How to tackle School Avoidance (aka ‘School Refusal’)

Written by Kylie Walker, Psychologist

Sometimes, we can feel unmotivated to go to work, especially on Monday mornings! It’s normal for young people to experience this as well. For some young people, though, the thought of going to school can cause them emotional distress, making it hard for them to attend school. Parents are aware that their child is not attending school; however, getting them to school is a struggle. It’s stressful for everyone involved and can significantly impact young people’s mental health. Supporting the young person requires empathy, understanding and building relationships between home, school, and professionals so everyone can work together as a team. 

There is no single reason why a young person finds it challenging to get to school, and there is often more than one contributing factor. It might be the stress of transitioning from primary to high school, feeling anxious about learning, not fitting in with their peers or struggling to connect with their teacher. 

Recently, I spoke to a group of school psychologists from across NSW about supporting students who are reluctant to attend school. This presentation came about through my work supporting young people, parents and schools navigating school avoidance. I find that school attendance problems are challenging and stressful for young people and their families to navigate and exhausting as it’s often a daily battle. How we approach school attendance problems is critical in helping young people return to school, so I wanted to share a few tips on supporting children when they are having difficulties attending school.

Act early. It’s easier for young people to return to school if they haven’t been away too long. The longer a young person spends at home, the harder it is for them to get back into the routine of attending school, so it’s critical to respond early. 

TIPS 

  • Look out for early signs –
    • Complaints about feeling sick (headaches, stomach aches) and then feeling okay once they know they are staying home
    • Friendship difficulties
    • Anxious thoughts and feelings about school 
    • Struggling with schoolwork

Be curious about why they are avoiding attending school so that issues can be addressed. When you are both calm and don’t have the stress of trying to get ready for school, talk to your child about why they don’t want to go to school. 

TIPS

  • You could start with – If there was one thing you could change about school, what would it be? 
  • If your child is reluctant to talk, try a different approach –
    • Ask them to rate the parts of their school day. 
    • Draw a timeline of their day with feelings faces. 
    • Role model by doing these activities about your day so that not only does that make it enjoyable, but your child also sees that it’s normal to experience different emotions throughout the day. Share about how you managed to cope and, when you didn’t, what you might do next time. e.g., Next time, it might be helpful if I take a mindful breath. Ask them what they think would help you. 
  • If they are struggling with their learning and behaviour at school, consider a psychometric assessment to help guide intervention supports. 

Be curious about other reasons your child may want to stay at home. Besides avoiding, are they gaining your attention being at home? Is your child gaining any tangible rewards by staying at home? E.g., Do they get to play on technology, get taken out for lunch, or spend extra time with you? 

TIPS

  • When your child is at home, try to stick to school hours with breaks at recess and lunch. Have the expectations that schoolwork is to be done during school hours and limit tangible rewards. 

Creative Problem Solving. Create fresh ideas with your child on how to manage what’s hard, e.g., getting out of bed, school morning routines, the beginning of a new term/year, navigating friendship issues, schoolwork, etc… 

TIPS

  • Use strength-based questions. That is, ask how questions, not why questions. How did you manage to…? 
  • Ask other families for ideas of what worked for them
  • Changing the morning routine can be helpful, e.g.,
    • Walk your child to school instead of driving
    • Switch which parent does the drop-off
    • Have someone else take your child to school, e.g., another family
    • Get up 15 minutes earlier so there is less pressure to be ready on time 
  • Plan for calm starts to the day, e.g., get everything ready the night before

Regulate first. We have all heard the expression, parents, put your oxygen mask on first. It’s the same with helping support a young person to regulate when they feel emotional distress with the thought of attending school. When a parent calms down their own nervous system first, it helps their child regulate their emotions. 

TIPS

  • Pause and take some mindful breaths, have a cold glass of water, or splash your face with cold water and try and move your body to help get rid of the physical symptoms of stress. 
  • Use a soothing, low voice and limit your language. Try not to reason (e.g., Why don’t you want to go?); instead, give your child space and time to regulate their emotions.
  • Then relate. Acknowledge how your child is feeling. E.g., I can see you were stressed. That must have been hard for you. 

Helpful thinking. A young person struggling to attend school will often focus on the negative aspects of school. It’s beneficial to use strategies that support them to reflect on the positive aspects of school. 

TIPS

  • It can be helpful to use the Unfortunately/Fortunately strategy. E.g., Unfortunately, it’s tiring starting a new term. Fortunately, I get to be with my friends.
  • Play the coin toss game. Toss a coin. If it lands on heads, say something hard about school, and tails, say something good about school. 

Collaborate and build your relationships with your child’s school. It’s beneficial to communicate regularly with your child’s school so that together, you can plan to put appropriate supports in place and problem-solve as issues arise. 

TIPS 

  • · If you are determining whom to talk to at school, start with their classroom teacher if your child is in primary school and for high school children, begin with their mentor/homeroom teacher or year coordinator. 
  • Return to school plan. Step ladders that plan a gradual return to school are a great approach to help build your child’s capacity to attend school. Schools and your child’s psychologist can help create this. 

Setbacks are normal. It’s common for children to experience setbacks often after school holidays or being sick. This can be very challenging and disheartening for young people and their parents. 

TIPS

  • Use language such as… This is just a bump in the road.
  • Review the plan. Look at what worked and start from there. Involve your child in this process. For some children, the mention of using a step ladder again can motivate them to get back to school quickly. 

Consider what supports are needed. It may be beneficial to seek help from a psychologist to help children manage their emotions and unhelpful thoughts.If there is a learning disorder, consider if a tutor is needed or other specialist help, such as a speech therapist. 

 TIPS

  • Seek advice from your GP and school about what support your child may need.
  • Involve these supports when collaborating with your child’s school, as they can help guide the interventions in the return to school plan. In my role, I am often asked to attend school meetings via Zoom to help schools support the young person attending school and engaging in learning. 

Parent self-care plan. Supporting a child who can’t attend school is challenging and sometimes distressing. It can often feel like the parent is running a marathon. It’s essential to look after parent well-being too. 

TIPS

  • Discover the self-care activities that calm you and bring you joy… creating time where you can enjoy some mental freedom from the issue that is likely absorbing much of your precious internal parent resources.
  • Get a support team. Enlist the help of a child and adolescent psychologist who can help you navigate the complexities of school avoidance or seek individual support for yourself to help you manage your own emotions.

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