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School Can't

The school morning rush is always a difficult time for families as we try to get everyone ready and out the door to where they need to be on time. But, for an increasing number of families, mornings are filled with arguing, anxiety, and despair as children and young people struggle to make it to school. Since COVID 19 lockdowns, it’s been estimated that more than 5% of students struggled with school attendance due to emotional distress, and this number is rising steadily. This kind of difficulty with attendance is often referred to as School Reluctance, School Refusal or, School Can’t.

What is School Refusal or School Can’t?

The inability to attend school is rarely an act of defiance or oppositional behaviour. School refusal is more likely a child’s attempt to cope with their own feelings of overwhelming emotional distress associated with going to school, and a sense that the difficulties they experience are completely unmanageable when they get there. It’s very different from truancy or ‘wagging.’ Most kids are open with their parents and carers about the anxiety and emotional distress they are experiencing. They likely feel completely unable to just ‘push through’ and go to school despite their parents and carers best efforts to get them back.

Risk Factors of School Refusal

Some children and young people may be more prone to experience difficulties with school attendance than others. Factors that influence this risk are not only about the individual child, but also the family they are a part of, and the culture of the school they attend. How well (or not) this system of child, family, and school all fit together, work as a team, and communicate will be the greatest influence to how engaged a child is with their school and how they feel about attendance.

Risk Factors Children and Young People

Some of the individual risk factors for a child or young person, that may influence their inability to go to school, include:

  • Pre-existing mental health concerns (e.g., anxiety and mood disorders).

  • Neurodivergence (e.g., autism, ADHD or intellectual impairment etc.).

  • Experiencing bullying (including verbal, physical and cyberbullying).

  • Relationship problems with school staff or peers.

  • Learning disorders or difficulties (e.g., dyslexia).

  • Traumatic experiences (at home or school).

  • Stress and high achievement expectations.

  • Transitional periods such as ending or beginning new year levels, starting a new school, or moving between primary and secondary.

Risk Factors in Families

Factors within the family that influence attendance include:

  • Parent/ carer mental health concerns.

  • Low importance placed on education and attendance.

  • Poor relationship between the family and the school.

  • Family stress or difficulty (e.g., conflict, separation, or death of family member).

  • Violence within the family.

Risk Factors for School

Children and young people who avoid going to school have commonly reported some of the following experiences:

  • Lack of teacher support or classroom monitoring.

  • Fear of, or conflict with teachers.

  • Not being supported with safety from bullying.

  • Lack of safe spaces within the school.

  • Fear of unstructured time (e.g., lunchtimes) and times with less monitoring (e.g., going to the toilets).

  • Difficulty moving about the school.

  • Dislike of noisy, unpredictable, disruptive classrooms.

Early Warning Signs

The longer a child is out of school, the harder it is for them to return so early intervention is crucial. Early intervention and support can reduce the likelihood that children and young people will completely disengage from school and miss out on important learning and social opportunities. These warning signs may include:

  • Negative thoughts and feelings about school that impact and affect other parts of their life.

  • Pressure to perform academically or socially.

  • Morning tearfulness, protesting or begging to not have to go to school.

  • Tantrums, angry outbursts, or inability to get ready on school mornings.

  • Repeated, and frequent, unexplained physical and medical complaints that subside when allowed to stay home or on the weekends.

  • Challenging or clingy behaviour on arrival at school (e.g., separation anxiety).

  • Frequent, long visits to the school sick bay during the school day.

  • Repeated skipping classes or school and coming home from school early.

  • Avoiding school related events or activities with school peers.

Supporting Your Young Person getting back to School

It’s a common response for parents and carers to feel powerless when their child refuses to go to school. Many families also report feeling judged by the school and other parents for not being at to ‘just make their child go to school’. Parents and carers also report feeling unsupported, and that the responsibility falls solely on them to get their child back to school and re-engaged with education. It’s important to understand that school refusal is not a reflection of ‘bad parenting’ or a defiant child. It takes the collaborative effort of everyone involved to support the child or young person to get back to school.

