School Refusal

Author: Kelly Stewart (Psychology Intern under Colby’s Supervision)

It’s pretty normal to miss a day of school here and there. I’m sure we can all remember times when we didn’t want to go to school. Maybe we can remember times when we feigned illness to our parents so that we could stay at home to watch the lunchtime repeat of Neighbours? Or even pretended to go to school but instead went elsewhere, visiting a friend or just hanging around the shops perhaps?

We can all relate to having those days when we just can’t be bothered (there is plenty absenteeism from work for this very reason!).

But what if your child is missing a lot of school? What if they refuse to go on a regular basis? This is what’s known as school refusal and research tells us that it can affect between 1-4% of children aged between 5 and 14 years (taken from findings reported by the Raising Children Network).

But what is school refusal? When we talk about school refusal, it is useful to distinguish this from regular absenteeism and school truancy.

Absenteeism is a pattern of school non-attendance whereby the child or young person tends to spend their time at home instead of at school. Absenteeism can be caused by genuine illness on the part of the child or caregiver, family problems making attending school difficult e.g. lack of funds to take the child to school, or familial lack of support or encouragement to attend school.

Truancy can be distinguished from school refusal as the child or young person will make it apparent that they are going to school when they are not. So the parent or caregiver is (initially at least) unaware of the child’s non-attendance at school.

What is classed as school refusal, therefore, is when a child makes it known to their parent or caregiver that they are not willing to go to school and insist on staying home without their parent’s consent.

What can precipitate school refusal?

School refusal can often occur in the context of major life changes in the child or family’s life. These changes could be moving home, the birth of a younger sibling or illness or death in the family. School refusal can also be symptomatic of other issues in the child’s life; for example, if they are being bullied at school, are struggling with their school work (perhaps as a result of some undiagnosed learning difficulty) or have an untreated psychiatric condition, such as depression or an anxiety disorder.

What can you do to help?

If you have a child or young person in your life who is refusing to go to school, there are a number of avenues that you can explore that may help with this problem. First off, it is important to talk to the young person, without blaming or threatening, try to find out the reasons behind the school refusal. Ask them about their feelings about the other children at school, the teachers, and/ or the schoolwork. This may help you to understand how you can help.

If the young person is struggling with their school work, speak to their teacher and discuss their progress, consider having an educational or IQ assessment done to assess their abilities, have an eye test or hearing test to make sure that they are not disadvantaged in this way, speak to their school about possible additional supports that may be available to assist your young person.

If there have been major changes at home that your child is struggling to adapt to, do what you can to allay their anxieties. Perhaps they need to talk about their fears about losing either or both parent after a death in the family; maybe they feel unsettled due to moving house or a new addition to the family. If you can, work with your child to help them understand these changes and reassure them of your intention to be there for them. Show them you are there for them by being on time for school pick-ups and making time to talk to them about their day. Don’t forget that spending time with young people playing or engaged in other fun pursuits can do a lot to help your child feel better about themself. In some cases, it might also be useful to consider utilising school based supports for a period of time. Many schools have school counsellors who can offer additional support to a young person who needs it at a time of transition or change.

If there are problems with other children at school, it might be helpful to liaise with the school as to ways of solving this problem. Perhaps the school can act in a mediatory type fashion and help the young people address the issue between them. If your child is being bullied, moving the perpetrator and informing their parents may be useful. Building your child’s sense of self confidence outside of the school setting by helping them get involved in activities that give them a sense of mastery is often useful in these situations too.

Once you have established what the problem is, and taken steps to resolve these issues, it can be helpful to consider ways of encouraging attendance. The principles of systematic desensitization can be useful to consider when helping your child transition back to school attendance. Step by step, allow your child to approach school again. This may involve initially going back to the school outside of school hours, taking a walk to the gates and then leaving again, next day going to school but only until first break and then leaving, attending til lunch the next day and so on. In this way, step by step building back up to full attendance (the rate at which you can go about this will depend on the extent of the problem, your child’s reluctance to go back to school and their response to these steps). Reinforcement (e.g. praise) should be given for successful attempts.

In addition, consideration should be given to avoiding inadvertently reinforcing spending time at home. If your child does stay at home, this shouldn’t be too enjoyable! So no extra treats and minimise play of computer games and other enjoyable activities. The key is to make school seem like quite an enticing option, by making being at home less so.

In most cases, these steps will be enough to help your child or young person transition back into attending school. For most young people, school refusal is a temporary situation that does ameliorate in time. However, if you are finding that this situation is not changing and you are worried about the continued refusal, it might be time to contact a professional who can help. Most child and family psychologists will have experience in this area and will be able to assess and work with this problem. At Secure Start®, Colby and his team are happy to consult on this issue. If you would like further information on accessing this service, contact Rebecca at Secure Start® on (08) 82789358.