Articles

School Refusal

Published: 14 Jun 2022
School Refusal

You’re glancing at the clock every 90 seconds. The space between making it and not making it is closing. “Hurry up!”

Initially it was a polite reminder. “We need to be on time today. Let’s get things moving ok, sweetheart?” But as your child continued to stall, your tone shifted. Urgency crept in. Then fear; you didn’t want to be late. Not today. Then frustration. Now… you’re at boiling point.

Paradoxically, the more force you apply, the more your child resists. “I don’t want to go to school. I’m not going. You can’t make me. It’s not fair.”

You never wanted to be this kind of parent. You’re feeling like an ogre. But being out the door on time is a priority. It matters. You can’t be late. It’s happened too much. You feel desperate. Helpless. Angry. And so sad for this child who you love so much, because the fact that they don’t want to go to school means things aren’t quite right for them somewhere, somehow. You just don’t know what to do… and you don’t have time to figure it out because that clock is still ticking, the space is still shrinking, and your little one still won’t put on their school uniform and help you get out the door on time.

School refusal is one of the most common challenges parents bring to me as they search for answers to make their mornings run smoother and their families run happier. A child who is unwilling to get organised and out the door for school is generally a major impediment to the efficient running of the home.

In recent times there’s been a movement to rename school refusal, and with good reason. To suggest a child is refusing school is to suggest that there is something “wrong” with the child, or that the child needs an attitude adjustment and everything will then be fine. At some level this may be accurate… however… if a child doesn’t want to go to school, perhaps we can dig a little deeper. School can be terribly challenging for children for a host of reasons (which we’ll explore later), and may be one of the most unnatural things we ask of our children in our fast-paced, modern society. 

A more appropriate term is “emotion-based school avoidance”. Others call it “school can’t”. In this article I’ll use the term school refusal as it’s the one most familiar to readers, but I do so with sensitivity, acknowledging that if your child is refusing to attend school, their avoidant behaviour is often well justified and understandable.

While I’ll do my best with this article to provide help, I need to acknowledge one major challenge in sharing tips for this challenge. Unfortunately, there’s little research to guide our discussion. And that’s because it’s staggeringly hard to research school refusal. Why?

The challenge with researching school refusal is that a child might refuse to go to school for a day or two, then be ok. The parents don’t seek help… but then it happens again here and there, slowly building over the term until at least 10 days have been lost – or dozens of “tardies” have been logged, and the problem is embedded. Help might be sought then, but by this point it’s a much harder problem to work through than it might have been early in the piece. And… there’s really very few simple solutions. (We’ll talk about why that is, and what solutions might be helpful shortly.)

School Refusal

If your child is engaging in school refusal then you’ve likely experienced these typical difficulties:

  • Verbal refusal
  • Emotional outbursts when being prompted to prepare for school
  • Complete unwillingness to dress for school, pack lunch or a schoolbag, or leave the house
  • Tantrums
  • Panic attacks
  • Emotional explosions
  • Aggression
  • Tears, and more.

School refusal usually ends in power struggles, both child and adult tantrums, and forceful efforts to get your child dressed, fed, in the car, through the school gate, and into the classroom. Ironically, a great majority of parents tell me that once their child is at school the teacher says “they’re fine”. (This is definitely not the case for all children, but it does happen with surprising frequency, particularly when children are young.) But an important note on this: children (particularly girls) are very good at appearing fine. They can pull it together for the sake of saving face, but it doesn’t mean that the anxiety isn’t swirling like a whirlpool underneath. 

Problematic Absenteeism

If your child:

  • misses at least two weeks of school in a single school term (without a legitimate reason such as illness), or 
  • has such difficulty attending school for at least 2 weeks that it significantly interferes with daily life 

this would be categorised, not as school refusal, but as problematic absenteeism

In both school refusal and problematic absenteeism, parents usually see an absence of severe antisocial tendencies. Your child will be angry and upset. She’ll be saying “no” and doing all she can to delay or avoid going to school. But it won’t typically include significant aggression and violence, breaking things, swearing, and other antisocial acts. If these things are occurring, seek additional help beyond the scope of this article.

Is there a diagnosis?

There are no clinical criteria for school refusal but many school refusers meet criteria for specific phobias, generalised anxiety, social anxiety, separation anxiety, or depressive symptoms. If your child is refusing to attend school in an ongoing manner, these mental health challenges may be part of the reason and you may find visiting your mental health care provider helpful.

Why won’t my child go to school?

