When Your Child Feels Too Anxious To Go To School

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Clinical Psychologist Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell, Clinical Psychologist

School anxiety is also known as school refusal, school-related anxiety, school phobia or emotionally-based school avoidance (EBSA).

When your child feels too anxious to go to school it can affect not just the child themselves, but all family members.

Sometimes it feels like your whole world is falling apart, because school is such a central part of children’s lives.

How can you get your child to school, but preserve their mental health?

How can you show them you understand their anxious feelings, whilst impressing of them the importance of school attendance?

In this article I will take a look at the underlying factors in school-based anxiety.

I look at how best you can support your child through this difficult and stressful period.

The Cost of School Anxiety

Having a child too anxious to go to school can be crippling, both for a child’s academic performance and social development, and for the family as a whole.

Parents often feel powerless and may have to take time off work.

Things can quickly spiral out of control, and if you feel you are already at this stage, it’s a good idea to seek help from your doctor without delay.

teenager relaxing on sofa

In the UK, your GP may refer you to your local CAMH (Child and Adolescent Mental Health) Service, or to an independent clinical psychologist near where you live. You can also find a clinical psychologist at the Association of Child Psychologists in Private Practice (AChiPPP).


Why Might a Child Stop Going to School?

There could be one reason, or multiple reasons for making your child too anxious to go to school. In my experience common fears and concerns include:

  • Becoming overwhelmed or stressed by academic, social or sensory demands or other difficult situations.
  • Separation anxiety (fear of leaving/separating from trusted caregivers), meaning that children desperately want to stay home. This is sometimes known as separation anxiety disorder.
  • Social phobia (anxiety about social interactions or social situations at school).
  • Bullying, teasing, or conflict with others.
  • Fear about changes to the school routine, such as sports day or a school trip.
  • They had a panic attack. They felt completely out of control and they fear this will happen again.
  • Fear of the unknown. This is especially likely at transition points, such as starting junior school, middle school or high school or at the start of school terms.

Here are some particular issues to be aware of:

1. Physical Symptoms Are Real

The fight or flight response triggers powerful bodily changes.

For example, our muscles tense up (ready to run or fight). The heart rate speeds up (helping to circulate oxygen around the body).

Digestion stops so blood can divert to the limbs (causing tummy aches, nausea or “butterflies” in the tummy). These physical symptoms can be very scary for a child.

If school, for some reason, triggers fight or flight, then a child can experience all these physical symptoms and more.

YouTube video

2. Special Educational Needs

Consider whether your child may have any unmet educational, social or emotional needs in their school life.

This is a common factor which can make a child too anxious to go to school.

For example, might your child have a condition such as dyslexia which is affecting their ability to keep up academically, and their overall confidence?

boy with glasses reading a book

Could your child have an underlying neurological difference which is affecting friendships, and causing his nervous system to be overwhelmed by the sensory environment, such as autism?

3. Transitions as Flashpoints

Transitions from one school year to the next, and of course starting a new school, can be major flashpoints.

If your child has a tendency to be anxious, it will be crucial to alert the school in advance and ensure they have a transition plan in place. Staff will monitor your child’s process.

Difficulties can sneak in very quickly.

One day, a child might complain of a tummy ache or feeling sick, and within a few days, this could escalate.

It may also manifest itself as a long-term problem that ebbs and flows.

For example, a child may be more anxious about school at certain times of the school year but relatively settled at other times.

close up of anxious teenager

How to Take Action With a Child Too Anxious to go to School

When your child feels too anxious to go to school, the worst possible thing is to force them, without any accompanying understanding.

However, avoiding school can be a very slippery slope and should not be encouraged.

I recommend these measures:

1. Deepen Understanding

Read my post about anxiety, to ensure you understand the basics.

If you want to deepen your understanding about anxiety so you feel clear on exactly which steps will help for your child, consider our mini-course, Knowledge is Power!

Knowledge is Power: Understanding Anxiety in Children course

Once you have a sound understanding of the science of anxiety in young people, ensure key school staff do too.

For parents of young children I recommend Brighter Futures, the book I co-wrote.

It will help to teach staff to feel empowered as it provides a step-by-step guide to working with anxiety in children.

2. Teamwork

Excellent Communication Between Parents and School Staff

This is the single most important factor, determining whether children will successfully reintegrate into school.

This is more difficult when a child is in high school, so parents will need to identify a single member of staff within the school who can provide empathy and consistent practical support.

This might be the SENCO/SENDCO, Head of Year, or Head of Pastoral Care.

teacher meeting with parents and child

Work together to create a clear and consistent plan.

Older children – especially secondary school age – need to be part of the process. The plan might include for example:

  • A named member of staff consistently greeting the child in reception each morning and parents “handing over” the child. Pay particular attention to other “transition times” during school days, such as moving from one lesson to another. These can be noisy and overwhelming for some children. Some may need adult support at such times until they can build their coping skills.
  • Your child having a quiet space to go to temporarily, instead of certain “trigger” lessons (for example, PE).
  • Weekly mentoring sessions with a member of staff to discuss issues as they arise, monitor progress and prevent crises.
  • Regular time out of the classroom to calm the nervous system.
  • A safe place to go at break and lunchtimes, with calming activities and staff support.
  • A buddy system to support the child with developing friendship skills.
  • A part-time timetable (for example, coming in late and leaving school early, until the anxiety reduces).
  • Regular communication both ways between home and school (emails or a communications book).

