How to Handle School Refusal

How to Handle School Refusal

Most parents have experienced a day here or there where their child or teen says they’re not going to go to school. They might complain of not feeling well or express anxiety over a test or be upset at a fight they had with a friend.

When those types of events are relatively rare, they are nothing for a parent to worry about. But when refusing to go to school becomes a habit, it’s important to take action to figure out what is causing this detrimental behavior.

“It’s understandable that parents get very frustrated when their child won’t go to school,” says Elissa Smilowitz, LCSW and Coordinator of Triage and Emergency Services at North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center. “Not only are the parents concerned for their child’s future, but they also often have to deal with tantrums, meltdowns or, in the worst cases, even physical blows.”

It’s very important to include the school when trying to find out why your child refuses to go. “You must find out what’s happening at school to get a sense of why your child is reluctant to go,” says Smilowitz. “It’s possible they are being bullied, or have trouble with a certain teacher, or are struggling with the work and are afraid to fail. There also may be a learning disability that has not been diagnosed.”

Smilowitz points out that ongoing school refusal often indicates an underlying mental health condition such as depression or anxiety. “If the behavior is ongoing, it’s important to seek professional help since there are possible long-term effects on a child’s social, emotional and academic development.”

In addition to talking with the school and seeking therapy, here are some other steps you can take:

  • Get a comprehensive diagnostic assessment (talk to your school or therapist about resources).
  • Also get a medical exam to rule out any physical causes, since children often complain about headaches, stomachaches and other bodily symptoms.
  • Ask your child what is going on and listen carefully without shaming or judging them.

Another option is to find out what alternatives there are to traditional schools. For example, the Guidance Center runs a program called ISP, or Intensive Support Program. ISP offers intensive mental health services on-site at three Nassau B.O.C.E.S. schools for children, ages 5-21, and their families from all 56 Nassau County school districts.

To learn more about ISP, call the Guidance Center at (516) 626-1971 and ask to speak to Regina Barros-Rivera, extension 330. To find out more about our programs and services, click here or email

Professionals and Schools

Professionals and Schools

Professionals and Schools Professionals and Schools Workshops for Education Professionals, Mental Health Professionals and Community Members The staff at North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center is composed of highly-trained psychiatrists, psychologists, social...
Guidance Center’s Innovative Program for Latina Teens

Guidance Center’s Innovative Program for Latina Teens

By Erika Perez-Tobon, Published in Anton Media Newspapers

One of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center’s signature programs is the Latina Girls Project, which was created in response to the alarming rates of depression, school refusal, self-harm, suicidal ideation and attempted suicides by Hispanic teen girls.

More than a decade ago, our team at the Guidance Center noticed an increasingly large number of first-generation Latinas were coming to us with severe depression, self-harming behaviors and suicidal thoughts. Many had stopped attending school, and some had been hospitalized for suicide attempts.

The research backed up what we were seeing at the time: Hispanic teenage girls were significantly more likely than their non-Hispanic peers to suffer from depression, thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts. More recent research, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showed that 10.5% of Latina adolescents aged 10–24 years in the U.S. attempted suicide in 2016, compared to 7.3% of white female, 5.8% of Latino and 4.6% white male teens.

In response to this crisis, we formed the Latina Girls Project, an innovative program that employs individual, group and family therapy, along with monthly outings and other activities, all designed to tackle issues such as depression, low self-esteem, social anxiety, school refusal, self-harming behaviors or suicidal ideation.

Some of our clients who were born outside the U.S. have witnessed violence in their homelands, and many have experienced complex trauma since a young age. Those who were born in the U.S. are impacted by the generational trauma experienced by their parents and limitations around communicating with their parents.

Regardless of where they were born, a big part of the reason these girls are struggling is because they are pulled in conflicting directions, with their parents wanting them to adhere to the traditional values of their homeland, while the girls seek to integrate into American culture and find acceptance among their peers.

The result: Parents are often extremely overprotective; they won’t allow their daughters to venture out and participate in activities such as sleepovers, dating or trips to the mall. Even if the teens are allowed to go out with their friends, they are required to have a chaperone, such as a parent or brother. In addition, they are often relegated to gender-biased roles, required to cook, clean and take care of their siblings while their brothers are treated, as one girl said, “like princes.”

