September 30, 2022
By: Dr. Sara Colalillo, Clinical Psychologist
School is where young people spend many of their waking hours, form relationships, and learn lessons that will impact their futures.
For some children and teens, going to school can be a major stressor, especially when they have learning, mental health, or identity challenges that impact their self-esteem and the effort it takes to meet academic and social demands. For example, getting through a week of school will be more effortful for children who are socially anxious compared to those who are not.
When I talk with parents about how to support their kids who struggle at school, a common question is, “What if my child does not want to go to school? Should I let them stay home for a day if they need a break? Or is that teaching them that it’s okay to avoid stressful situations, or that school is not important?” – In other words, can a day home from school to rest and recharge be helpful for a student? The general answer is sometimes, and it depends on the circumstances.
If a child asks to stay home from school, the first thing a caregiver should do is try to understand why. Take a curious stance and try to gather information about what is bothering them. Stay calm and say, “Help me understand why it’s hard for you to go to school. Is there something stressful happening?” — Are they worried about a test or some other type of evaluation? Are they having problems with peers, or a teacher? Are they exhausted from working hard to finish a big project that they just presented to their class?
For a child who has worked hard to overcome challenges (as in the latter case), one day at home could provide the opportunity to recuperate from a stressful week. A day of rest can also be helpful for children or teens who are dealing with an acute stressor, like a loved one with a serious illness, or a bad breakup. Some US states have even passed laws allowing mental health days for children. It will be important to frame this day as a time-limited, exceptional day to rest and recharge. It should be spent doing something that will enhance wellness, like an enjoyable or relaxing activity. Caregivers can also set concrete limits on rest days, such as allotting one or two per term, and sticking to that.
On the other hand, letting a child stay home to avoid a test or conflict is unlikely to solve the problem, but instead introduces a delay in addressing it. In those cases, staying home could actually make the problem worse. A more useful approach for caregivers would be to first spend time connecting with their child, helping them name their feelings and the reasons for these. Then, caregivers can help children brainstorm solutions to the problem, other than procrastination or avoidance – Do they need some support in studying? Could a tutor be helpful? Should they (and/or you) speak to school administration about a bullying situation?
If your child frequently or asks, cries, or begs to stay home, or begins refusing to attend school altogether, it is time to seek additional support. Caregivers can request a meeting with a child’s teachers and/or school administration to discuss specific concerns and develop a plan to support student success. Consulting a psychologist can also be helpful if a child is struggling to manage anxiety and/or mood issues. If there are concerns about a student’s attention span or learning skills, a formal assessment may be necessary.
In a nutshell, school can be demanding. When children and teens experience acute life stress or work hard to overcome challenges, taking a short break can help them recharge their batteries and stay efficient. On the other hand, avoiding tests and assignments, or other feared situations (like presentations or social interactions) can make problems worse. Talk with your children to understand where the desire to stay home comes from, and this will guide how best to help them.
Rapee, R.M., Wignall, A., Spence, S.H., Cobham, V., Lyneham, H., (2008). Helping your anxious child: A step-by-step guide for parents (2nd Edition). New Harbinger.
School Refusal: Children and Teenagers – https://raisingchildren.net.au/school-age/school-learning/school-refusal/school-refusal