When Student Anxiety Gets in the Way of Attending School
Since the pandemic, mental health strains on youth have been put in the spotlight.
Pandemic closures provided some students with a chance to notice how stressed they are at school, says Jayne Demsky, founder of School Avoidance Alliance, an advocacy group that provides professional training to schools.
The time away from physical classrooms gave children and teens an experience with which to contrast the regular anxiety of being at school. Now that in-person school is back in session, Demsky argues, schools now have to coax these students back into the building.
“Just like [adults] rethought our work-life balance, and our employers had to treat us kindly and reengage us and to show us why we should work for them — kids are the same,” Demsky says.
Many students are missing school completely, and the number of chronically absent students — defined as those who miss 10 percent or more of the school year — has increased. Since the pandemic, roughly 13.6 million students are chronically absent.
Some share of students missing from school are suffering from school avoidance, sometimes also called school refusal, which is when children experience severe emotional or physical distress about going to school.
Rather than just a distaste for school, refusal can be visceral.
“These kids might be hiding in the corner crying under their covers, tantruming and glued to their beds, or holding onto a wall, so their parents can’t drive them to class,” Demsky says.
Avoidance has become a crisis in recent years, one that schools aren’t prepared to handle, according to mental health experts. Long term, it can leave students unprepared for life. It can knock students off the traditional developmental path and leave them without crucial social and emotional skills, says Anne Marie Albano, a clinical psychologist with experience in school avoidance. Often, other psychologists who spoke with EdSurge noted, there are underlying conditions that can exacerbate anxiety around school as well.
The strain of mental health woes has ratcheted up pressure on schools to provide support. But schools are stretched thin for mental health staff, with as many as 100,000 more mental health professionals needed around the country.
Some districts have gotten creative. A school district in Virginia even constructed a middle school building with extra glass in the hopes that more natural light will serve as a palliative. But a more common approach has been to ink contracts with telehealth companies.
Still, for families and teachers trying to tackle school avoidance, it can mean that there are few resources for the specialized interventions students need.
There are no clinical diagnostic criteria for avoidance, which takes a different form for each child. But generally, it’s marked by sustained absence, which gets harder to correct the longer the student is out of the classroom, Albano says. Unlike some other forms of absence, it won’t go away on its own but requires intervention that’s tailored to the student and can account for the deeper reasons a student is avoiding school, she adds. Those reasons tend to be highly specific to the individual students, she specifies.
But it’s hard to solve a problem you don’t know about.
Many parents have never heard of school avoidance, and educators aren’t comprehensively trained on it, according to activists and health care professionals. Not all clinicians even know how to treat school avoidance. For parents, “It’s scary,” says Demsky of School Avoidance Alliance.
Schools can conflate avoidance with truancy or other forms of absenteeism that fail to consider the anxiety causing it, Demsky says. (Demsky started her organization after her experiences with her own son’s school avoidance, which led the police to her doorstep and left her “on the verge of an emotional breakdown.”)
The nuance can get lost in efforts to get students back in physical classrooms.
Post-pandemic, legislatures have looked to increase penalties for students missing school. Penalties can range from fines to threats of jail time if the parents are found to have failed to get their kids to school. In Texas, for instance, lawmakers proposed hiking up the fines for truancy to cut down on absences earlier this year. It was controversial with family groups for penalizing missed school rather than remedying the root causes.
But treating refusal like truancy makes it harder to solve the problem, according to activists like Demsky. “I’ve spoken to families and they said, ‘hey, if I could pay $500 and go to jail for a week and have my kid get better and go to school, I would do it.’ So that just shows you how desperate families are,” she says.
Instead, Demsky calls for schools to recognize when refusal is occurring, and to follow evidence-based paths. That means psychological evaluations, finding out whether there’s an undiagnosed learning disability that’s making school acutely uncomfortable for the student, and other measures such as exposure therapy, she says.
In the schools she works with, that requires finding “a champion,” someone who has a connection with the student to help draw them back into the school, she says. In that, it’s similar to addressing chronic absenteeism in general, which Hedy Chang, executive director of the nonprofit Attendance Works, says boils down to meaningful relationships.
For beleaguered educators, it’s yet another hat they’re being asked to wear. But for some students, it may be crucial, activists say.
“Schools have to step in and take the place of those missing mental health professionals. And they really have to step up and become the support structure for these families,” Demsky says.