‘School refusal’: What Is It and How Can I Support My Child?

By Relationships Australia

While some might say school days are the best time of your life, a growing number of kids and teens are struggling to make it through the school gate.

These students experience high levels of distress at the thought of going to school, which can impact their academic, emotional and social development. Beyond the child, school refusal can put a strain on parents/caregivers and cause disharmony at home.

To navigate this complex challenge, we’ve unpacked some common causes of school refusal and sought tips from an expert on how to approach it.

What is school refusal?

Also known as ‘school can’t’ or ‘school phobia’, kids experiencing this problem will have difficulties going to school due to intense emotional distress. According to the NSW Department of Education, children won’t be trying to hide their absence, they won’t show extreme antisocial behaviour, and their parents are actively involved in getting them back to their academic setting.

School refusal can show up in various ways, from headaches, nausea, shakiness, being tearful, or even panic attacks. It might rear its head the night before, have tantrums getting ready for school, or in the car on the way there.

What’s causing school refusal?

Every child is unique and there’s no one hard and fast reason why they might have these feelings.

  • Academic difficulties – this can include kids who are doing well academically but feel pressure to keep their grades up
  • Social issues – they might be experiencing bullying or other social challenges
  • Physical health – they might be in pain or discomfort, which can make it hard to focus and engage with education, or they could feel shame or stigma
  • Mental health issues – for some children, it might be hard to pinpoint if school refusal is a symptom of their health issue or the other way around
  • Major life events – like moving schools, parental divorce or separation, death in the family
  • School transitions – moving from primary school to secondary school
  • Intellectual disability and/or neurodivergence – students in these categories are overrepresented in the data when it comes to school refusal.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, some students have struggled to return to the classroom after periods of homeschooling or virtual learning. In 2022, the national school attendance rate of years 1 to 10 dropped to 86.5%, which had been sitting above 90% for the previous decade.

How do I spot the signs of school refusal?

In case you’re getting worried, some signs can be normal and temporary. Be mindful of sudden changes in your child’s “normal” behaviour, if it persists, or worsens.

  • Tears or strong emotions before school – this could be before leaving the house or on the way to school
  • Anxiety or fears about school – this could be specific to events at school, people, situations or even just “free floating”
  • Somatic complaints before school, such as headaches, sore stomach, tiredness
  • Difficulty settling the night before going to school
  • Refusing to get out of bed, get dressed, leave the house, or get out of the car
  • Trouble transitioning back to school after a period of disruption, like school holidays, a period of illness, school camp
  • Leaving class to attend the sick bay, or excuses to avoid certain classes or people

Impacts of school refusal on children (and parents)

If school refusal isn’t addressed, it has the potential for significant and long-lasting impacts on a young person’s wellbeing and future.

 

Social and emotional impact

Kids might miss out on social development and opportunities to interact with peers and make friends. School refusal can also prolong or perpetuate mental health conditions like depression and anxiety and negatively impact self-esteem and confidence.

 

Academic performance 

Students who are increasingly absent can start to fall behind in their learning, as well as missing tests, presentations or work submissions.  

 

Physical health 

Beyond sports classes, going to school gives kids a chance to move their bodies (walking to school or between classes) and can improve their sleep quality.  

 

Adjustment issues

Young people who don’t attend school regularly may struggle with other life transitions like leaving school, going to university or starting a new job.

 

The family

While school refusal is about your child, it can have a broader impact on parents and the family. Parents may feel stressed, frustrated, isolated or even ashamed or guilty about why their child refuses to go to school.

What to avoid when talking to your child

Understanding why your child is having difficulties with school and how to help them can be confusing. Rochelle recommends parents try to steer clear of a few approaches:

  • Blaming, criticising, attacking or name calling, like “Stop being lazy, you’ll never go to high school/get a job if you keep this up”
  • Dismissing their experiences and feelings
  • Minimising their feelings by saying things like, “I don’t want to work every day either!”

Rochelle’s final piece of advice is to not blame yourself or be too embarrassed to seek help. Every parent needs a little help – no one is the perfect parent.

How to approach your child’s school refusal

We asked Rochelle, counsellor and Team Leader at Relationships Australia NSW, for her tips and advice.

 

Validate and empathise

Start with curiosity and compassion when addressing your child’s concerns and focus on listening without interruption.

“Take the time to understand their feelings, point of view and perspective,” she says. “To help yourself, think of a similar time when you might have felt this and what you needed.”

Take care to manage your own emotions when having this conversation. If you feel overwhelmed or angry, pause the conversation until your emotions have calmed.

 

Establish a strong support network

Having people around your child to talk with and uplift them is crucial. This could be formal supports, such as health care providers, school staff, and counsellors, or informal supports, like friends, family or other trusted adults in their life. If anxiety or depression is underlying for your child, consider getting professional support.

Remember – make sure you have a support network around you, too. The toll it has on a family can be huge and it’s easier to work as a team rather than tackling it alone.

 

Consider other schooling options

Rochelle encourages parents to explore other education options, like homeschooling or specialist providers, which is a personal decision that fits their family circumstances.

If you have a child or teen who is struggling with school attendance, Relationships Australia NSW provides several crucial services that can support them. Family Counselling and Adolescent Family Therapy (teen focus) can help you bridge communication gaps, and group workshops like Tuning into Teens and Tuning into Kids are a great place to start.

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