When kids refuse to go to school

When kids refuse to go to school
If your child consistently refuses to go to school, it shouldn’t be taken lightly. How should you react?

A child might have a momentary urge to skip school. However, when they consistently don’t want to go to school anymore, and it lasts days and weeks, it can be difficult for a parent to understand why.

If your child also has physical symptoms (stomachaches, nausea, headaches) or if they seem anxious (link in French) or depressed, such behaviours should be taken seriously. They might be trying to escape a situation that makes them anxious. If that’s the case, letting your child miss class is likely to add to their distress. In fact, the longer it takes for a child to return to school, the more anxiety they’ll feel since they’ll start to believe there is a real danger present. As a parent, your role is to try to understand why your child might not want to go to school and encourage them to face their fears.

Why are they refusing to go to school?

There could be many reasons why they don’t want to go to school. It might be a combination of factors that have compounded, such as a lack of self-confidence, a recent move, or a bad relationship with another student. Here are some of the most common reasons:

  • They have a hard time being away from their parents. Being away from their parents or home could make them feel insecure, and they might fear that something bad will happen to their parents. This can be based on a real fear (e.g., a sick parent) or an imagined one.
  • They have a hard time mingling with other children.
  • They are experiencing conflicts at school and don’t know how to resolve them.
  • They are a victim of bullying.
  • They lack self-confidence or are afraid of failure. They don’t want to make mistakes, or are afraid of being criticized or failing an exam.
  • They have a learning disability and don’t know how to overcome it.
According to the Education Act, school attendance is compulsory in Quebec from the age of 6 until the end of the school year during which a child turns 16. Parents must do everything in their power to ensure their child goes to school.
  • Expectations of them are too high.
  • Their parents are overprotective.
  • They are having a hard time adapting to a change (moving, changing schools, a new teacher, a separation, an illness).
  • They are experiencing conflicts at home.
  • They want to stay at home with their parent (who is working from home, on parental leave, etc.).

How should you react?

Refusing to go to school can happen at any time. If this happens to your child, here are a few things you can do to help them through this difficult time.

  • First and foremost, insist that your child go to school. Don’t think that their anxiety will go away on its own. Encourage them to face their fears while reassuring them. Tell them that it’s okay to be scared, that they can face their fears, and that you’re there for them. Talk to your child’s teacher to see if there’s anything they can do to help.
  • Try to determine the cause of your child’s fears and help them recognize their emotions. Ask them questions, without pushing them too hard, but keep listening. It’s important to not make fun of them or downplay their fears. Don’t hesitate to contact their teacher if you need more help finding the root of the problem.
  • Set a time for your child to talk to you about their fears during the day. Invite them to take advantage of this time, and use it to reassure them. It’s important to choose a specific time (ideally not just before bedtime) and set a time limit. Otherwise, if your child is constantly being reassured, they will become more anxious and only seek further reassurance. By providing them with an opportunity to open up to you, you’ll allow them to express their fears without drawing attention to them at inopportune moments. Use this time to help them find solutions.
  • Help them find ways to relax and manage their emotions and stress (link in French). If you’re sure that they aren’t actually sick, don’t overindulge them when they say they aren’t feeling well.
  • Work with them to identify their negative thoughts and try to replace them with positive ones. For example, you can take a sheet of paper and write down fun things they can do at school (e.g., learn new things, make new friends, play new games, etc.). You can also help them change their way of thinking. For example, if they say they’re afraid of failing at everything, you can get them to verbalize that the most important thing is to do their best.
  • Praise your child when they successfully face their fears. Tell them you’re proud of them. To encourage them, you can also establish a system of positive reinforcement by giving them a marble or sticker every time they’re ready to go to school on time. Later, they can exchange them for a reward.
  • Keep calm. If you show your child that you’re anxious, stressed, or frustrated, you might make their anxiety worse.
  • When you talk to them about school, be assertive and leave no room for interpretation. For example, you can say: “Get ready for school,” instead of “Are you ready for school?” You can also use the word “when” instead of “if” whenever possible. For example, instead of saying “If you go to school tomorrow . . .” say “When you go to school tomorrow . . .” If it helps them, you can also use a timer to help them see how much time they have before they have to leave.
  • If you’re unable to send them to school, set rules and be firm to make staying home seem less appealing. Don’t allow them to watch TV, play video games, or do any other fun activity. Make them do homework. Most importantly, do not let the situation become habitual. If necessary, you can ask your local CLSC for help on how to deal with your child’s truancy.

At school

  • If your child needs to get to school on their own but can’t, take things slow. Start by driving them to school, then drop them off on the corner near the school, then only to your own corner, etc.
  • Keep it short. Tell your child that when you get to school, you’ll give them a hug and then leave. The longer you spend saying goodbye, the more anxiety your child is likely to feel. While this may be difficult for you, it’s important not to display your own distress about the situation. Your child needs to feel that they can be confident at school.
  • Work with their teacher and principal to understand what’s going on and find solutions. Where appropriate, share your intervention strategies with the school. For example, your child should not be able to call you during the day or go home (even if they say their stomach hurts).
  • If you think your child is being bullied, don’t wait to talk to your child’s teacher or school principal.
  • If the situation persists, call a health care professional or your family doctor, or contact the psychosocial services of your local CLSC. The school psychologist can also help you find the source of the problem and come up with solutions, too.

