Children with mental health problems are more likely to miss school – this can be for a variety of reasons.

But the less children attend school, the more out of step with learning and socially isolated they can feel.

What does absenteeism include?

School absenteeism can refer to when children are:

  • given permission to not attend school, for example due to illness
  • absent without being given permission (for example, unauthorised school absences, which may include staying at home to look after a parent etc.)
  • absent from school because they refuse to go
  • excluded for a short or long period of time – or excluded permanently.

If a child is “persistently absent” it means they have missed 10% or more of the school year.  


The link between absence and mental health

Studies show that persistent patterns of school absence can result in significant barriers to achievement. Children can, for example, fall behind in key skills, in attainment and tests - and at secondary school level they can be at higher risk of dropping out of school.

School absences, and the lack of confidence that accompanies falling behind, can also combine and cluster with other factors present in the child’s life which will affect their mental health and wellbeing.

Children are at a higher risk of missing school if they have:

  • poor mental health, particularly conduct disorders, anxiety or depression
  • additional learning needs (also known as SEND or ASN)
  • a long-term health condition
  • caring responsibilities – young carers can experience a higher number of absences either because they are struggling with caring obligations or because they are anxious about the wellbeing of their parent or carer
  • been bullied.

The most common reason for children being persistently absent from school is due to illness.

Children eligible for free school meals are more than twice as likely to be persistently absent than those who are not eligible.

Unauthorised school absences

Unauthorised absences are more common in secondary than primary school. But if this behaviour starts early, it is more likely to persist into secondary school.

Children with a mental health problem are more likely to be absent from school without permission – this is especially true for children with an emotional or behavioural disorder.

There are many factors which drive a child not to attend school, this is can be due to bullying, disinterest, problems with friends, low self-esteem alongside mental health problems.

How and why do children avoid school?

If a child continues to refuse to go to school, it is usually because they are experiencing an emotional and behavioural difficulty. It can be more common for children with additional learning needs to want to avoid going to school.

While refusing to go to school isn’t in itself a diagnosable mental health condition, some studies have shown that continuing to avoid school can contribute to mental health difficulties, as well as emotional and social problems. This can lead to a child leaving school early and struggling with employment later in life.

There are many ways that a child may avoid going to school – these include through:

  • crying or tantrums
  • hiding and running away
  • refusing to move
  • begging a parent to let them stay at home
  • complaining of aches and pains before school – illness which get better once a child stays at home
  • showing high levels of anxiety
  • making threats to harm themselves.

Top tips

Create strategies to increase interest

Where a child is struggling with being interested and engaged in school, think about more creative and interactive strategies for maintaining their interest. For example: introduce short circle time exercises to break up learning, use role play and interactive methods of learning, and make more use of learning outdoors. Find out what the child likes to do outside of school, and build on this to support learning. 

Help children feel that they belong

Include children in organising tasks in the classroom so that they feel that they are an important part of the class team. Make time to talk to pupils and ask them how you can help. Consider whether having a buddy may help a child re-engage and develop their sense of school belonging. Create a supportive and caring school environment which is important for improving attendance and cultivating a sense of belonging.

Be aware that reasons for absence will be different for every child

Each child will have different reasons as to why they are absent from school. So it’s important to find out why a child might be struggling; what their interests are; and how they learn best. Where problems can’t be easily resolved through school-based support, work with other services to find the best way to help resolve the difficulties that the child is facing.

Other things that schools can do

  • Monitor, record and follow up absences
    Monitor, record and make sure all absences are effectively followed up in accordance with the school’s attendance policy. Schools can work with the child to
    set attendance and achievement goals, and also develop a realistic plan for improving attendance.
  • Engage and communicate with parents and carers
    Good parent engagement is essential to helping prevent and reduce rates of unauthorised school absences. Schools need to communicate the importance of consistent attendance and provide an open-door policy to discuss problems and address any issues early on. It’s helpful to w
    ork jointly with both families and the child in a non-judgmental manner to understand underlying drivers and to problem-solve solutions.
  • Know where to seek support
    If the drivers for absence link to:
    • challenges in the child’s life or to mental health difficulties - help children get extra support through counselling
    • school issues - work with the family and child to problem-solve ways forward
    • family pressures - work with parents and carers to explore local parenting support organisations and to access national initiatives to support families with multiple needs.

Related resources

Filter by:
Peer mentoring toolkit

Peer mentoring toolkit

A peer mentoring toolkit.

View resource
  • HeadStart Kent

  • Save

Truancy: main drivers

A 2003 research publication with information on what teachers, children and parents saw as the main...

View resource
  • Department for Education and Skills

  • Save

No need to exclude strategy

This action plan aimed to reduce exclusions by means of a wellbeing strategy in schools.

View resource
  • London Borough of Hackney

  • Save

Types of exclusions

Information about different types of school exclusions for parents.

View resource