It is important that children and young people know that they have a team around them for support. They are a crucial member on that team, and their input on how to manage attendance is important and valued. This support team should include members of the family, at least two members of staff from the school that the child knows and feels safe with, and a psychologist or other wellbeing professional. All team members have a unique and important role to play in helping the child get safely back to school.

The child, family, school, and psychologist can also work together to develop a plan that will support your child to transition back into school and to re-engage with learning and social opportunities.

Children/ Young People can help by:

  • Contributing to the discussion about the underlying cause keeping them home.

  • Give input about what will make them feel safe to return to school and the return to school plan.

  • Identify reasons for coming to school.

  • Practicing and using strategies to manage and reduce anxiety.

  • Work to the plan to re-engage with school.

Parents can help by:

  • Providing support to address the underlying issues/ causes for their children’s school avoidance.

  • Seek assistance from a health/ mental health professional for their child (e.g., psychologist, mental health clinician).

  • Support their child to develop anxiety management skills at home.

  • Engage in psychology for their own mental health and concerns (when parents are doing well – their children do well!).

  • Work with the school, communicating and advocating for your child.

  • Encourage extra-curricular activities and social connections (even if your child is refusing school).

  • Connect with your child about things other than school.

  • Form and maintain a strong, positive relationship with the school if possible (parent involvement is associated with reduced absenteeism).

  • Make home a ‘boring’ option for your child to be (e.g., reduce access to preferred activities such as watching television and gaming).

Schools can Support Families by:

  • Having a consistent staff member to communicate with the family.

  • Invest in getting to know the individual child rather than just their fears.

  • Suggest and implement appropriate accommodations that address underlying issues for the child (e.g., learning accommodations, curriculum modifications, lunchtime activities etc.).

  • Focus on the reasons to come to school – make school an enjoyable place to be.

  • Ensure the child or young person has access to safe spaces, and their safe people.

  • Implement clear and effective procedures for dealing with perpetrators of bullying so victims are able to feel safe returning to class and moving about the school without being excluded.

Psychologists/ Mental Health Clinicians Can Help With:

  • Support for children and parents to reduce and manage anxiety.

  • Explore underlying issues for inability to attend school and provide support.

  • Develop and support children’s confidence and self-esteem.

  • Support for the transition back into school.

  • Develop strategies to manage anxiety while at school.

  • Develop and advocate for access to social and emotional supports and accommodations in the school setting.

Alternative Options

Sometimes when trust has broken down and the relationship between school and family is unable to be repaired, returning to the same school is not an option. It is also important to consider the safety of your child within the school if there has been unresolved bullying, or if your child is at risk within that particular environment for any other reason (e.g., damage to their reputation, discrimination, lack of specialist support etc.).

A new school may not always be the easiest option for your child. Being the ‘new kid’ is tough and school anxiety difficulties are likely to follow them from one school to the next. There is no accurate way of predicting success at a new school however, when school is not a good fit for a child there are other options you might consider. These include:

  • Distance Education, Virtual School, Home schooling (it is important to consider the social implications of these schools and the risk of isolation).

  • Alternative or flexible school setting (lower staff to student ratio, higher support staff, flexible timetables, lower demand, but not always a good cohort fit for every child).

  • Specialised school (e.g., special education, creative industry academies, STEM focused schooling etc.).

  • Part-time schooling – reduced hours or days while child focuses on mental health and wellbeing.

  • Completing year 11 and 12 over three years instead of two to reduce academic pressure.

There is no easy answer or quick fix when supporting kids who feel that they just can’t go to school. It is a stressful time that impacts the whole family, and it is important that parents and carers look after themselves too and reach out for support when needed. This will not only help you to manage your own feelings worry and anxiety while parenting through a stressful time, but it will model selfcare and help seeking behaviours for your young person.

For further information on school refusal:


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