School refusal

In some instances a child may become very distressed and persistently refuse to attend school, despite the best efforts of their parents/carers. School refusal can be a long-standing difficulty but it can also start suddenly at times of wider change in the family, or perhaps when transitioning to secondary school.

Children and adolescents of all ages and boys and girls alike can exhibit school refusal behaviour. School refusal is not a diagnosable mental health condition but it is an emotional and behavioural difficulty. It can also be more common with children with SEND.

Some research has shown that school refusal can contribute to mental health difficulties, emotional and social problems, leading to leaving school early and employment difficulties in later life.

How do children avoid school?

Children may seek to avoid school in a persistent way 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 – illnesses which get better once a child stays at home
  • showing high levels of anxiety
  • making threats to harm themselves.

Protective factors: what schools can do

  • Create a warm, caring school and classroom ethos to welcome children.
  • Consider offering to make available a member of school staff meeting the child at the school gate or from the car so that the child feels comfortable.
  • Communicate the importance of consistent attendance and ensure that parents understand that this message is based on wanting the very best for children in school and in life.
  • Monitor school attendance proactively and take early action to understand patterns and problem-solve solutions. The longer the problem goes on the more entrenched the fear can become.
  • Work in partnership with parents/carers and children:
    • to understand what might be prompting any anxiety (e.g. bullying, SEND needs, worries about home etc.)
    • to create a plan for helping the child back to school. Help support parents, build on family strengths and problem-solve solutions to improve attendance. Don’t make parents feel that they are failing in any way; help them focus on the importance of supporting their child.
  • Consider a staggered return to school for children who have got stuck in patterns of non-attendance.
  • Encourage parents to listen to their child’s fears and show that they understand how they feel, whilst also focusing on how important it is in life to use skills and strategies to find a way forward.
  • Reassure parents that calm persistence, however hard, is important. The longer children stay home, the worse their anxiety gets. Absences can make them feel more isolated, more out of touch with lessons and leave them feeling worse.
  • Consider whether a buddying system might help increase children re-engage, settle and increase their sense of belonging.
  • Maintain close contact with the family, even during extended periods of non-attendance.
  • Give positive feedback for children when they attend and encourage parents to do the same.
  • Where anxiety or fear of attendance is intense, help parents arrange additional support or counselling for children to enable them to develop strategies to manage and make progress with these fears. Cognitive behavioural therapy can help children learn skills to deal with anxiety related to going to school. Children need to have the chance to see that they can go to school and their worst fears don’t happen. Helping children use relaxation exercises may also be helpful. 

Resources

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Youngminds Parent's Advice Lounge

Online advice lounge provided by YoungMinds.

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Autism and school refusal

Tips for children with autism who may refuse to attend school.

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YoungMinds Parents' Survival Guide

YoungMinds Parents' Survival Guide

Webpage covering most concerns about child/youth mental health, with information on specific issues...

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Childline helpline

Childline helpline

Free online messaging, counselling and helpline service for children.

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Childline toolbox

Childline toolbox

Toolbox of games and activities (e.g. a wall of expression) which help children articulate how they...

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