“Couldn’t I Just Stay Home from School Forever?”
School avoidance is common among children with ADHD. Bullying, boredom, bad grades, or even an untreated condition may all explain why your child is avoiding school. Use these expert strategies to find out what’s upsetting your child before problems snowball.
School avoidance can be a problem at any point in a child’s school career — and identifying the underlying reasons why your child doesn’t want to go to school isn’t easy. Many of our children can’t put into words why they want to stay home.
There are developmental stages when children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) are more likely to dread going to school: preschool and kindergarten, and the transitions to middle and high school. Reasons for school avoidance vary from separation anxiety in young children to fear of increasing academic demands in middle and high school. High levels of anxiety, peer rejection, or bullying can play a role. Then, of course, there is the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many students with ADHD have “good reasons” for avoiding school beyond virus concerns. Delayed brain maturity, undiagnosed learning problems, and executive skill deficits make schoolwork difficult. If these issues are not addressed, they will fall behind academically, possibly fail a grade, and may drop out of school.
Reasons for ADHD School Avoidance
Stressful home or school situations. At home: marital problems, divorce, death, financial struggles, fatigue related to untreated sleep problems. At school: being bullied (in person, online, or while riding the bus or waiting at the bus stop), being embarrassed by a teacher in front of the class.
Under-performing in the classroom. A child may have undiagnosed learning deficits (in written expression, math), falling behind academically, or failing a class. She may feel anxious about speaking in front of the class.
Difficult social situations. A child may be rejected by his peers or not have a buddy to rely on in school.
Skipping school because it’s not enjoyable or “fun.” Students who have ADHD that is not well-treated, undiagnosed learning problems, or deficits in executive skills would rather be anywhere else than at school.
Uncomfortable, painful, or untreated conditions. Health problems — toothaches, hunger, asthma, untreated allergies or sleep disorders, Crohn’s disease, sickle cell anemia, or chemotherapy for cancer treatment — make it nearly impossible for students to concentrate and complete work. Untreated anxiety also has a major effect on school performance. Trauma related to abuse, divorce, death, or incarceration of a parent will also impede learning.
ADHD School Avoidance in Preschool and Kindergarten
School avoidance is common in preschool and kindergarten children with ADHD who are separating from their parents for the first time. They may cling to their parents, cry, or have a tantrum.
The outward manifestation of their anxiety may appear as stomachaches, headaches, nausea, or “I’m feeling bad.” If there’s a new baby in the home, a young child may want to stay home because he feels insecure and worries that he will be displaced by the new sibling. Frequent trips to the school nurse for no reason or requests to call home may indicate such feelings. A child may act out by running out of the classroom and hiding.
School Avoidance in Middle and High School
Reasons for school avoidance are more complicated when students reach middle and high school. Demands on executive skills (working independently, getting started and finishing work, being organized) increase significantly during these years, and these skills are usually deficient in students with ADHD. Sleep disturbances and delayed sleep cycles occur in more than half of children with ADHD, making them too tired too often. If they have poor social skills, they may be rejected by their classmates, and are at risk of being bullied.
Parents should be on the lookout for signs of anxiety and depression. Many students with ADHD feel overwhelmed during these key transition years and blame their challenges on themselves.
ADHD School Avoidance Responses
After the pandemic, parents can pave the way for the transition to preschool by occasionally taking the child to day care for a few hours or to nurseries at their church, synagogue, or community center. Taking a child for a visit to meet the teacher and see the classroom before the official start of school is also helpful. In situations where the child is clinging to the mother, a skilled teacher will be able to capture the child’s interest by describing fun classroom activities.
For elementary school-aged kids and older, parents need a set standard for determining whether a child is sick enough to stay home. If there are no obvious symptoms, say, “Let’s see if your temperature is over 100 degrees.” In addition, make staying home boring. “If you’re sick, you need to stay in bed and sleep.” Take your child’s cell phone and remove other screens from the room. No company after school or at evening events is allowed.
Make it clear that missed assignments must be made up immediately. Contact teachers to find out assignments, and pick up needed books from school that day, if possible. If your child is feeling better by the evening, have her work on the assignments.
Address undiagnosed school challenges. Request assessment of your child’s executive skills to determine eligibility for either an IEP or a 504 Plan. Talk with the school counselor and psychologist to alert them to your child’s challenges and seek their advice. If your child fears public speaking, talk with the teacher about allowing him to give his speech privately, then, eventually, to the class.
Ask your physician whether your child’s medication needs to be adjusted. The medication dose may be too low for her to do well academically. Medication adjustments are often required during adolescence, as students mature physically and hormone levels change. Stay in touch with classroom teachers to reassess the effectiveness of medication levels.
A parent should also talk with her doctor if her teen is having sleep problems, or if anxiety or depression is affecting her functioning at school.
Chris Zeigler Dendy, M.S., is a former educator with 40 years of experience. She is the author of Teenagers with ADD & ADHD: A Guide for Parents and Teaching Teens with ADD, ADHD, & Executive Function Deficits. Dendy, with her son, Alex, created a DVD titled Real Life ADHD: A Survival Guide for Children & Teens.
Don’t Forget About the Bully Factor
Regardless of the grade level, if bullying is the reason for school avoidance, it must be addressed. Talk with school officials and solicit their help.
Encourage your school to institute a bullying prevention program. Since adults are not always good at estimating the severity of bullying at school, ask school officials to do an anonymous survey of students: Find out how, when, and where bullying occurs. Once “hot spots” are identified, the school could provide more supervision where bullying is most likely to occur.
If your child is being bullied, find activities outside of school where your child can be successful and receive positive feedback. Identify his interests and strengths, then encourage his participation in activities at which he can excel: sports, theatre, art, debate, or something else.
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