How to Handle School Refusal

How to Handle School Refusal

by | Jan 29, 2019 | Blog

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

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