School Avoidance, School Refusal, School Anxiety, & School Phobia

1.68M youth in the US are considered School Avoidant right now and I suspect that number is an under-representation of the true numbers of anxiety related to school.

School avoidance, school refusal, school anxiety, school phobia – there are so many phrases describing the same concept! All of these terms describe the same thing – young people who do not attend classroom learning as an expression of their anxiety. 

I suspect there are different names for this concept because school avoidance (or any of the other terms) aren’t considered a diagnosis, at least in the way we typically encounter them and refer to them. It is very likely that different names have emerged in different contexts to describe the same thing. For the sake of ease, I am going to refer to this idea as school avoidance because I think it is a fairly inclusive term. 

School avoidance can look like a young person feeling physical symptoms of anxiety related to school or their classroom. These might be expressed on Sunday night or in the morning before school, fighting to go to school or missing days of school due to illness. (Stomach aches and headaches are most common expressions of physical symptoms due to anxiety in kids.) Most of these kids don’t want to “cause trouble” and they often try hard to do what is asked of them by attending school and pushing past their feelings. If they do make it to school, some kids may not be able to attend the whole day. They call a parent midday and ask/beg to be picked up early or they may spend large portions of the day in the nurse’s office or out of the classroom, avoiding or hiding from the environment that they are struggling in. 

Youth experiencing school avoidance don’t want to feel this way. Many can’t explain what is driving their school avoidance and they feel a sense of failure that they cannot do what is expected of them. They want help, hope, and support. Many parents also feel a sense of shame and hopelessness due to the lack of support they receive. Many are told that they are partially to blame, that they need to be more strict with their child or be less responsive to their child’s feelings. School avoidance can really grip an entire family as they try to figure out how to navigate it.

I grabbed some quick stats from to get a sense of what school avoidance looks like, at least in the US. Here are a few numbers to give you a sense of what school avoidance looks like on a bigger scale.

28% of youth display school refusal behavior at some point during their lives

18% of kids who have anxiety disorders actually receive treatment

1,680,000 is the # of American youth who are currently school avoidant 

These numbers caught my attention because approximately ⅓ of all people will experience school avoidance at some point in their life. That seems really high. If numbers are this high, why is that so? If ⅓ of all youth will experience school avoidance at some point in their life, there is a very good chance you know someone who has experienced this. Maybe your child, partner, sibling, or maybe even you?

Plus, as a former conventional classroom teacher, I suspect we could broaden the term school avoidance even further to include other forms that are currently being categorized differently. Some kids internalize their anxiety but other kids have similar anxiety related to learning that they project outward. Their responses may look more like rebellion, distraction or defiance in the classroom. Other kids just “just down” and “don’t really care”. I notice that each of these responses mimics fight, flight, or freeze trauma responses. I wonder about the connection there.

I also feel curious about why so many kids are experiencing school avoidance? Many kids express their concerns years before school avoidance is prevalent. Bullying and social issues, performance anxiety and academics, and classroom power dynamics seem to be common themes and legit reasons why a child would not feel comfortable at school. Learning requires a certain amount of vulnerability and if a child isn’t feeling safe, meeting that need will be a priority.

I was also surprised that the number of kids who experience anxiety receive treatment. I wonder if kids receive support in other ways that helps them overcome their school avoidance, like if they have a really supportive parent who acts as a guide and support? Or perhaps the child learns to “just carry it”? Or perhaps it is always something they struggle with, never quite figuring out their place at school in a way that feels right? They remain at different levels of school avoidance their whole academic career? 

I looked at the treatment options that are suggested for kids with school avoidance. They include therapies like;

  • Exposure therapy – exposure to things at school the youth is afraid of. The intent is to overcome the fears, confronting the least frightening first to build confidence. The idea is to stay in the feeling of low anxiety long enough for anxiety to decrease.The Goals of Exposure Therapy are to habituate and tolerate anxiety and gather evidence to refute overarching anxious thoughts. 
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – this is a short-term treatment that focuses on teaching school avoidant youth specific skills so they can have more awareness of their thoughts and perceptions and make changes -especially in relation to Automatic Negative 
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy – is to teach kids/adolescents the skills to more effectively manage their emotions (feelings toward school) and behaviors (avoiding school).

Although these therapies all seem like supportive approaches, I felt sad. It seems as though the goal of the therapy is to get kids “back to school”. I think I was hoping for something with a wider lens. As a homeschooling parent, I wonder why therapy isn’t related to empowering the child to feel safe and confident in their learning and where the child learns is irrelevant? If an alternative approach to conventional school works better, why not celebrate that? Why is it the goal to resume school? We are expecting the school avoid youth to change, but with 30% of youth experiencing this problem, perhaps the education system should be explored critically also?  

This topic was originally suggested for discussion in the “Consent Based Learning” support group I facilitate. One of the participants, Ashley made an interesting point that supports families in staying in conventional classrooms and supporting parents in advocating for what youth need to feel safe and learn in ways that match their needs. As Ashley said, the Unschooling School approach feels like such a sharp contrast to conventional approach of molding the child to fit an environment that perhaps was never a great fit.

Many families with school avoidant youth discover homeschooling by accident when there appear to be no other options that fit the needs of their child. I recognize that for many families, homeschooling doesn’t feel possible but with remote work opportunities in more jobs, it is likely something that could be explored and supported for an increasing number of families. I came across this qualitative study about home education’s success in supporting learning, socializing and working through anxiety.

With 1.68M kids currently identified as school avoidant right now, it is worth exploration and not from the perspective of “getting them back in”. This is related to children’s mental health. The ways in which we respond to their needs matter. Do they feel supported? Do they feel understood? Do they feel empowered? I am not sure many children and their families do feel these things which highlights a potential area of growth and learning for educators and policy makers.  


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