It was the middle of a typical school day at Midway High School in Waco, Texas, and the hallways were packed with noisy clusters of teens, laughing and jostling and clanging locker doors, slowly wending their way to class.
But Morgan Smith wasn’t part of the clamor. The fifteen-year-old was in the restroom, hunched in a bathroom stall, frantically texting her parents over and over: “Please, please, please, you have to come get me!”
Morgan, who qualifies as a GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) student, is articulate and self-possessed. She’s never been bullied and has lots of friends. So why does she dread school so much? She hates the constant noise and crowding. She isn’t crazy about some of her peers, either, many of whom she says are privileged and super competitive.
But Morgan’s reaction to school is about more than likes and dislikes — it’s a sensation of total panic. “As soon as I got to school, I would start worrying about having a panic attack and that would consume everything,” she recalls. “I’d sit in class and it would feel like something awful was going to happen if I didn’t get out of there. I was terrified. I’d shake and start freaking out. It was the worst feeling in the world.”
The panic made it impossible for Morgan to concentrate. “I’d get home and have no idea what the homework was,” she says. “I wouldn’t remember anything the teacher said in class because I was worrying so much.”
Many kids don’t like school, but for Morgan it was unendurable — every single day. “Sometimes it was worse in the morning, sometimes it was worse in the afternoon, some days it was bad all day,” she says. “I never had a day at school when I felt like, ‘I’m fine.’ The fear never left my head.”
Yes, there is a name for it
Morgan’s problem has a name: it’s a behavior known as “school refusal” — and it’s more common than you may think. In fact, school refusal is one of the most common childhood behavior problems, according to Chris Kearney, who directs the School Refusal and Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Kearney estimates that eight to 10 percent of all school children exhibit school refusal behavior — and miss school as a result — at some point during their school career.
If you add the many kids who resist going to school but ultimately make it in the door, the number shoots up to 28 percent. “Some of the kids we work with show up at school, but they are complete terrors before they get there,” says Kearney. “They throw tantrums, they run and hide, they refuse to get dressed — getting them to school is miserable for their parents, but they show up at school and are marked as present.”
School refusal is hard to define precisely because it shows up in very different forms depending on the individual child. Kearney distinguishes “school refusal” from “school phobia,” which is fear-based and linked to fear of a specific object or situation at school, like the fire alarm or the class snake.
School refusal is a sign of broader anxiety — separation anxiety, social anxiety, or general anxiety. Sometimes kids with school refusal complain of physical symptoms like stomachaches or headaches, but not all kids who refuse school have physical complaints. Some kids throw tantrums before school every morning; others make it to school but have trouble staying in the classroom. Some kids refuse school after a disruption or crisis at home — a move, divorce, illness, or death in the family, for example — but in many cases, school refusal behavior has no obvious trigger.
To some, school refusal may sound like a fancy name for a standard-issue schoolkid whine — A kid who doesn’t like school? So what else is new? — one that a little tough love and smart parenting could easily fix. But the behavior is often a symptom of a more serious condition, and simply laying down the law and forcing the child to go to school is likely to make the problem worse.
School refusal isn’t just an invented pathology among over-indulged American kids, either. Kearney says he gets calls from educators and practitioners from around world. “We’ve heard from people in Japan, China, Sweden, Denmark, Canada,” he says. “School refusal seems to be pretty universal.”
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