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School Refusal: What It Means When Kids Won’t Do Schoolwork

By Amanda Morin

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When kids get stressed or are struggling, it’s common for them to say they’re not going to do their schoolwork. They may even say they’re not going to school. But saying things like that is different from shutting down and actually not doing work or going to school.

Distance learning because of the coronavirus pandemic has been stressful for many kids. So if you’re seeing this kind of behavior in your child, you’re not alone. You may be wondering what it means and if it will pass when the crisis does.

How do you find an answer? Start by taking a closer look at what you’re noticing. Is your child just complaining? Is it more about avoiding the work? Or is your child so stressed and overwhelmed that refusing school is the only option?

Complaining, Avoiding, and Refusing: What’s the Difference?

Complaining, avoiding, and refusing aren’t the same thing. Your child is telling you different things depending on which it is. Here’s an example of each.

Scenario 1: Complaining

Your child has math work to do. When it’s time to sit down and do it, your child whines and says, “I don’t want to. It’s boring and the website we use is so slow.” But when you hold your ground, your child reluctantly sits down and starts the work.

That’s complaining. Kids don’t feel like doing the work because they don’t like it. Or they’d rather be doing something else. But they’ll do it when they realize they’re not going to get to do anything else until the work is done.

Scenario 2: Avoiding

When it’s time to work, your child says, “I don’t want to do my math. It’s too hard. I can’t do it,” and cries and runs into the other room. But when you go after your child, you negotiate that work time will start in half an hour. You set a timer and when it goes off, your child sits down to do the math—with your help.

That’s avoiding. Some kids try to get out of doing the work because it’s hard for them. But with some planning and a little help, they’ll sit down and make the effort.

Scenario 3: Refusing

It’s time to do the math, and your child is nowhere to be found. When you finally find your child hiding, there’s a full-on meltdown to manage.

Even after everyone calms down a little, you can’t get your child to budge to do any schoolwork at all. And when you try to leave the room, your child clings to your leg, complains of a stomachache or headache, and starts to fall apart all over again.

That’s school refusal. It’s an extreme reaction, and it’s often caused by anxiety and fear. 

As many as 1 in 4 kids show signs of school refusal at some point. They won’t go to school, whether it’s outside of your house or at home. Unlike with kids who are complaining or avoiding schoolwork, you can’t talk them into doing it. They may literally make themselves sick over it.

These kids are often anxious about something related to school. So it’s important to find out if that anxiety is due to a temporary situation or something else.

How Can You Tell If School Refusal Is Temporary?

If this type of outright refusal is new for your child, you may wonder if it’s temporary. Right now, schoolwork is hard for a lot of kids. They’re not in their regular classrooms with their friends and teachers. With distance learning, “school” looks very different than it did before, and kids are learning new ways of working.

Many kids are having trouble focusing during distance learning. And lots of kids are worried, lonely, and anxious, which can make it harder to learn. Refusing to do the work may be their way of telling you that they’re not ready to learn right now.

When that goes away depends on the child. Some kids may stop refusing school once routines get back to normal. Others may gradually get more comfortable once they’re back at school and are confident that everyone is safe and healthy.

But for some kids, school refusal isn’t just temporary. Here are a few things to keep an eye on to know if it’s a bigger issue:

  • Does your child worry about school during down time or on weekends?

  • Is your child having tantrums or meltdowns about going to school or doing schoolwork?

  • Does your child say they can’t do it because of physical complaints like stomachaches, headaches, dizziness, or just “not feeling good”?

  • Does your child refuse to get dressed or do other parts of the morning routine, knowing it will make it hard to get out the door?

If you’re seeing this type of behavior consistently, there are things you can do to help.

What to Do If Your Child Is Refusing School

Distance learning can be hard for kids who learn and think differently. That’s especially true for kids who struggle with focus. If your child is still learning from home, try to set things up to make it as easy as possible. This can reduce some of the stress.

Look for patterns, too. Some kids may refuse to go to school on certain days or to do certain kinds of work. Maybe your child refuses school on days when the class is taking turns reading out loud. Or shuts down when there’s a writing assignment.

Share what you’re seeing with your child’s teacher. Ask if the teacher has noticed similar reactions or has ideas on why your child is refusing to do schoolwork.

Talk with your child, too. Here are three ways to start that conversation:

  • “Let’s talk about what’s happening when it’s time for you to go to school….”

  • “I need your help in understanding why you’re so upset about schoolwork.”

  • “Let’s talk about what’s going to make you feel better about going to school.”

For some kids, school refusal is related to anxiety. They may be anxious about their routine changing. They may worry that something is going to happen to a parent or family members. With COVID-19, loved ones may be sick. And kids may be concerned about getting sick themselves.

Kids can be anxious or fearful of other things, too, even when there’s no big disruption or upsetting event. So it’s important to know what’s typical anxiety and what’s not.

Find out effective ways to help your child cope. One of the most important things you can do is to create a safe space for your child to talk. Learn more about how to get your child to open up about school. And find out why some kids struggle to manage their emotions.

Key Takeaways

  • School refusal is more extreme than complaining about or avoiding school.

  • Observing your child can give you clues about what’s going on.

  • Keep an eye out for signs of anxiety, and find out what the teacher has noticed.


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Share School Refusal: What It Means When Kids Won’t Do Schoolwork

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Email
  • Text Message
  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom