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School Refusal: What parents need to know

Parents see it every year: their child doesn’t feel like going to school. But what if they miss weeks of school at a time? Or what if they refuse to get out of bed in the morning or want to go home once they are at school? This may be less about truancy and more a symptom of school refusal.

In today’s blog, Dr. Julie Saflarski explains that school refusal is very different from typical truancy. It is much more severe than Ferris Bueller faking sick for a day to play hooky with his friends.

School refusal is a pattern of behaviors that often stem from emotional distress that are triggered by the school environment. Initially coined “school phobia,” it was later understood to be fueled by symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. Since the early 2000s, “school refusal” has been the preferred term to grasp these emotional responses to attending school.

School refusal is a gradual process that can get worse over time if left unaddressed. Recurring signs include:

  • Unexcused absences
  • Tardiness to class
  • Absences on significant days where testing, speeches or physical education classes are being held
  • Requests to go to the nurse’s office
  • Requests to call home or to go home during the day

Each child varies as to why they may be avoiding school. School refusal may begin with simple warning signs such as those listed above. The more they persist, the more likely the behavior will escalate.

School refusal is seen in about 1-5% of all school-aged children. It is most common in young children ages five to six as they start school for the first time. Other stressful transitional periods may also cause school refusal, such as starting middle school or junior high school.

In our next blog, Why Does My Child Refuse to Go to School?, Dr. Saflarski will discuss the common causes and recommendations for addressing school refusal with your child.


Dr. Julie Saflarski has valuable clinical experience working with children and adolescents both in and outside of schools around Chicago. Dr. Saflarski has expertise in working with children who struggle with symptoms of anxiety, depression, special needs and developmental disabilities. She also works to help support parents and families to best promote healthy development and resilience in their children. Learn more about Dr. Julie Saflarski on our website.

The Family Institute offers therapy and counseling for children, adolescents, parents and families at our Evanston, downtown Chicago, Westchester and Northbrook locations. Visit our website to learn more.


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