More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
When "I Don't Want to Go to School" Becomes "I Can't Go to School"
Wednesday, August 30, 2006

While Pat Benatar let us all know that Love is a Battlefield, Saturday morning cartoon heroes from Doug Funny to the Recess gang have shown us that school too, can be a battlefield. One might argue that those slugging it out in the trenches of the heart have the most at stake, but a story from yesterday's New York Times illustrates how for some children, anxiety and depression created by schooling can have devastating, long-term effects.

For some children, school presents a situation rife with tension and anxiety. Increased class work, high expectations, new surroundings and bullying can combine to make school an unfriendly place. Sometimes these factors are so powerful that they lead to intense phobia and a crippling aversion to attending class or even entering the school.

In the August issue of the Journal of Family Practice, Dr. Christopher Kearny outlines four circumstances that can lead to a refusal to go to school:

  1. Often in combination with underlying anxiety and depression, the child may be distressed by teachers, students, the bus, the cafeteria, the classrooms and transitions between classes.
  2. The child may be trying to escape from distressing social situations or academic or athletic evaluations, including interacting with others or having to perform before others.
  3. The child may be seeking attention from parents by staying home or wanting to go to work with a parent.
  4. The child may find staying at home a rewarding experience that permits sleeping late, watching television, playing video games, or — especially for teenagers — engaging in delinquent behavior or substance abuse.
In many of these scenarios, the anxiety attached to attending school can be linked to a similar disorder, social phobia, also known as social anxiety disorder. The NIMH estimates that 3.7% of Americans will be effected by social phobia in a given year. Anxiety surrounding school most often occurs when children face the transition from elementary school, often a gentler, inviting environment, to upper schools, often a middle school or even high school. These situation throw 5th or 6th graders, comfortable being the oldest in their schools into environments where they are the youngest and often may face new challenges like changing classes or older bullies.

As the Times points out, if left untreated, this school phobia or anxiety can have long lasting repercussions beyond just missed class time and poor grades. A variety of social development issues such as isolation and delinquency often follow, and life long struggles with drug abuse and depression also have heightened risks.

Depending on the severity and stage of the disorder, their are a number of treatment strategies that have shown promise. Simply acquainting students with their new environment can be very helpful. In many districts, elementary students are invited up during the summer or even at the end of the previous school year to do walk-throughs and meet important teachers and administrators. In more serious situations, therapy and even medication may be needed. Cognitive behavioral therapy has proven effective for adults who face anxiety disorders, and these same strategies can also work with children who have a fear of school. Staying in school has a powerful correlation to lifelong success and happiness, so it is very important that these disorders are identified and dealt with as early as possible.
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