School refusal differs from truancy in that parents are aware that their child is staying home from school over a prolonged period. In most cases, this is because the prospect of going to school causes the child or young person emotional distress. Truancy or wagging is an anti-social behaviour where the young person skips school and the family and school are unaware.
It is very common for young people to feel overwhelmed and not want to attend school. It starts off as one day here and there, then next it’s two or more days a week, several weeks a term and the days start adding up. It might start gradually, as parents find it harder and harder to get their child to go to school. Or refusal might happen suddenly, such as at the start of high school, a new term or after an illness.
The school may not notice in the early stages, but the “please explain” absenteeism text messages keep coming. You find yourself saying your child is sick or just ignoring the texts, anything to avoid explaining to the school that you need support. Your parent inner voice and guilt sets in. You start to blame yourself and question ‘Why can’t I get my child to school? Everyone else seems to be able to.’ You may even be too embarrassed and unsure how to ask for help.
Next, someone contacts you from the school and starts to use words like: ‘Your child is school avoiding and refusing to come to school’ ‘They are a school refuser’. You are not sure of these terms; they must be negative; they feel like labels. You try talking to your child and forcing them to go to school. Your child becomes more distressed about attending the school. Your child feels like they are being judged and are worried about getting into trouble when/if they go back. Their school work starts to pile up, and assessment is due. These pressures continue to distress your child making it even harder for them to return to school. You feel at a loss at what to do. You didn’t realise it would escalate so quickly. Your child only started out by missing some classes or some days, and you didn’t understand the problem or see the pattern.
School avoidance and school refusal are terms used to describe a child or young person who does not want to go to school or often refuses to go to school. School refusal is not a formal psychiatric diagnosis. It’s a name for an emotional and behaviour problem. The child’s reaction and response usually involve a high level of stress and anxiety about regular school attendance. School refusal is when a child gets extremely upset and worried at the idea of going to school, or often misses some or all of the school day, and this distress doesn’t go away. Children who refuse to go to school usually spend the day at home with their parents’ knowledge, even though their parents try hard to get them to go.
Often you will notice your child’s distress and moods increase and change on particular days such as Sunday night as the ever looming Monday is around the corner, which means another expectation to go to school. Your child may have crying episodes, throw tantrums, refuse to get dressed, move or eat, show very high levels of anxiety or make threats to self-harm. Your child will beg or plead not to go, complaining of aches, pains and illness which get better if you let your child stay at home.
Having your child stay home from school adds pressure on the parents in many ways, particularly with your employment obligations. You find yourself arriving late to work or not being able to get to work that day. You are in that awkward position of requiring additional carer’s leave, as you battle each morning with your child to get them to go to school. Many parents try to work from home, and some even feel that they have to resign from their employment.
Unfortunately, school refusal is a very distressing condition that is known to impact many children and young people. It is often noticeable in the early years as young as five years old. If left unaddressed, the problem can escalate and lead to long-term increased school absenteeism.
School refusal is very common in schools, and most schools struggle to address this issue adequately. This could be attributed to the increasing number of children and young people being diagnosed with anxiety and other mental health disorders. Research estimates that between 1-5% of school-age children suffer from school refusal, with children aged 5–6 years and 10–11 years most affected. Other contributing factors to school avoidance can include:
- difficulty making friends,
- difficulty communicating with teachers,
- unidentified/unaddressed/perceived bullying,
- transition to a new school or high school,
- legitimate absence due to illness,
- traumatic life events,
- stressful events at home,
- family conflict, a parent returning to work, separation anxiety,
- a phobia,
- learning difficulties or social problems at school.
Early identification and intervention is the key to the successful transition to regular attendance.
The first step is for you to take your child to your family General Practitioner (GP) to rule out any serious medical concerns. Medical illness is another common reason many children and young people spend time away from school. Medical illness can also be one of the many contributing factors that may make it difficult for a young person to feel confident in returning to school. The return to school support plan and strategies can be adapted to support a young person to returning to school after extended absences due to medical illness.
One of the main reasons for school refusal can be your child ‘faking sick’. These symptoms usually occur on Sunday evenings, as she/he starts to realise that she/he has to go to school tomorrow. For this reason, it is important to ensure that your child does not have a medical condition. If she/he does not, it is important to stick to the support plan with the school and at home to have some success, no matter how minor the achievements may seem. Parents often feel that they are taking one step forward and two steps back, a very familiar feeling amongst all family members in this situation. The young person struggles daily to cope with battling their anxiety and angst around attending school. They are not deliberately trying to be naughty or get into trouble. This daily battle is very emotionally exhausting for them.
Children have trouble going to school for one or more of the four main reasons listed below. Once we identify which of these reasons most applies to your child, we can better customise a support plan to suit their needs. Please start thinking about which of these grounds seems to apply most to your child:
1. To get away from general school-related situations that cause distress
a. avoid scary things such as tests, teachers, camp
2. To get away from school-related social/performance situations that cause distress
b. get out of social situations with peers or teachers, avoid assessments involving presentations and orals
3. To get attention from significant others such as parents
c. avoiding coping with separation anxiety
4. To get to do fun activities outside of school
d. play Xbox or sleep all day
During our appointments with your family, we will identify which out of the four categories your child most identifies with and establish the main reasons they are avoiding and refusing to go to school. Category identification helps to develop a support plan that is implemented at home and school.
Transitional Support has case-managed many families who have been and are confronted with the daily struggles of a child who is distressed with the thought of attending school. We take a collaborative approach with your family and school. Together we develop a support plan to transition your child back to full-time school attendance. Through tailoring proven strategies with you, your child and the school we negotiate set routines and a plan that will help to reduce the distress your child feels around attending school. As there are many reasons why children find it difficult to return to school, it is important to follow several steps and at times revise and revisit other measures.
At times it can be incredibly frustrating and exhausting for you as the parents, but please be assured we are here to support you through this transitional stage. The services we offer include parent support and strategies on how to cope with this challenging school avoidance anguish.
My son first came to Emily 3 years ago through her position as a school counsellor, he was suffering school refusal. With Emily’s assistance, he was diagnosed with Severe Anxiety. Since that time, Emily has not only treated my son, but also me as a parent, in understanding the true nature of anxiety and my role in treating it.
What most impressed me about Emily was her ability to educate me about anxiety and provide a sympathetic ear but also straight up challenge me the parent, when required. The treatment of my son succeeded in him being able to work through his school avoidance and other aspects of his anxiety.
We are so happy with Emily, that since she left the school, we are continuing with her counselling, now that she has moved to private practice.
Emily is a straight talking counsellor. She has an innate ability to read people, correctly labelling myself as a “Lawnmower mum” who mowed down my son’s obstacles to help him through his problems. Without her fun, “think outside the box” attitude and honesty, I would never have learned to support my son’s school refusal so that he would find in himself the skills to cope with what happens in life.
Using the strategies that she has taught us, my son has gone from missing 3 days of school per week to attending a whole term without days off!
Thank you so much Emily, the rapport you have with my son and family have changed us all for the better and I am sure will continue to keep us moving forward.