When children are overwhelmed by learning challenges, low self-esteem, or anxiety, school avoidance is a common form of coping. No matter the grade level or abilities of your child, it is your responsibility as a parent to identify the underlying causes of avoidance and ensure your child has proper support in place to feel safe and be successful in their education. When unmet learning needs influence a child’s disinterest in their education, it is important to address concerns immediately with teachers, administrators, and the child’s IEP/504 team if applicable.

Since the pandemic, data collected by School Innovations & Achievement shows an increase in both “chronic” and “severe” school absences in California. “Severe” absenteeism, which constitutes a student missing 15% or more days of school, rose from 3% of children in grades kindergarten through 12th grade during the 2019-2020 school year to 10% during the 2022-2023 school year. Whether school avoidance is a result of the pandemic or any of the above-mentioned causes, it is important for parents and schools to provide students with the tools to fully engage in learning at all ages.

What is School Avoidance?

School Avoidance is the act of refusing to attend school or refusing to stay in school for the duration of the day. Avoidance can be specific to a single class, part of the day, or school as a whole. Depending on variables such as the school district, the academic level of a child, and academic placement, schools may have differing definitions of what constitutes avoidance, but there is a range of behaviors that fall under the umbrella of avoidant coping such as:

  • Consistent absences from school or classes
  • Going to school but leaving during the day
  • Frequent trips to the nurse’s office or bathroom for extended periods of time

Not only is missed educational time shown to impact a student’s academic success in school but can also lead to heightened anxiety, depression, and a lack of involvement in activities that promote play, social skills, and problem-solving.

According to the Center for Research in Education and Social Policy, school avoidance trends are most significant in students of low socioeconomic status, English Language Learners (ELL), and students with disabilities. In many of these situations, there are underlying causes that can influence a child’s desire to be in a school setting. Parents, teachers, and administrators must take into consideration the needs of an ELL or special education student, and have a support plan in place. If a student already has an IEP in place, it is important to come together as a team and discuss how to best support the student. It may be additional services are required and/or a change of placement is warranted.

How Do I Recognize Avoidant Coping in My Child?

School avoidance can look different for children of different ages and abilities. Children with disabilities, especially non-verbal students or those who are English Language Learners, typically have a more difficult time regulating emotional responses to situations that stem from stressors at school. Examples of avoidant coping may look like:

  • Emotional outbursts that include crying, screaming, hiding, and rage
  • Verbal expression of or apparent stress
  • Frequent calls home throughout the school day
  • Notice from teachers about skipping class or school
  • Disengagement in classes
  • Significant decline in academic performance

A student with an IEP may already have goals in place to minimize avoidance. If so, teachers and the IEP team should be monitoring the student’s progress and communicating that progress to parents regularly.

As students become older and have more autonomy of their schedule, it can become more challenging for a parent to see the signs of school avoidance. If you are concerned about your child’s attendance or suspect they are not attending classes, open and consistent communication with teachers and the school is key.

What are Common Situations that Cause School Avoidance?

Understanding why your child doesn’t want to attend school is the first step in developing a solution. There are numerous situations that can impact a child’s avoidance of school such as:

  • Bullying/difficulty with peers;
  • Performance anxiety;
  • Unidentified social-emotional/mental health needs;
  • Unidentified learning challenges.

Unknown academic challenges are among the most common issues that impact school avoidance. Beginning in 2nd grade, as students prepare for standardized state testing, academic rigor is increased. When students cannot keep up with the academic demand, they have a tendency to disengage from school. Early detection of learning challenges can help children cope with their academic needs and provide them with tools and resources to be successful.

Additionally, the pandemic created a learn-from-home environment that caused a difficult transition back to brick-and-mortar learning for some students. Creating a plan of action to reacclimate to in-school learning can be a beneficial method for overcoming school avoidance.

How Can I Support My Child?

In most cases, it is up to parents or guardians to take action when a child is missing school. As changes in your child’s attitude toward school become more apparent, speak with them to further understand why they don’t want to go to school. Maintaining communication with teachers and the school can help ensure everyone is on the same page.

If your child already has an Individual Education Plan, meeting with their IEP team is often the first step in identifying what is not working, and developing a solution. Depending on the situation, and the student’s needs, specific goals can be put in place to help the child cope with challenges and find success, but the most effective way to determine underlying issues is to utilize outside resources such as therapy.

Children require a depth of understanding and solid relationships to openly discuss situations that cause them stress. Working with a child therapist or psychologist can promote a better understanding of specific issues and identify if there are other factors like emotional disturbances, chronic anxiety, or depression that require specific educational services. This information can be used in collaboration with the child’s IEP or 504 Plan team to provide the most effective support. Regular meetings with a school therapist or guidance counselor can also be considered a service regulated under an IEP.

How We Can Help

If you believe your child’s school is not meeting the requirements of your IEP agreement, causing your child stress or further impacting their education, it can be beneficial to work with an education rights advocate and attorney to help you understand and facilitate your rights.

For assistance securing educational support for your child, contact the Law Offices of Jennifer Chang. Jennifer is a California education rights attorney who works vigorously to protect the rights students have to a free and appropriate education under both federal and state laws, such as the IDEA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.