School anxiety, also school phobia or school refusal, refers to an intense fear of school. It is a form of anxiety disorder that can occur in children or adolescents and can be caused by various factors. The word anxiety comes from the Latin “angor”, which means anxiety. Children and adolescents with school anxiety feel strong fears when it comes to going to school, manifesting in physical symptoms such as stomach aches, nausea, headaches or even panic attacks. School anxiety can cause affected children or adolescents to avoid school or have difficulty coping with everyday school life, which can lead not only to significant impairments in learning but also in general social development. A distinction is made between academic “performance anxiety” and “social anxiety”, whereby performance anxiety includes the fear of making mistakes or exam anxiety, while social anxiety can be the fear of rejection by parents, teachers or classmates. Children’s and young people’s well-being at school is a crucial factor in being able to learn well, so that such fears have been increasingly focused on in national and international comparative performance studies for some years now, whereby it has become apparent that fears of failure and social fears have become even more pronounced, especially as a result of the Corona pandemic.
The consequences of school anxiety can be serious and if it becomes entrenched, which many children seem to show as early as primary school age, it can have a negative impact on learning success. Repeated failures then reinforce anxiety, which in turn can lead to avoidance strategies and push the anxiety spiral even higher, with the most common reaction to anxiety or a threat being avoidance. The causes of anxiety vary, often being at school in the form of pressure to perform, fear of failure or bullying, and in many cases also being the cause of truancy.
Treatment for school anxiety can vary depending on the individual situation. Therapy approaches may include cognitive behavioural therapy, social skills support, family therapy or other interventions to manage the anxiety and build the child or young person’s confidence. Close cooperation between parents, teachers and school psychologists can be helpful in providing the best possible support for a child.