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School Phobia: ‘I’m Not Stupid, I’m Scared’

Imagine getting up every day to go to a job like that. Imagine knowing, really knowing, that to go is to invite feeling like you’re having a heart attack (perhaps several “heart attacks”) during the day. Imagine no escape. Imagine if the people you thought loved you the most kept making you do it, day after day, year after year.

Survival Strategies and Their Cost

Some kids learn to handle the situation by “leaving.” Some leave by being chronically late or truant. Some “leave” by turning to marijuana or other drugs. Others “leave” by derailing the class when they know a subject is coming up that makes them afraid. They act up, make a joke, ask an irrelevant question, or trip a classmate. Others disengage by doodling, daydreaming, or focusing on something else. Kids who really don’t want to be in conflict with their teachers but still need to “leave” often find internal tricks for avoiding the lessons that make them afraid. One kid I know starts to count all the corners in a room when he has to get near a math lesson. (Have you any idea just how many right angles are in a room? Counting them can keep you busy for a long time.) Another kid I know subtracts backwards from 10,000 by sixes. 10,000, 9,994, 9,988, 9,982, etc. It takes concentration. It takes him away from the situation that makes him afraid.

The trouble with “leaving,” however a kid might do it, is that it works, but at a cost. Such tactics help the child tolerate staying in, what for him, is an intolerable situation. They don’t work, of course, in that the child neither masters the fear nor the lesson at hand.

Teachers Aren’t Always Helpful

There are good teachers who understand just how discouraged and afraid of school a child can be. But teachers, being teachers, generally do what they are trained to do. They try to reassure the child that the lesson isn’t really that hard. They break the lesson into smaller steps. They try to take a running start at a hard concept by introducing easier ones first. They individualize. They give the child extra time, extra help, extra resources. But no matter what the teacher does, if the child gets frustrated — and scared — enough, he will “leave” (either physically or by disengaging from the whole thing). The child doesn’t learn — not because the teacher and the child aren’t trying, but because it’s just like the situation with the dog. A dog is a dog is a dog and the kid is afraid of dogs. School is school is school. The kid is afraid of school. Unless the fear is dealt with, the child will never get near it.

School Phobia: ‘I’m Not Stupid, I’m Scared’

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. (2020). School Phobia: ‘I’m Not Stupid, I’m Scared’. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.