3. A Scientific Approach

Increase Nurture

As a first step, look at where your child can receive more comfort and an increased feeling of satefy.

When a child has heightened periods of anxiety the nervous system is strained and requires “downtime” to recover. This must happen both at school and at home.

young boy at the edge of a classroom

Your child’s school may have a nurture room which they can access once or more each day. They may go to the nurture room to receive help with symptoms of panic.

For example, a staff member – such as the school nurse – could help them slow and deepen their breathing.

Ideally, your child will also have access to the nurture room as a preventative measure.

They may go there to engage in a soothing activity, such as mindful colouring. This will give their overworked nervous system a break.

At home, try extra cuddles, chats or special parent and child time.

Approach the Problem From Two Directions.

Firstly, your child needs to be helped and “skilled up”. He needs to learn how to manage overwhelming emotions and thoughts. There are many resources you may find helpful, particularly those based on CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy).

Highly recommended books include: Think Good, Feel Good by Paul Stallard, and for younger children, The Huge Bag of Worries by Virginia Ironside.

Many children need one-to-one support from a clinical psychologist or similar professional. You can find out more about the role of a clinical psychologist on this page.

Work on Graded Exposure.

Graded exposure is one of the central strategies used in cognitive behavioural therapy for anxiety. It is an evidence-based approach. It involves very slowly (at the child’s pace) exposing the child to their fears, in a planned and calculated way. You can read more about it here.

The most important thing to know is that “flooding” doesn’t work.

Flooding is forcing a child to face a huge fear all at once. Imagine a child with a fear of spiders. Flooding is putting a tarantula on the child’s hand.

Graded exposure is taking small steps. You start by looking at pictures and videos of spiders, then touching a tiny dead spider, followed by a tiny real spider, and so on.

Avoid Avoidance.

Avoidance fuels anxiety and keeps it alive. 

If children continue to avoid situations they feel worried about, they never give themselves the opportunity to prove that they can cope.

When they face fear gradually, they get a sense of accomplishment that will help them not to avoid next time.

Start where your child is right now. Whilst avoiding avoidance is key to recovery, forced exposure can lead to panic attacks.

When a child feels they are not in control of their life, they may begin to have regular panic attacks. This is known as panic disorder.

The more you go at the child’s pace, the less likely they are to panic.

If they are in control you stand a much higher chance of success.

Reduce Demands in Your Child’s Life.

Take action immediately to reduce the load. This will give your child’s nervous system the best chance of coping with the anxiety of school.

You may need to ask for your school to be excused from homework or from certain lessons for a while.

Perhaps the playground is the most demanding aspect of the school day, and an alternative can be found.

Reduce extra-curricular activities if your child is exhausted and stressed.

Try to understand whether your child’s senses are becoming overwhelmed.

For example, are some classes causing anxiety because they are too noisy? If so, what can the school do about this?

4. Review Your Current Strategy

If you have worked on all the suggestions above, and your child is still refusing to go to school or struggling with significant anxiety or panic attacks, then alternative options may need to be considered.

Consider whether a different school might be better suited to your child.

When a child is unhappy and anxious, it is tempting to imagine that moving to a different school will be the best way to cure all their problems.

All too often, I have witnessed that this may not be the case, and problems soon start to show themselves again.

Occasionally, however, there may be a school which can meet your child’s needs better than the existing school because it may:

  • Be smaller, and therefore less overwhelming for your child.
  • Place a stronger emphasis on nurture, and be better placed to help your child feel safe at school.
  • Have access to greater resources, including higher ratios of staff, or staff with more experience in anxiety disorders.

Home-schooling is not an option for most working families but is something many parents of anxious children consider. Needless to say, it is a huge step. Some of the pros and cons of home-schooling are considered in this article.

don’t wait to seek help

I cannot emphasize enough, how important it is to seek help from a mental health professional (whether through the NHS or privately) if your child’s school anxiety is at risk of spiralling out of control.

Clinical psychologists in particular at experts in understanding and treating anxiety.

Psychologists work with the “whole system” around the child.

This may include liasion and support for parents and teaching staff and cognitive behavioral therapy with your child.

When Your Child Feels Too Anxious To Go To School: Summary

Childhood anxiety is common, and difficulty attending school because of this anxiety can be particularly debilitating.

The good news is that by working as a team, the young person, family and teaching staff can ensure school feels like a safe place again.

In some cases, professional support may be needed alongside this.

If you are looking for professional help, read our article on the best type of therapeutic support for your child: Child Therapist Information for Parents {2022}.

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Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.

In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

Are you the parent of a 6-16 year-old? Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips on supporting teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.

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