Long-Term Effects of School Refusal Beyond Educational Outcomes

We need to rethink how we conceptualize school refusal, particularly in younger children. We tend to think that it does not make a difference for an elementary school child to be pulled from class for an extra day of vacation or a doctor’s appointment followed by an afternoon of personal errands. However, by the time they reach middle or high school, skipping class with or without parental approval is seen as a sign of truancy or delinquency. 
Researchers at Ohio State University used data from the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, which monitored school absenteeism from kindergarten through eighth grade, to analyze a variety of outcomes in young adulthood. Their findings suggest that school absenteeism had a less significant effect on behavior issues, but was associated with many other factors leading to failure to launch. 

When is School Absence Considered School Refusal?

Absences and tardies may be inevitable, based on sick days, traffic, and doctor’s appointments. As kids learn early on that a missed hour or two of class may not affect their ability to catch up on homework and stay on track academically, they may be more likely to skip classes in high school to spend time with friends or sleep in. When these hours add up, schools may take disciplinary action. Ironically, disciplinary action often looks like in-school or out-of-school suspension, leading to a greater number of absences–this time, school-sanctioned. With this approach to attendance, it is not surprising that many teens become disillusioned with class participation and attendance policies.
After a period of time and missed assignments, skipping class can turn into school refusal. School refusal is distinguished from normal avoidance by several factors:

  • Frequent physical complaints and trips to the school nurse, often for no real medical reason or on days when assignments are due
  • How long your teenager has been avoiding school
  • How they spend their time when they refuse to go to school
  • How much distress they associate with attending school
  • How strongly they resist
  • Willingness to complete work at home
  • Whether they try to hide their absences
  • How much their resistance is interfering with their personal life and the family dynamic
  • The types of situations at school that they are trying to avoid, such as being bullied, struggling to fit in, and academic pressure

How Does School Absence Affect Long-Term Goals?

According to one of the lead authors at Ohio State’s Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy, Arya Ansari, “Absenteeism in those early years of school has pretty far-reaching consequences. It goes beyond just affecting your education and how well you do in high school. Showing up less to school in those early years may set dangerous precedents.”
“Results of the study showed that school absenteeism didn’t have any relation with criminal, risky or deviant behavior. But it was linked to political engagement and educational and economic success,” explained Ansari. “If you start out being disengaged with school, you may end up being less engaged with society more broadly. You’re less likely to vote, less likely to go to college, less likely to be employed.”
All of these factors are significant in determining one’s motivation to set and work towards short and long term goals. Teenagers are often thinking about the immediate consequences of skipping school–figuring out missed assignments, hiding it from their parents, giving excuses to teachers–but they rarely think that their actions will have an impact on their future, especially if they are able to maintain passing grades.

How Does Experiential Education Increase Motivation to Participate in School?

At Trails Carolina, many of our students have struggled with learning differences, a lack of motivation, problems with authority figures, and mental health issues that have affected their academic motivation. They’ve internalized the problems they’ve had as a reflection of their intelligence and their potential and given up on their personal academic goals when they first come to our wilderness program.
The outdoors provides a unique and hands-on learning environment where students can apply the skills they’ve learned to everyday scenarios and gain deeper insight into the meaning of these lessons. Integrating experiential education into our program empowers students to see education as an opportunity for curiosity, new perspectives, and connection.
Unlike other wilderness programs where academics are only “in the field”, we believe in the value of a more traditional environment back at base camp. Academics are often where students struggle and become frustrated, so significant progress can be made. It is also beneficial that students practice in a classroom environment so they are more easily able to adapt to their home classroom after their time at Trails.
Contact us at 800-975-7303 to learn more about our wilderness therapy academic program!

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Avatar of Jeremy Whitworth

Jeremy Whitworth

As Executive Director at Trails Carolina, a leading wilderness therapy program for youth and teens, I oversee operations and collaborate with our leadership team. Since 2022, I've also hosted the Common Ground Podcast for parents: https://trailscarolina.com/common-ground-podcast/ With a background in Wilderness Leadership and Experiential Education, I've managed adventure-based therapeutic programs across the US and Canada. My experiences in competitive athletics and adventure sports have honed my leadership, risk assessment, and decision-making skills, which I apply to running a successful business like Trails Carolina.

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Trails saved my daughter’s life. Amanda is an amazing human and a brilliant therapist. I am so grateful to her, Science Steve, and the other wonderful people who could reach my daughter at a time when I could not.

Margot Lowman August 2022

Great life changing experience for our son. After becoming addicted to gaming during covid he was very depressed. At Trails he experienced the wilderness, Science Steve, learning survival skills and top notch therapy and support etc… I highly recommend! This gave our son and our family a renewed family bond full of love and excitement about his bright future.

Winnifred Wilson July 2022


Outstanding clinical work and superb staff! There’s a great culture at this company and it shows with how they engage with families/clients.

Kristin Brace June 2022


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