Learning curve: tips for dealing with school refusal

When a child continually refuses to attend school, there is significant stress for the child, family and school community involved. Chronic school refusal can have devastating impacts – both short and long term – on a child’s social, emotional and academic development. Successfully addressing school refusal requires a collaborative, problem-solving approach between the family and school community.

There are many complex factors that may impact a child’s willingness to attend school. Some of the most common factors are listed below:

  • Anxiety
  • Bullying: at school and online
  • Chronic illness
  • Depression
  • Developmental or learning disorders
  • Fear of academic failure
  • Family (eg parental conflict, financial issues)
  • Peer group influence (eg ‘skipping school’)
  • Social isolation

School refusal needs to be approached authoritatively by parents and carers, using a combination of empathy, understanding, firm boundaries and discipline. Be mindful of the fact that school refusal is most often a sign that your child is experiencing significant difficulties or stress, either at school or home. It is likely that your child may not currently have the skills or courage to be regularly attending school, but there is hope for change.

Firstly, it’s crucial to find out why your child is refusing to attend school. Here are some ways you can approach the topic with them:

  • Encourage your child to share any worries they may have regarding home life. Allow your child time to talk without interruption, and take suitable action to address their concerns.
  • Try to get a sense of any social or academic difficulties your child may be facing at school. You might ask them about their friendships, whether they are being bullied, or if they are experiencing any difficulties with learning.
  • It’s important that you take your child’s concerns seriously – what may seem inconsequential to you is overwhelming for your child. Validating your child’s feelings and worries will help create a bond of trust and safety, and reinforce your role as their protective ally in life.

Liaising with your child’s school is also an essential part of the process in re-engaging your child academically, and ensuring their attendance at school. There are a number of ways to approach the school, including:

  • Request a meeting with the school to discuss staff members’ observations of your child at school.  If the staff has noticed any difficulties, ensure that these are addressed in a way that is reassuring to your child. It’s essential that your child feels their worries regarding school have been adequately addressed. Your child also needs to know which staff members they can talk to in future if further issues arise.
  • Develop a plan with the school to enable your child to catch up on missed schoolwork. Ensure that this schedule is manageable and not overwhelming for your child – you may even decide to give your child time to increase attendance before you address the issue of missed schoolwork.
  • Set achievable goals with your child to increase school attendance. While your aim is to have your child at school full time, you may need to start with some incremental goals. If you are not able to get your child to school in the morning, attempt to get them to school later the same day. So long as attendance is increasing, you are on the right track.
  • Ensure that the reality of staying at home is an undesirable option for your child. This may involve banning television, computer games, internet and outings during school time.
  • Set clear expectations for school attendance and provide rewards for that attendance.

If your child is complaining about feeling sick, make an appointment with your family GP. If your child has an underlying health problem, this may result in ongoing difficulty attending school. Seeking appropriate medical care for your child can alleviate illness and ensure they’re attending school again as soon as possible. If there is no apparent medical explanation for your child’s ill health, they may be experiencing significant stress. Feeling nauseous, headaches, tightness in the chest and difficulty breathing may all be signs of anxiety or another underlying psycho-emotional concern. In this case, consider booking an appointment with a counsellor for your child, as issues involving anxiety, depression and stress respond well to counselling.

Helping your child to address any challenges they are facing – physical, social, emotional or psychological – is the key to successfully supporting your child’s ongoing attendance at school, and general wellbeing. If you would like to discuss your child’s school refusal with a counsellor or psychologist, please call Life Supports on 1300 735 030. We’re here to help.

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