School refusal is an important pediatric problem with significant negative short- and long-term outcomes. Specific psychosocial treatments appear effective in reducing school refusal, but many children do not respond to these treatments. Although systematic reviews have examined the efficacy of psychological interventions for school refusal, no systematic reviews on pharmacological interventions exist.
We conducted a comprehensive literature search of MEDLINE, PsycINFO, Scopus, and Embase for randomized controlled trials (RCTs) or quasi-experimental pharmacologic trials in children and adolescents with school refusal reported in English or Spanish until July 1, 2017. Two authors screened study titles and abstracts for eligibility. Data regarding the population, intervention, comparison, and outcomes for each trial were extracted and reported. Effect sizes for school attendance are presented.
The search identified 6 articles, including 7 trials (6 RCTs and 1 open label) and 306 youths. Pharmacologic treatments investigated for school refusal included antidepressants (imipramine, clomipramine, and fluoxetine) and benzodiazepines (alprazolam). All pharmacotherapies studied had pretreatment to posttreatment improvements on school refusal, depression, and anxiety symptoms. However, included trials were severely underpowered and did not demonstrate significant improvement compared to placebo.
Data regarding pharmacological treatments for school refusal are sparse. Most trials in this area were conducted before development of newer antidepressants, were underpowered, and have significant methodological limitations that are characteristic of the time in which they were conducted. This systematic review highlights the need for more trials with newer pharmacologic agents, larger sample sizes, and improved systematic assessments of school refusal and comorbidities. School refusal represents an important functional outcome for many children, especially those with anxiety and depression. Future pharmacologic studies of anxiety and depression in children may benefit from incorporating specific school refusal measures as secondary outcomes.
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