During bilingual individual, family and group therapy sessions, the girls realize that they can trust their therapists, many of whom also grew up as first-generation Latinas. The therapists teach the girls healthy strategies to deal with stress and depression and effective ways to communicate with their parents.

For their part, the parents become more compassionate about their daughters’ desire to fit in, and they also understand the need to let their teens separate in age-appropriate ways. One of our Latina clients put it this way: “My parents learned that I just wanted them to be there for me and listen. They learned that it doesn’t help to question why I feel the way I do but to accept it and support me.”

In addition to therapy, the program incorporates monthly supervised outings to places such as theaters, museums and other cultural and educational sites. These trips, made possible by the generosity of John and Janet Kornreich, expose the girls to the world in a way that would never have happened if not for this Guidance Center program. The trips serve to boost the teens’ confidence and sense of independence, and the girls also discover that there’s a great big world of opportunity out there for them, which allows them to feel hopeful about their futures. The trips also offer respite to the parents who are relieved to know that their daughters are in safe hands.

As one girl put it, “The Latina Girls Project helped my mother and I communicate and become very close, and the monthly outings showed me a world I never would have seen. I felt that I wanted to be a part of the larger world. The trips gave me the feeling that I could be truly happy in my life.”

Bio: Erika Perez-Tobon, LCSW, who is originally from Venezuela, is the bilingual Clinical Supervisor of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center’s Latina Girls Project, which is located at the agency’s Westbury location.

A Lifeline for Families

A Lifeline for Families

For parents whose children experience serious emotional and behavioral issues, the challenges can seem overwhelming. Not only are they dealing with the stress and heartbreak of seeing their kids struggle, they’re also trying to navigate a complex maze of services related to school, health, housing, finances and more. 

These families often don’t know where to turn—plus, they can feel desperately alone. 

North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center has an innovative program that addresses the needs of these caregivers: our Family Advocate Program which pairs parents with one of our family peer advocates. 

“These credentialed professionals aren’t therapists,” explains Paul Danilack, Supervisor of High-End Community- Based Services at the Guidance Center. “Rather, they are parents of their own children with special needs who are trained to educate, guide and empower other parents to better understand their children and their needs.” 

 “We want to help these parents not feel so isolated.” 

For two decades, Yvonne Novy-Cutler has been a family peer advocate with the Guidance Center, meeting with parents to learn about their child’s particular issues, which may include severe depression and anxiety, school refusal, aggressive behavior and more. “Whereas social workers and mental health counselors work with families, we can share our personal experiences,” she says. “We’ve been where they are and have walked in their shoes.” 

Family peer advocates provide a wide range of support, attending evaluations with parents; going to CSE (Committee on Special Education) meetings; helping build skills within the family to manage difficult behaviors; and seeking residential placement or inpatient hospitalization if needed. While advocates don’t provide therapy, they can help families access those services. 

Shari Bushansky, another one of our dedicated advocates, helps run the program’s weekly support groups, where parents share their challenges and successes, talk about what worked and what didn’t, and build a social support network. 

“We want to help these parents not feel so isolated,” says Bushansky, who has been serving our clients for 20 years. “Often, their family and friends don’t understand what it’s like to be the parent of a child with emotional and behavioral disabilities, and it helps the parents to know they aren’t alone.” 

Our advocates work with parents and the child’s therapist to help design a plan to modify their youngster’s negative behavior. For example, they help parents create behavioral charts to develop a uniform approach of rewards and consequences, which helps motivate children to listen and respond appropriately. Moreover, advocates act as a bridge to many services, such as schools, counselors, courts, case management and others. 

Danilack has nothing but praise for his team. “Yvonne and Shari are critical members of both the department and the agency,” he says. “They put their all into their work and know better than anyone how to connect with the families they serve.” 

Both Novy-Cutler and Bushansky say that, while their work can be stressful, the rewards far outweigh the difficulties. “These parents have been down a long, tough road, and watching as their families heal makes it all worth it,” says Novy-Cutler. Confirming the advocates’ value at a recent parent support group, one mom stated, “These two women have saved my life!” 

To read the entire issue of Spring Guidelines, click here.