Most children have days when they do not want to go to school, but school phobia is more serious than this. It can be identified as a persistent and frequent fear of attending school. It is often emotional in origin and is usually a social anxiety.

Children with school phobia are just as likely to come from normal, happy families as any other children, and have the full range of abilities. Those children who seem to be most at risk are children who either have had a chronic illness, are the youngest child in the family or are only children.

When school phobia is suspected, an educational psychologist should be asked to make the diagnosis and will then help the child, parents and teachers to draw up a programme to reintegrate the child with school life.

The local educational welfare officer is also likely to be closely involved. This is a difficult condition, but it is imperative to set up a programme of action at the earliest possible stage to ensure that the child doesn’t develop too rigid an attitude. It is also essential that the school be as sympathetic to the problem as possible. The child is rarely being deliberately negative – they probably want to conform with their peers and settle back into school too, but anxiety repeatedly gets the better of them.

Key characteristics

A child with school phobia may:

  • have a fear of being away from home
  • feel unhappy in social groups of more than five or six people
  • fear what other children’s reactions and questions will be if they do return to school and how they will answer them
  • have low confidence and self-esteem and hate being the centre of attention
  • complain of a range of illnesses eg. headache, fatigue, sickness, diarrhoea, dizziness
  • have a fear of something tragic happening to a family member while they are at school
  • be shy and emotionally immature.

Support strategies

You may need to:

  • work closely with the education welfare officer and the educational psychologist
  • discuss the possible reasons for the child’s anxiety with the parents
  • liaise with the outside agencies who may be counselling both the child and their family
  • provide reassurance and encouragement when the child is brought to school
  • go into the classroom with the child to support them and to divert attention from them if they return to school during a lesson time
  • avoid the settings and situations that cause anxiety eg. pre-empt or deflect the other children’s questions or help the child know how to answer them without prompting too many more
  • encourage the child to deal with their anxieties when they feel ready to do so
  • provide a quiet, familiar place where the child can go when they feel anxious
  • create familiar routines and encourage the child to take part in some of them
  • provide an adult mentor to listen to the child and encourage them to talk about their anxieties
  • provide activities for the child to do at home when necessary, but ask the parents to encourage the child to bring the completed activities into school
  • give lots of praise and warm encouragement at every opportunity.