Fear or anxiety?

Fear is a normal reaction in the face of a real danger (e.g., a fire). In this case, it’s how the body prepares to face a concrete threat. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a normal emotion in response to a feeling of danger (e.g., imagining that there is a risk of fire), but the body reacts in the same way as it would in a fear response. Anxiety becomes a problem when it causes your child to overreact, causes them great distress, is difficult for them to control, lasts for some time, and causes them to avoid certain situations. In other words, it becomes a problem when it interferes with your child’s daily functioning.
If you think your child is experiencing anxiety and it persists despite your interventions, they may have an anxiety disorder. If you have any doubts, don’t hesitate to consult a doctor, your local CLSC, or a psychologist. You can also contact Info-Social (811) to learn about resources nearby. It’s important to start treating these disorders as soon as possible to ensure your child is able to function normally.

The importance of routine

In general, routine is important for your child, but this is even truer if they refuse to go to school. They’ll feel better if the rules and boundaries are firmly established. Here are a few tips.

  • In the morning, do what you can to maintain a calm and stable routine. Try not to rush, as this will only stress your child out more. If you and your child’s other parent are separated, make sure the routine is the same in both homes.
  • Establish a clear schedule (in writing or with drawings) of their morning routine, with all steps in order: eating breakfast, brushing teeth, getting dressed, etc. If necessary, you can use a timer, which will help your child stay on task and not be late.
  • Make sure your child goes to bed at the same time every night and gets enough sleep. If they’re tired, it will be harder for them to get up be motivated to go to school. That being said, remember that not getting enough sleep is not a valid reason to miss school.
  • On Sundays, plan a fun afternoon activity and then have a quiet evening.

How can you prevent school-related anxiety?

Here are some suggestions to reduce your child’s risk of anxiety and make it easier for them to adjust to school.

  • Start a routine a few weeks before school starts to get your child used to a set schedule and make them feel secure.
  • In addition, get them used to a certain level of discipline by asking them pick up their toys and do certain chores around the house.
  • Allow them to have more and more autonomy. For example, let them choose their own clothes, dress themself, serve their own breakfast, etc.
  • Help your child relax by doing breathing exercises or yoga with them. Get them used to taking short, quiet breaks.
  • Have realistic expectations of your child. Ask them to do things they’re capable of doing, and don’t compare them to other kids.
  • Help your child make connections with other adults. For example, by asking non-family members you trust to babysit them from time to time.

What should you do if they are being bullied?

If you suspect that your child is a victim of bullying, talk to them to try to understand what’s going on. Stay calm and reassure them. Talk to your child’s teacher and school principal. Work with them to find a solution and ask the school for updates. If the bullying is serious, don’t hesitate to consult a psychologist or psychoeducator.

Things to keep in mind

  • Your child may not want to go to school for a number of reasons, such as lack of self-confidence, conflicts at school, or learning difficulties.
  • Insist that they go to school and encourage them to face their fears, all while reassuring them.
  • It’s important to work with your child’s school to find solutions. If the situation persists, consult a health care professional.


Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Ariane Leroux-Boudreault, psychologist
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir Team
October 2021

Photo: iStock.com/DianaHirsch


Sources and references

Note: The links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some URLs may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, please use search engines to find the relevant information.

  • Government of Quebec. “Compulsory school attendance.” www.quebec.ca
  • Government of Quebec. “Grounds for reporting a situation.” www.quebec.ca
  • Planète Santé. “Phobie : mon enfant ne veut plus aller à l’école.” www.planetesante.ch
  • Raising Children Network. “School refusal: Children and teenagers.” raisingchildren.net.au
  • Vaineau, Anne-Laure. “Phobie scolaire : quand l’école fait peur.” Psychologies, 2019. www.psychologies.com

Resources for parents

  • Baron, Chantal. Les troubles anxieux expliqués aux parents. Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2001, 88 pp.
  • Berthiaume, Caroline. 10 questions sur l’anxiété chez les enfants et les adolescents. Quebec City, Éditions Midi trente, 2017, 128 pp.
  • Couture, Nathalie and Geneviève Marcotte. Incroyable Moi maîtrise son anxiété. Quebec City, Éditions Midi trente, 2011, 48 pp.
  • Couture, Nathalie and Geneviève Marcotte. Super Moi surmonte sa timidité. Quebec City, Éditions Midi trente, 2015, 48 pp.
  • Doyon, Nancy. Non à l’intimidation. J’apprends à m’affirmer. Quebec City, Éditions Midi trente, 2011, 112 pp.
  • Jasmin Roy Foundation. www.fondationjasminroy.com
  • Gagnier, Nadia. À l’aide, il y a de l’intimidation à mon école : l’intimidation chez les jeunes expliquée aux parents. Les Éditions La Presse,  “Vive la vie… en famille” series, vol. 8, 2012, 120 pp.
  • Gagnier, Nadia. Maman j’ai peur, chéri, je m’inquiète : l’anxiété chez les enfants, les adolescents et les adultes. Les Éditions La Presse,  “Vive la vie… en famille” series, vol. 2, 2010, 88 pp.
  • Gibson Desrochers, Susie. Pourquoi j’ai mal au ventre : guide pratique de l’anxiété chez les enfants de 7 à 12 ans. Les Éditions Logiques, 2011, 144 pp.