Vida de la Mariposa

By Zeenat Noorani- NLP Practitioner & Performance Life Coach

What is School Phobia?

School phobias very common these days, school avoidance and school refusal are elements that describe an anxiety disorder in children who have an irrational, persistent fear of going to school. There are many factors which influence this behaviour. Their behaviour is very different from those children who are truant and express no apprehension about missing school. Generally, through research (see related links) children who have school avoidance, want to be in close contact with their parent or caregiver, whereas truants do not (truants often seek attention). School phobic children are often insecure, sensitive and struggle in how to cope with their emotions. They can appear anxious, with drawn and/or teary and on many instances, they may become physically ill at the thought of attending school. This can be extremely worrying and daunting as a parent. It is important to recognise and eliminate any signs that may conflict with bullying as this can be easily confused. Although, this (bullying) can also related to having school phobia.

Normal separation anxiety typically occurs between 18 to 24 months. Children this age may cling, cry and/or have temper tantrums when they are separated from their parent. However, some older children continue to have difficulty being away from home. The parents of these children are often attentive and loving, but may be overprotective. As a result some students lack self-confidence and the ability to cope with school life. A child who shows a higher risk for school phobia is one who has no siblings, the youngest child or a chronically ill child.

Most children one time or another will object to going to school. However, a school phobic child often misses many days for vague reasons. Parents should be concerned if their child appears irrationally anxious, depressed, scared, and/or regularly says that he or she feels too sick to attend class.

Symptoms of school phobia to look out for:

  • Frequent stomach aches and other physical complaints such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, exhaustion, or headaches that cannot be attributed to a physical or medical ailment.
  • Clinginess, tantrums, and/or panic when required to separate from a parent or caregiver.
  • Fear of the dark or being in a room alone.
  • Trouble going to sleep and/or having nightmares.
  • Exaggerated fears of animals, monsters, school, etc.
  • Constant thoughts concerning the safety of self or others.
  • Child experiencing bad thoughts such as: they are going to die, fall very ill and/or catch something off others.

Essentially, both home and school issues need to be greatly considered when searching for the reasons which contributes to school avoidance. In order for the child to succeed, it is imperative that both school, home and other professionals work cooperatively together for the best interest of the child.

Home Issues: A child may…

  • Be experiencing a family change like a move, illness, separation, divorce, death, depression, or financial problems.
  • Have been absent from school due to a long illness.
  • Enjoy a parent’s undivided attention when not in school.
  • Be allowed to watch television, play video games or with toys rather than complete schoolwork.
  • Have an overprotective parent who reinforces the idea that being away from him or her could be harmful.
  • Be apprehensive of an impending tragedy at home.
  • Fear an adult at home might hurt a family member while the child is at school.
  • Be afraid of neighbourhood violence, storms, floods, fires, etc.
  • School Issues: A child may… (take any safe guarding concern into consideration)
  • Fear criticism, ridicule, confrontation or punishment by a teacher or other school personnel.
  • Have learning difficulties — for example, afraid to read aloud, take tests, receive poor grades, be called on to answer questions or perform on a stage.
  • Be afraid of not making perfect test scores.
  • Be sensitive to a school activity such as singing a certain song, playing a specific game, attending a school assembly, eating in a lunchroom, or changing clothes for physical education in front of peers.
  • Exhibit poor athletic ability, being chosen last for a team or being ridiculed for not performing well.
  • Fear teasing due to appearance, clothes, weight, height, etc.
  • Feel socially inadequate due to poor social interaction skills.
  • Be a victim of peer bullying during school, walking to or from school, or on the school bus. (see school Bullying policy/ speak to SENCO and headtecher).
  • Receive threats of physical harm (Safe Guarding Policy & Procedures).
  • Have difficulty adjusting to a new school (see Helping Children Cope with School Transitions).
  • Have toileting issues concerning the use of a school restroom.
  • Be environmentally sensitive to new carpet, fragrant cleaning supplies and/or poorly ventilated classrooms.

