School refusal is often a sign of something more ...

School refusal is often a sign of something more ... Photo: Getty Images

School can be both an exciting and a challenging experience. A young person’s experience of school is influenced by many factors, such as peer relationships, learning ability and family life. Problems in these areas can lead a young person to develop a negative experience of school. Actively avoiding school, either by not attending or not staying for the duration of the day, is known as school refusal.

School refusal can occur at any time during a young person’s schooling, however it is more likely to occur during high school. An Australian study prepared by Youth Support Coordinators highlights the increased likelihood of school refusal during periods of transitions, such as the move from primary to high school or the move from one school to another (2009). Australian research suggests that up to 9% of school population may experience school refusal at some point in time (Withers, 2004).

There can be multiple factors contributing to school refusal among children. Two significant factors appear to be experiences of anxiety and bullying (Kearney, 2007). Anxiety often manifests as physical symptoms, such as headaches and nausea, which can make it difficult for parents to distinguish whether their child’s complaint is medical or psychological in nature. Seeking medical advice and monitoring the timing of physical complaints can help discern the nature of the complaints. Being bullied at school is also another major contributor to children becoming fearful of school and thus attempting to avoid school (The Monash School Refusal Program). Other common factors include:

  • Difficulty in peer relationships
  • Fear/difficulties with teachers
  • Transition to high school
  • Family stress
  • Traumatic life event
  • Academic problems

Warning signs that may indicate school refusal

At school

  • Frequent and unexplained absences from school
  • Frequent lateness to school
  • Absences on significant days (e.g., days on which tests or specific classes are scheduled)
  • Frequent requests to go to sick bay
  • Frequent requests to call home or to go home during the day

In the home

  • Complaints of physical symptoms when getting reading for school, e.g. headaches
  • A reluctance or refusal to get dressed for school
  • Negative comments about school
  • A reluctance to talk openly about their experiences at school

What can parents and teachers do to support children experiencing school refusal?

It is important for parents and teachers to address the initial concern(s) of their child, while at the same time supporting them to maintain school attendance. Asking open questions and engaging young people in collaborative problem solving allows them the opportunity to express their feelings and feel listened to. Things

Identify the issue: Gaining an understanding of why your child is anxious about school can help with problem solving and developing strategies around helping them back into school. For example, if you child is being bullied, then a collaborative approach with the school on how to manage the issue may be the first step. If your child is nervous about a transition, then working through their fears and worries and equipping them with skills to manage stressful changes may be more appropriate. Seeking guidance with a Psychologist can help to clarify the issue behind your child’s school refusal and help to put in place effective strategies to facilitate your child’s transition back into school.

Keep things calm and predictable: Keeping morning routines and school routines (such as classroom and playground routines) calm and predictable can help to minimise your child’s anxiety about attending school and can facilitate positive school-based experiences. Routines can include things that you know your child finds calming, such as taking a shower, drawing, walking to school and meeting their friends at the gate.

Keep an open dialogue: Be your child’s advocate and support and keep the dialogue and communication open with the school as to why your child is fearful about attending school and what your child needs at school to help them feel safe. Help your child identify which staff they would feel safe with involving to support them and check in with these staff members regularly. Also be open with your child on the importance of school attendance and what things they, the school and you as a parent can do to support them.

Develop a sense of school connectedness: Feeling like a valued and important member of the school community can develop a child’s sense of confidence and happiness at school. Ask your child’s teacher for ideas of how to foster your child’s interests and gifts at school and strengthen school-friendships by inviting friends to play after school and on weekends. Praise your child for their efforts in attending school and don’t let the small gains they make go unnoticed.

Set some goals: Confronting feared situations is never an easy task, however, setting small goals with your child can help them gain a sense of confidence and mastery over their anxiety. With your child and their support team (eg. teachers, friend, grandparents), set small achievable goals to help them get back into their schooling, such as going to school for the morning, having mum walk them in, sitting near the teacher. Help your child challenge and replace any unhelpful thoughts along the way (eg. “I hate school”) and look for more realistic, helpful thoughts based on their experiences (eg. “going to school in the morning was okay, I was able to see my best friend and read my favourite book”). Reward your child for every achievement and continue to set small achievable steps to help them reach the goal of being back at school.

Useful resources

This article was initially published by The Quirky Kid Clinic