The last thing a parent wants to hear on a school morning are those fateful words: "I don't want to go to school!"
Early in their schooling years, this can be a common plea from kids especially in those transition years when our littlies start 'big' school and later starting high school. These are normal times of high anxiety as things are new, different and stressful! In time, most students gradually become more comfortable as things become familiar and predictable.
To parents who are living with this – please know that school refusal is not the problem – it is a symptom of a problem.
Take for example the little boy I heard about recently who announced to his mum on day four of his first week of school that he didn't want to go.
His mum noticed that he'd brought home a full lunch box each day – she thought he was too nervous to eat. It took quite some gentle probing to discover that he physically couldn't open his lunch box and he was starving all day. Why would anyone want to go to school all day and be hungry? Problem solved!
Essentially, school refusal is about avoidance
Students will choose to avoid being in an environment that triggers their amygdala – because there is a perceived threat to their sense of survival. They need to feel safe, welcome and noticed.
I'm not talking here about occasional days – school refusal tends to be frequent or everyday and no amount of loving coercion seems to make a difference.
Over the years, I have worked with many little ones who experienced separation distress, which is a normal healthy response to being separated from their key safe 'big people'. Gradually their new environment and teacher becomes safer and their distress diminishes. Problem identified – solution in progress.
Many students struggle with school refusal due to a perception their teacher doesn't like them. In particular, boys who feel their teacher likes them strive harder to please – by working harder. Parents can work with a teacher to improve this vital relationship and often students may be wrong in their perception. Problem identified – solution in progress.
Another common reason for school refusal is learning challenges. When kids find the work too hard, or too confusing they will want to avoid that pressure.
Neurodivergent students can struggle with other socially driven learning challenges in classrooms and those with low literacy can struggle every day. With understanding and support, things can improve and these students can feel brave enough to return to school. Problem identified – solution in progress.
A common trigger for school refusal can be around relational aggression. So many kids who've been the brunt of childhood nastiness – especially name calling, put-downs, teasing and exclusion – can choose to avoid anymore of that by not coming to school. Often they can be reluctant to tell parents because they feel weak or silly. Once the truth appears, parents can work with their child's teacher to resolve the issue. Problem solved.
Bullying is a whole different cause for school refusal and many students struggle deeply with the constant nastiness and meanness.
Schools now have to manage not only face-to-face bullying but cyberbullying and there are often layers of complication in working on productive ways to stop it. Being shamed or having untruths spread about you can be so destructive that the only way to resolve it is by changing schools and making a fresh start. There is a lot of support and information out there though (i.e. the eSafety Commissioner's website) so please start there if you're worried.
In high school, there are other triggers for the stress that can underlie school refusal. A major assessment can sometimes be reason enough for a student to fake an illness – this is technically not school refusal.
Adolescent friendship dramas and wars are a common source of conflict that can create school refusal. These tend to come and go over the years. However there are times when these can become really problematic.
When I was counselling, I worked with students who had experienced significant health events that saw them miss a month or more of high school and then refuse to return.
One boy was a top student, popular and an star athlete. A nasty injury saw him needing a few operations and over a six-month period he missed a lot of school. He missed so much school, his grades dropped and his injury forced him to have to give up his beloved sport. School became a huge source of emotional pain reminding him what he had lost and his friendships struggled. With professional help, he was able to return.
Sadly, forcing a reluctant child to attend school without discovering and resolving the core problem tends to make things worse as it escalates the stress and anxiety. Yes sometimes those problems are complex, but as parents we are the best people to support our children to find a way through.
So if you have a child refusing to go to school, dig deep to find out what the problem is under that behaviour and work with your child to solve it as soon as you can.
Maggie Dent is one of Australia's favourite parenting authors and host of the 'Parental As Anything' podcast. Maggie is bringing her one-day conference Calming Today's Anxious Kids to Wollongong on March 21.