Students cope with school refusal

A student sits empty in a classroom upstairs at Salem High School due to absence. May 22, 2024.
A student sits empty in a classroom upstairs at Salem High School due to absence. May 22, 2024.
Sophie Teefey

As reported in The New York Times, school refusal levels have doubled since the pandemic in 2020 due to increased levels of anxiety in students; subsequently, students struggle to get the help they need. 

Maggy Smith, a graduate with the Class of 2024 through Michigan Virtual Academy who was originally a 2025 graduate at Salem High School, describes how being at school wasn’t the best option for her. “In person school began to become a chore to get up and go to everyday. I needed an alternative way to learn.” Smith decided in-school learning wasn’t right for her so she switched to virtual learning. 

Anxiety has two levels. Both physically and emotionally, children struggle. Lisa Quaglia, a cognitive behavioral therapist in Plymouth, Michigan, says students’ typical behaviors make their anxiety worse for their situation.

“The best advice I can give to a person struggling with school refusal is to educate them on how anxiety is perpetuated and worsened through avoidance. The more you avoid what triggers anxiety–the greater your anxiety becomes. So, if they refuse to go to school, they are unintentionally making their anxiety more severe,” says Quaglia.

Quaglia also suggests reducing social media use to decrease levels of anxiety.

Clinical social worker at Corewell Health in Trenton, Michigan, Maria LaRoy, believes that school refusal and anxiety have become more prevalent. LaRoy says one of the ways parents can help their children “reduce their anxiety” is to “show the child support and understanding about what they are going through. Avoid forcing them to go to school; reach out to school/teacher to discuss absence and develop a plan to make up work,” suggests LaRoy.

LaRoy, in an email, encourages “counseling/therapy to assist with identifying and developing coping strategies,” and “discussing alternative options for schooling: alternative, online, [and other course of actions].”

An unnamed student arrives late to Salem High School at the front of the building through the main office doors. May 22, 2024 (Sophie Teefey)

Life continues to move on, school isn’t the only factor in life. Angela Flynn, current Canton High School Class of 2025 student, explains her thought process when preparing to wake up and go to school. “My first thought is, ‘Can I go another day?’”

Everyone experiences the morning routine differently and in this case, it is shown from the view of someone who struggles to attend school. “I force myself out of bed after sitting there fighting with my mind to get up. The whole time I’m getting ready I don’t feel like I’m doing it for myself; I feel like I’m doing it to not get judged by other people,” says Flynn. 

There are multiple classes and activities a school can require students to focus on at one time, and that puts a lot of pressure on students. “Schools need to be more understanding. Teachers act as if their class is the only class that matters, forgetting every student has at least one other class to worry about; many have six classes altogether,” says Flynn.

Planning out the day can keep it smooth and organized to encourage a routine that pushes children to get up and go to school. “I was lucky to always be a planner, so organization comes naturally to me. I still struggle with keeping track of everything, so I can’t imagine how kids that aren’t good with organization feel,” says Flynn.  

 LaRoy works with three to five children a week in the hospital, and the “majority of them express some level of anxiety,” says LaRoy. Quaglia on the other hand sees “twenty [20] clients on average per week.”

Anxiety is seen throughout patients of different varieties. Professionals suggest that children who struggle with school refusal should reach out to someone for help. A therapist like Quaglia, or a social worker like LaRoy, are two examples of where to seek and find help. 

“The help I sought while I was in school was the school counselor. Even my parents were understanding,” Smith says. “As soon as you feel yourself slipping, make sure you talk to a counselor to get back on track or create a game plan. Don’t just give up.” 

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