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Helping Children Who Fear School

And yet, it doesn’t have to be this way. Phobias can be mastered, and doing so involves four basic steps. These include:

  1. Education;
  2. Learning self-soothing techniques;
  3. Developing a hierarchy of frightening events; and
  4. Confronting each item on the hierarchy, using self-soothing techniques to settle down.

Step 1—Education: Students who have developed phobias seldom know what it is. All they know is that they are upset about things that other people find ordinary. They feel weird. They often wonder what is wrong with them.

The first step in mastering a phobia is to help a child or teen understand what is going on. These kids need to know that, although their situation is painful, it isn’t weird. Rather, it is a normal reaction to a painful situation.

Step 2—Learning self-soothing techniques: Students with phobias have usually fallen on a number of ways to “leave” the situation. They “leave” because it is just too painful to stay. The counselor works with the student to help him understand all the various ways that he leaves the situation as well as the many ways the student already knows to calm himself. He also spends time on breathing techniques and self-assurance techniques so that the student can practice independently from the counselor.

Step 3—Developing a hierarchy of frightening events: Once the student and counselor have figured out what is frightening to the student, they must work together to make a list of things that are related to the situation but that have varying degrees of fear attached.

When first asked what about writing was “okay” for him, Jake said that even thinking about it made him want to run. But when pressed, he was able to come up with the following list. He was then asked to rank the degree of “scariness” from 0 to 100.

Degree of Scariness

  • Looking at a pencil: 10
  • Holding a pencil: 10
  • Being asked to write the alphabet: 30
  • Being asked to write his name: 30
  • Writing a list of things he wants to do that only he will see: 40
  • Writing a short note to a friend or family member: 50
  • Writing a paragraph-long assignment: 70
  • Writing a page-long assignment: 80
  • Writing an answer on the blackboard in front of the class: 90
  • Answering fill-in-the-blank questions on a test: 90
  • Answering essay questions on a test: 100

By doing this exercise, Jake and his counselor learned something important: The items at the top of the scale involved situations in which he felt that he was under pressure and would be judged by others. They decided to include some focus on these issues as well as the fears in the course of their work together.

Step 4—Confronting each item on the hierarchy, using self-soothing techniques to settle down: At this stage, the counselor systematically works with Jake to actually do each of the items on the hierarchy, from the task that has the lowest stress level to the task that has the highest. As they move up the hierarchy, they talk a lot about how Jake feels. They work on using the new soothing techniques. They take their time. As Jake settles himself down during each event, he gains confidence in his ability to do just that—calm himself down. He learns that the alternative to leaving is to stay and work it through. He learns that he can take charge of how he reacts and feels in the situation. He learns to trust himself again.

Getting Back on Track

Left untreated, school phobia can have negative consequences for a child’s present and future. A child who is anxious and scared about some aspect of school cannot and will not learn that piece of the curriculum. Equally worrisome is that the child also learns that he can’t learn. Self-esteem and motivation plummet. A bright, capable child grows into an adult who is limited by both gaps in knowledge and by his own fears. It’s an unnecessary outcome. Careful treatment designed specifically to address a particular child’s phobia can help such a child get back on track and fulfill his own potential.

Last reviewed:
On 3 Oct 2005
By John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Helping Children Who Fear School

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Helping Children Who Fear School. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 22, 2019, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.