a youth worker and help your child get to know that person.
3. Ask the teacher to make accommodations for late or missed schoolwork. In order to create some breathing room, ask teachers to help your child catch up without pressure to complete everything that has been missed. Talk to the teacher about extra support for your child, possibly in the form of a quiet place to work in the school or help from an education assistant in the classroom.
4. Find a peer mentor or reconnect your child with a trusted friend. Safe social connections can be a great way of drawing a child back into the school environment.
5. Encourage adults in the school to keep an eye out for your child. Having a few teachers and staff members make an effort to make eye contact with your child and say hi in the hallway can make a big difference. This will help your child identify safe, trusted adults to go to in times of distress.
6. Create a visual schedule. For younger children especially, it can help to see the shape of the day and know what to expect with regard to routine, transitions, and when he or she will be picked up. Sit down with your child to make this schedule together, either by hand or on a computer. Colour and laminate it so that your child can keep it in his or her backpack and refer to it for reassurance.
7. Put daily notes in your child’s backpack or lunch box. Attachment is key for children who are feeling insecure about going to school. By giving the child a personal note that he or she can look at throughout the day, you maintain connection and remind your child that you care. Write a new note daily so that the child has something new to look forward to at school each day.