Usually, school refusal lasts only a short time, especially if a parent insists on school attendance. However, if the problem persists, consultation with school personnel will be necessary to form a unified home and school approach. If ignored, chronic school phobias can result in the deterioration of the child’s academic performance, peer relationships, work quality, and possibly lead to adult anxiety, panic attacks, or psychiatric disorders further down the line. Therefore, the issues of a child with school phobia must be addressed early and not taken lightly so that the child’s fears can be abated. The essential steps are recognizing the problem, discovering the underlying cause or causes for the child’s discomfort, and working closely with school professionals to alleviate the difficulty is crucial. Parents need to view themselves as part of a team working together for their child’s best interest. For a parent or caregiver, it is without a doubt a frightening thought but as the adult they must be open to all possibilities and be being supportive in order to move the child to a better state of going to school.

What can parents do?

  1. Have a physician examine the child to determine if he or she has a legitimate illness.
  2. Listen to the child talk about school to detect any clues as to why he or she does not want to go.
  3. Talk to the child’s teacher, school psychologist, and/or school councillor to share concerns.
  4. Together determine a possible cause or causes for school avoidance.
  5. Develop an appropriate plan of action to modify the school and home environments to help the child adjust to school.

Ideas for School Modifications

  • Have the teacher or other school professional, such as the school councillor and/or SENCO, establish a caring relationship with the child.
  • Arrange for a school staff member greet the parent and child at the door and take the child to the class.
  • Discuss the situation with the school nurse who can attend to the child’s complaints and then return him or her to class.
  • Help build the child’s self-confidence by discovering strengths and by providing opportunities for the child to excel.
  • Identify specific activities and/or situations that the child enjoys doing and those which trigger off anxiety.
  • Monitor bullying activities/situations that may be taking place.
  • Include the pupil in a friendship group facilitated by the school councillor/ SENCO.
  • Adjust work assignments to match the pupil’s academic skills and abilities.
  • Have a child with poor academic skills tested for special education services.
  • Use a behaviour contract to be reinforced with a reward such as a sticker (see Rewards in the Classroom).
  • Arrange special times/days, (agreed by the child) to meet up with a trusted member (class teacher, SENCO, councillor, headteacher) to discuss how he or she is or just to have general talk, done in a comfortable environment to the child.
  • Ideas Concerning Home Modifications
  • Assist the child in overcoming his or her fear by gradually increasing exposure to it.
  • Eliminate any “fun” activities at home when school is in session.
  • Have the parent who is better at encouraging attendance take the child to school.
  • Use a car pool or include a peer to accompany the child.
  • Read books which encourage the expression of feelings and teach coping skills such as Kelly Bear Feelings. Role play situations and discuss various ways to relate to others.
  • Provide play dates with classmates to encourage friendships.
  • Attend school related activities.
  • Provide a rewards system agreed by the child that allows ownership.
  • Reassure the child that the family will be safe through hugs, kind words and positive notes.
  • Teach the child relaxation techniques such as breathing, meditation, mindfulness, yoga for children (see Helping Children Cope with Worries).
  • Deal constructively with family concerns and parenting issues, perhaps with the assistance of a mental health professional.

The ultimate goal is to have the child return to school attending classes daily in the best possible state-mentally and physically. In the best case scenario, the child’s self-esteem, confidence, motivation and enjoyment of school will increase when a plan is implemented- supported and changes are made, but more importantly that these are consistently followed through. On the other hand, if the school phobia is extreme with deeper issues and concerns, a therapist or psychiatrist’s assistance may be necessary.


  • School phobia and school refusal: research into causes and remedies by LGA Educational Research Programme
  • Sage Journals- The Journal of School Nursing
    Investigating the factors associated with Emotionally-based Non-attendance at school from young people’s perspective By Gemma Grace Shilvock
  • Research on the cognitive-behavioural treatment of school refusal: A review and recommendations