How to Address School Avoidance Behavior

Young male student in school hallway exhibits school avoidance behavior with eyes tightly shut and his fingers in his ears.

Few students are always excited about being in school.

But for some, trying to avoid school isn’t about simply wishing for a day off. For those children and adolescents, the desire to get out of going to or staying at school signals a serious disorder with potentially long-term harmful consequences.

Research confirms a positive link between regular school attendance and greater academic success, so it’s vital school administrators like you understand school avoidance behaviors and implement proven strategies to overcome them. 

Understanding and Recognizing School Avoidance Behaviors

The first step in tackling school avoidance or refusal behaviors is educating yourself about them. 

School refusal (sometimes (less preferably) called “school phobia”) isn’t a clinical diagnosis. It’s a disorder commonly, though not exclusively, associated with anxiety and depression. Problems at home, academic struggles, or bullying are also possible reasons students don’t want to go to school.

Students of any age can exhibit school avoidance. However, it’s most commonly seen at ages 5-7, when many students feel separation anxiety about going to school for the first time; and in early adolescence, around ages 11-14, as students transition from elementary school to middle or junior high school.

Common school avoidance behaviors include:

Female school-based behavior analyst sits at the front of a classroom and seven students sit at desks behind her, writing in notebooks.

  • Having trouble following their morning routines (getting up and getting ready in a timely way).
  • Crying or throwing a tantrum before going to school.
  • Regularly feeling sick (headache, nausea, sore throat, and other physical symptoms) just before leaving for school, or on days when assignments are due and tests are scheduled.
  • Showing up late to the bus stop or arriving late to school.
  • Asking to call home excessively.
  • Going to the school nurse’s office routinely without medical cause.
  • Avoiding social anxiety caused by having to interact with peers or adults at school.

Like other avoidance behaviors, school avoidance behaviors solve one immediate problem: They relieve anxiety. But they lead to larger social and educational problems down the road. As Dr. Julia Burch writes for Harvard Medical School, these behaviors keep kids from discovering they’re capable of coping with school-related anxiety, thus fueling a “vicious cycle.”

Behavior Analysts Can Lead Your Students Toward Solutions

Once you’ve educated yourself about school avoidance behaviors, what’s the best way to tackle them?

Sad elementary school girl exhibits school avoidance behavior in classroom, resting her cheek in her hand and refusing to do work.You must adopt a team approach. Consider yourself a team leader, and your therapists, teachers, and students’ families as essential team members who all play crucial roles in motivating students to come to and stay at school. 

Dr. Katherine Dahlsgaard, Clinical Director of the Anxiety Behaviors Clinic of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, spoke at PTS’ 2018 Administrator Retreat about effective ways to make students more willing to go and return to school. She stressed the need for a child’s entire IEP team—including school administrators, teachers, and guidance counselors—to handle school refusal behavior consistently.

A Board Certified Behavior Analyst® (BCBA) can provide vital assistance to any IEP team dealing with school avoidance. These graduate-level certified professionals closely observe and collect data about students, as Robert K. Ross Ed.D., BCBA-D explains in his account of a day in the life of a BCBA

A BCBA can lead a school team in conducting a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) to objectively define a student’s behaviors and determine what purpose those behaviors serve. For example, do their avoidance or refusal behaviors:

  • Keep them away from adverse events and situations (tests, bullying, etc.)?
  • Earn them attention they want from teachers, parents, peers, or others?
  • Get tangible reinforcement outside of school (stays home to sleep more, play video games, etc.)?

Sad and anxious female student sits in concerned behavior analyst’s office, unwilling to discuss her school avoidance behaviors.The BCBA’s interviews and observations will bring the purposes the student’s behaviors serve to light. With this information, the BCBA can help the IEP team design a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) to teach and reinforce school attendance.

Depending on the individual student’s circumstances, this plan might include one or more of the following interventions:

  • Family contracts rewarding consistent and punctual school attendance with tangible positive reinforcements (money, more computer privileges, etc.).
  • Student participation in extracurricular activities before or after school.
  • Teachers taking extra steps to develop a positive rapport with the student (a personally encouraging greeting each morning, playing a card game with them once a week after school, etc.). 

Help Students Attend and Succeed in School with PTS

At Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS), we’ve helped schools and school districts throughout the greater Delaware Valley deal with school avoidance behaviors in the classroom.

The BCBAs on our Behavioral Health team know how to get students to come to terms with physical, mental, and emotional distress about school. We know school avoidance isn’t only the student’s problem, and that solving it requires close collaboration between students, their families, their teachers, and your related services program.

Want to know more about how PTS’ BCBAs and other clinicians can help your program with the treatment of school refusal? Contact us online today or call us at 610-941-7020.

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