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What is School Refusal?

Also known as school phobia, school refusal is a situation in which a child misses a significant number of days of school and presents with vague physical symptoms. School refusal is often brought on by stress, and their parents’ divorce is one of the most common sources of stress in a child’s life.

Many parents who are in the process of divorcing do not have a great deal of emotional energy to dedicate to a child who doesn’t want to go to school. This is particularly true if the child does not seem especially sick, but still resists attending school or returns home in the middle of the school day. Florida law requires that children must attend school, but schools do not necessarily have the resources to intervene when a child is refusing.

If you are in the midst of a family crisis such as divorce and your child is refusing to attend school, here are some strategies you can try:


  • Don’t give in — It is very likely that your child is responding to emotional stress at home. This is not where the child belongs, and you can tell them so. Let your child know you are managing and that you have an emotional support system. Consider getting one if you don’t have one.
  • Eliminate other possibilities — Don’t jump to conclusions about your child’s school refusal without consulting with the school and your physician. Make sure that they are not being bullied and confirm that they are not actually ill.
  • Speak to the truant officer — Every school district has a person who is responsible for keeping children in school. You might be able to explain your situation over the phone and ask the officer to call or visit your child.
  • Ask for a team meeting — It is helpful to have everyone who has contact with your child during the school day to understand the situation. Assemble the teachers, principal, school counselor and nurse and discuss strategies for helping your child feel safe and happy at school. If the nurse is instructed to give your child a cup of tea, or some other soothing treat, and send your child back to class (rather than home), the problem might resolve faster.
  • Involve a therapist — While you should insist to your child that they must attend school, at the same time, don’t neglect your child’s emotional distress. For a young child, play therapy can prove helpful for anxiety. Older children and teens often respond better to cognitive behavioral therapy or a group setting.

Your divorce lawyer can provide you with a list of referrals for addressing the emotional stress of divorce. In addition, your attorney can stipulate in your agreement that the cost of therapy for your children be a shared expense.

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