PITTSBURGH, August 24, 1999 — Summer is going to be over for area school children in just a couple of weeks. While most kids are excited about returning to school, about one in 100 of them have excessive or unrealistic fears of going back. These children have a disorder commonly called school anxiety or school refusal.
Symptoms for this disorder can vary from mild reluctance about going to school to severe, with a child refusing to attend school at all.
"Many children with school anxiety have underlying problems which may be causing it," said Kelly Monk, R.N., who works with children suffering school anxiety at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. "A child may be anxious about separating from his or her parents or a child may be too shy and refuse to participate in class. These problems need to be treated early for the child to be able to return to school and to prevent ongoing school refusal."
According to Ms. Monk, characteristics of school anxiety can include reluctance to attend school, physical complaints on school days or excessive emotional distress when anticipating going to school. When children do manage to get to school, they often end up in the nurse’s office asking to call home.
The onset of school anxiety can be caused by events such as transferring to a new school, divorce, birth of a sibling or even a prolonged absence from school caused by an injury or illness.
"It’s important for all kids to attend school, because it not only fosters academics, it promotes the development of crucial social skills," said Ms. Monk. "If a child is having difficulty attending school due to anxiety, it may prevent him or her from developing these important social skills."
Ms. Monk offers the following suggestions for helping to ease a child’s school anxiety:
Explain why the child must go to school;
Make sure a child is familiar with a new school – go to the school, meet the teachers, walk around, find the rest rooms and cafeteria;
If a child complains of feeling ill, talk about how worry can cause a person to feel sick;
Firmly explain that staying home from school is not an option;
Reinforce positive behavior – when an anxious child makes a gain, praise his or her behavior, compliment children when they go to school without having a tantrum;
Seek professional help quickly – prompt action will decrease the likelihood that school refusal will become a chronic problem.
For more information about treating anxiety or school phobia in children, please call 412-624-1232. UPMC is currently looking for children and adolescents ages 7 to 18 who have persistent anxiety symptoms, shyness or worries to participate in a research study. Individuals who qualify for this research study will receive a complete evaluation and treatment at no charge. All calls are confidential.