I’ve been afraid to write about this topic because it has been one of the greatest trials of my life. My son has school refusal. Knowing what has been going on, and having a name for it, gives me strength to face it. For all these years, teachers and administrators have told me I am a weak mother; that if I were firmer, my son’s attendance would be better. I was even given a summons to appear in school district court one year. It was so defeating. I am hoping talking about it with you will give you some tools through my experience.
When my son started refusing to go to school, he was very small, so I just put on his shoes and carried him to the car. But as he got older, it became more difficult. The school administrators and teachers made it sound like it was just a matter of being firm about him attending, and that he would go with enough coaxing.
But they had no idea what was happening in our house. Having a diagnosis now gives me the strength to keep fighting—and makes me angry at all those who made me out to be the bad guy all these years! Now that I have answers, I want to share them in the hope that I can help you if our story sounds familiar.
Long History of Trouble
Ever since my son was in preschool, he resisted going to school. As I said before, when he was small, it was easy to just pick him up and put him in the car. Now that he is 9 years old and 100 pounds, it’s not so easy. He would scream, cry, and throw royal tantrums, refusing the whole time to go to school. He would pretend that he was sick and learned to be very convincing. In first grade, I dragged him in one day only to have him fake vomit in the trash can. His teacher immediately sent him home.
At home, he would fake vomit in the trash can, and I had to start smelling it because he could fake it so well. (It was usually a mouth full of water.) By second grade, he had perfected a fake fever and fake flu symptoms. It was always the stuff you couldn’t prove that he excelled at. The headache, stomach ache, and sore throat were his favorite excuses to stay home sick. It would start the night before, and only get more dramatic as the time for school got closer.
There were times he would pound his fists and shout that he was NOT going to school. There was nothing I could do. I tried going to school with him. In first grade, I was a first grader for an entire week. I sat in the room and just my presence helped, but as soon as I was gone, the trouble started again. So I volunteered in the lunch room. I hoped that being at lunch would give my son something to look forward to, and it eased his tension for a time. But it would always come back.
As he got older, his teachers were no longer patient with my presence at school. His second-grade teacher was a very firm woman with clear expectations for her class. I was not allowed to volunteer and had to say goodbye at the door. Things began to get worse.
My son was missing more and more school. I had tried rewards, bargaining, yelling, and even punishments. Nothing worked! To make matters worse, this battle of wills was destroying our relationship. Our family was full of tension and my relationship with my son was at a breaking point.
At this time, his teacher showed up to a 504 meeting all smiles and light only to send me a page long email of her complaints about my son’s behavior later that afternoon. It was at that point that I was done. I couldn’t take another day of school refusal. So I pulled him out of school. He was halfway through second grade. For the next year and a half, we did homeschool—and the whole house heaved a sigh of relief.
We had varying levels of success. I have great respect for homeschool families; I really admire all they do for their children. For us, the great gift of home school was that it mended our family relationships. My son and I became friends again and the terrible tension that had been in our home 24/7 disappeared. I loved the peace and love that grew in place of the frustration and hurt that was there before. I loved that experience.
But in time, he outgrew homeschool. He missed having friends to play with. So we started a new school. It was a private school just for kids on the Autism spectrum, with wonderful staff. It was the perfect place for him to be. But he was STILL acting like he was being sent to his death every morning. We are blessed with a wonderful team who took some time to educate me on the clinical diagnosis of School Refusal. I learned that there are four main causes for school refusal.
#1: Fear of Something That is Happening at School
This would be your tests, presentations, giving a speech, concert, etc.
#2: Fear of Someone AT School
Bullies, peer pressure, and even a severe teacher fall into this category.
#3: Desire to Spend Time with Mom or Dad
Let’s be honest—spending time with parents can be fun! Some kids have separation anxiety, and that can make staying home very appealing.
#4: Desire to Stay Home and Do Something Else Besides School
Wanting to stay home and play Xbox, watch TV, or work on a hobby you love.
After learning about these reasons for school refusal, I was DEEPLY discouraged. My son has ALL of those reasons for refusing to go to school. He is a tough case. But his team at school is ingenious! They have found ways to help him overcome each issue.
It’s a balancing act. But we are a team and we work on the fly sometimes. Each time something new comes up, we are learning to talk it out with my son. Each problem requires a different solution. Often, it is just communicating the concern that will help his anxiety.
Stay tuned for my next article so I can tell you how we came up with some solutions that are really helping—and hopefully you can adapt some of them for your situation.
Abby is capable and caring. She is learning more about Autism and parenthood every day. Having completed training to be an RBT (Registered Behavior Technician) for ABA therapy she is beginning to understand her son. And even though she is the first to admit she makes a lot of mistakes, she is so grateful to be on this journey. She comes from a family with many autistic members. She invites us to join her, as she shares her adventures. She wishes to emphasize that Autism is a difference not a defect. If you or a family member have autism, Abby wants you to know that the challenges can be overcome, and there are blessings in autism. You or your loved one are not sick or broken. Together we will teach the world this new language.