Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

How to Address School Avoidance

To help reduce chronic absenteeism, schools can help students learn how to self-regulate and manage feelings of discomfort.

April 29, 2024
Wavebreakmedia / iStock

“I don’t want to go to school!” are words that induce worry, stress, and even frustration at times for the adults who care for children. Naturally, we look for an underlying cause of school avoidance, which at times is easily identified and at other times seems to entail concerning and sudden shifts in behavior and emotions without a reason.

Absenteeism and school avoidance are issues that have increased remarkably in recent years, which in turn profoundly impact academics. School avoidance is frustrating for parents, caregivers, and educators and is often a cycle that seems to quickly become habitual for some students. Avoiding school leads to missing work and detachment from peers, which leads to anxiety about returning to school, potentially leading to more absenteeism and school avoidance. An increase in parents’ working remotely from home, rising anxiety and mental health concerns, and changing attendance policies post-Covid all contribute to this concern. 

Determine a Plan for Addressing School Avoidance

Parents are faced with balancing expectations and supporting their child’s mental health, and it is hard to know when and how to best support them when faced with an upset child who doesn’t want to go to school. Educators simply cannot teach students who are not physically or emotionally present in the classroom. Addressing school avoidance requires a comprehensive intervention effort, with collaboration between parents, school administration, counselors, and educators.

Supporting students who struggle with anxiety starts with regulating ourselves as adults and approaching the student with a calm demeanor. Collaborating with parents and caregivers prior to the student’s arrival at school to discuss the plan, letting the student know when support will be available and how to access that support, and communicating this plan with classroom teachers and administrators are all important steps that can be taken to provide a consistent and supportive approach.

Acknowledge and Manage Feelings of Discomfort

Lynn Lyons, an international speaker and psychotherapist based in Concord, New Hampshire, who helps children and families manage anxiety disorders, states that she “utilize[s] a strategy that focuses not on ‘getting rid’ of thoughts, feelings, or sensations, but understanding them, at times expecting them, and learning how to manage them.” Inspired by this method, I began piloting a strategy that I call “Practice the And,” to support students with anxiety or school avoidance behaviors.

It seemed logical that instead of encouraging students to avoid feelings of discomfort by removing all barriers, we would instead teach them how to identify, anticipate, and manage uncomfortable feelings. The results were surprising, given a strategy that was really just a shift in the language that we use with students. Utilizing this strategy, we saw that students who struggled with school avoidance began to come to school more willingly, improving attendance and their overall academic performance due to an increase in instructional time. They also began transferring this strategy to other anxiety-provoking settings.

Simply put, this strategy encourages students to label emotions and what they are trying to achieve, modeling that it’s OK to feel uncomfortable when others do not share those emotions. This resilience-building strategy essentially encourages students to state what they’re feeling, followed up with the word “and” to state what they’re trying to achieve, to shift our thinking into accepting anxiety and moving forward. 

For example, if a younger student doesn’t want to come to school and is feeling worried or sad about being away from their parents, we shift away from “It’ll be fine, you’ll see your parents later. Let’s get you to class so we don’t miss story time!” to “You are feeling anxious and sad about missing your parents, and you are at school. It’s OK to have those feelings and be at school. Let’s go to the classroom together and see what the class is reading for story time.” 

For older students, encouraging them to “practice the and” more independently can be a helpful tool in developing self-awareness and resiliency. For example, asking a student what they are feeling and then making an observation about feeling that way and moving forward with a first step can be a means of modeling this strategy.

School counselors and staff can model and encourage students to follow these steps to “Practice the And” when students are present at school or even when they aren’t (through phone conversations or Zoom calls):  

  1. Identify the emotion (“I’m feeling worried”).
  2. Identify the goal to achieve (“I have to present my project in class”).
  3. Add the word and (“You are feeling worried and you are presenting your project”).
  4. Support the student in taking one small step in the environment that they are avoiding, and consider pairing that environment with a positive experience—for example, inviting a trusted adult or friend to be in the room for their presentation.
  5. Acknowledge and celebrate that they faced the situation that made them uncomfortable, and remind them that feelings are temporary and that feelings are not always facts. Keep this step simple! Acknowledgment can be a note, a thumbs-up, or a positive comment about their courage and hard work.

Managing uncomfortable emotions begins with self-awareness. We must acknowledge and become aware of emotions before we can manage them effectively. Well-intentioned adults sometimes try to offer quick emotional management fixes to help distract students from uncomfortable emotions, when our efforts may be better focused on encouraging self-awareness.

When we model that it is OK to feel uncomfortable and move forward, we support resiliency skills that can help students manage these feelings in the future. Furthermore, by using distraction as a singular strategy, we are actually modeling avoidance, which can unintentionally perpetuate avoidance behaviors.

Support a Growth Mindset

This strategy complements our work with students around using a growth mindset. We teach students that our “growth zone” is achieved when we take healthy risks, challenge ourselves, and become comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. The “Practice the And” strategy helps students to shift their thinking from avoidance to self-regulation, and ultimately that leads to an increase in their confidence and resilience.

The “Practice the And” strategy also helps students learn and embrace the fact that emotions are temporary. Anxiety often feels as though it is permanent, and it’s difficult for students to see that they will ever not feel anxious. Providing regular emotional check-ins and asking how students are feeling, or asking them to name a few emotions they are feeling at the same time, is a helpful way to reinforce the idea that emotions are ever-changing states and not permanent.

There’s a sticker on the door to my office that says, “Feelings are only visitors, let them come and let them go.” Embracing this mindset, as well as practicing the “and,” can help students move through uncomfortable emotions rather than allowing those moments to take away valuable experiences.

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  • Administration & Leadership
  • Mental Health
  • School Culture

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