It is normal for young children sometimes to feel worried or upset when faced with routine separations from their parents or other important caregivers, causing them to cry, cling, or refuse to part. Usually, such separation anxiety fades as they grow up, begin school, and gain confidence. However, for some students, their response to actual or anticipated separations is far more extreme than their peers, and/or continues well beyond the first few years of school. For these students it is likely that they may have separation anxiety disorder.

Separation anxiety disorder can significantly interfere with, or limit, a student’s normal activities. S/he can become isolated from peers, and have difficulty developing and maintaining friendships. It can also lead to missed opportunities to learn new things and engage in fun activities, and school attendance and performance can drop. Many students with separation anxiety disorder appear depressed, withdrawn, and apathetic.

How separation anxiety impacts the student at school

In many countries throughout the world, the preschool and early childhood years marks an important developmental period when young children develop the capacity to separate from parents and caregivers, and learn to function independently in school. These early years, (approximately age 2-7), are considered a transition period as children gradually adjust to this developmental expectation, and therefore it is expected that some children will express distress or fear about being away from parents and primary caregivers for the first time. Typical behaviours during these early years include physical complaints of stomachache, nausea, and feeling “bad,” as well as clinging to a parent/caregiver, crying, having a tantrum, among other behaviours. While these behaviours are expected to lessen and then disappear as the child adjusts to his/her new environment, some children fail to adjust. They either engage in ongoing and persistent school refusal, or, experience intermittent bouts of refusal, often coinciding with a return to school on Monday mornings or after school holidays.

In addition to young children who exhibit school refusal from an early age, other students may cope relatively well in pre-school and Kindergarten, yet become distressed as school is underway and academic and social demands increase. This can happen at any time, although common periods occur with the transition into middle or high school. Like young children, the reasons can be varied for older students. For some, there is a clear history of intermittent school refusal or expression of school related distress, but it becomes most notable and persistent as the student transitions into middle or high school. For others school refusal only emerges when the student experiences demands that exceed his/her ability to cope. For example, a student that is anxious about performing in front of others will find school more unpleasant as classes require increased oral presentations or group work. For other students it is not that school becomes unpleasant as demands increase, but that the attraction of life outside of school is far more appealing. Despite these distinct differences, cutting classes or skipping school becomes the prime occupation of both groups of youth. In addition to avoiding school, these students are more likely to lie about their activities, fail to complete work on time and risk falling behind in school, and may even engage in high-risk behaviours such as using drugs or alcohol.

Downloadable Resource: Coping Strategies for Supporting Students

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