When School Anxiety Turns Into School Refusal

School Refusal is a common problem among students coming to the Chrysalis School in Montana

Did you know that school refusal is a diagnosis? Many people associate school refusal with defiance or truancy, but often that is not the case, particularly for a Chrysalis student. Outpatient clinicians are noting that they’re seeing an increased number of students who are refusing to attend school. By definition school refusal is the refusal to attend school due to emotional distress.

Prior to Chrysalis, some of our students did not attend school due to anxiety caused by a variety of reasons – social, academic, or performance anxiety. This anxiety often presents itself as physical illness where students complain of feeling sick before the school day, or even just before a dreaded class or social interaction. This behavior is often misunderstood as defiance when in reality it is typically an overwhelming and debilitating flood of emotions. For a student who struggles with inadequate self-confidence, the middle or high school lunchroom can be a social war zone. Teachers may seem intimidating and uncaring. The pressures of honor roll, college acceptance, and extracurricular activities can be staggering. Modern day culture often interferes with allowing adolescents to do what they’re supposed to do: establish a healthy sense of identity.

The developmental job of an adolescent is to explore who she might be, and what she wants to represent. This can be a messy, non-linear process, and our current competitive culture is telling teenagers that they need to be the best at everything they try. There is an implicit pressure that being on the soccer team is not enough; you must be the captain, or better yet, the MVP and the captain. Freshmen in high school are being asked where they might go to college, and if they want to play a sport at the collegiate level. Not every healthy fourteen-year-old is going to know where (or if) she will attend college. While it is healthy to have long-term goals and be college-bound, it can often be unreasonable to put such untimely and premature pressure on a 14-year old.

Chrysalis is intentional about combining academic rigor with a nurturing environment. In that setting, students are not only comfortable attending school, but they also develop a love for learning. Teachers are addressed on a first name basis. Every student has an academic advisor who works directly with her therapist. In other words: staff and students are humans before they’re staff and students. We do not push students through grade levels simply because that is what state standards tell us to do. We want students to learn their own learning style and how to advocate for themselves. Learning is fun, and we hope to create life-long learners at Chrysalis.