School refusal occurs for any number of difficult-to-solve reasons. Some relate to our children’s relationships at school. The school environment is also implicated in a lot of school refusal. And, uncomfortably, even family context and parent factors can play a part. Let’s take a look at some more common and significant reasons for school refusal:

  • Feelings of disconnection
  • Negative peer experiences
  • Bullying and social isolation/ostracism
  • Poor student-teacher relationships
  • A low sense of school belonging
  • Academic pressure
  • Learning difficulties or disorders (including dyslexia, colour blindness, or speech/language challenges)
  • Additional needs (such as ASD, ADHD, sensory issues, and more)
  • Abuse or neglect
  • Parental anxiety, depression, anger, or stress
  • Parental overinvolvement (helicoptering)
  • Poor family functioning
  • Child anxiety or other mental health challenges

These are the big things that lead to school refusal challenges and, potentially, to problematic absenteeism. But basic (and typically less problematic) school refusal can be due to simple things like:

  • A lousy night’s sleep
  • Feeling crappy that day (we are all allowed to have bad days, aren’t we?)
  • A fight with a sibling
  • Homework or an assignment not complete and fear of detention
  • Not being invited to a birthday party yesterday that everyone else was invited to
  • Someone making a threat on the way home from school the day before
  • A substitute teacher coming in that day
  • School activities (like PE) that create a high level of self-consciousness

It can feel like we need to be mindreaders to work out why our kids don’t want to go to school. And then we’ve got to work out what to do about it!

But something does need to be done. Cautiously. Sensitively. Compassionately. But definitely. That’s because once school refusal is established, it is more difficult to treat than when there are some minimal signs it’s there. Being aware and acting will make a difference.

Note: absence for a minimum of a half day due to anxiety or worry is a sign of emerging school refusal. Your child might not tell you they’re anxious about school, so watch out for other signs including emotional distress, complaints of headache, stomach ache, sore legs, etc.

Cognitive and Developmental Realities

Our children are wired – literally biologically designed – to be close to us, to stay near those they love and trust, and to connect with people who make them feel safe. Sending them to school can undermine those feelings of security and safety that matter so much to their wellbeing. It can interfere with their sense that the world is predictable. To many children, particularly those who are neurodiverse and living with additional needs, school feels random, volatile, unpredictable, and far too big. It also feels isolating and disconnecting through a lack of quality relationships.

School refusal invariably shows up with big emotions: high in energy and high in unpleasantness. So what are we to do? How do we navigate school refusal, particularly in the early stages before we might typically seek outside help?

School refusal solutions

The solutions I offer below are varied and are in no particular order. Some might be magic. Others may spell disaster. And the thing is, you really can’t tell what will work and what won’t. Something might work one day and flop the next. Other things might be perfect time after time after time.

.01 Have conversations with your child

Trying to talk about school refusal while things are awful is not going to help. But on the weekend or during the holidays, perhaps you can explore what’s happening in relation to school in a less confrontational way. It’s possible you can explain what your expectations are in a gentle way that doesn’t create outbursts. You might be able to empower your child to develop solutions that sit right for them. It will likely be a slow process. It could be better if an aunt or grandparent has the conversation. What matters is that you try.

But… perhaps a conversation will only trigger explosive outcomes. Maybe the situation is so dire that any conversation reinforces the problem, undermines feelings of safety and security, and pushes your child further away from healthy, functional decisions. Use your parental wisdom and discernment. 

.02 Understand your child’s needs

Children tend to have higher intrinsic motivation when three things come together:

  1. Their relationships are good
  2. They feel like they’re mastering their environment
  3. They sense their life is under control

Your child will be likely to say “no” to school if relationships are lousy (or non-existent), they’re struggling academically, or they feel like they lack control and autonomy. If more than one of these things is occurring, the negative effects will be amplified.

Most children struggle with some of these things at some point or other… but some children struggle with all of these things – often all at once. Neurodiverse children are most likely to experience these basic psychological needs not being met. But if we are to reduce the school refusal, meeting these needs must be foremost in our minds and actions.

.03 Talk with teachers

Teachers might hold the key to your child’s worries in their hands. They’re often aware of any social or academic issues that might be causing difficulty. Work with the school to arrange special supports e.g. reduced homework, lunch time activities, or a special “before school assignment” designed to help your child ease into the school day more easily. If your child is struggling academically and doesn’t want to attend school because of learning difficulties, a tutor may be a useful consideration. A child who feels competent is more likely to develop confidence. 

.04 Make your mornings magic

Assuming that your family has determined that school attendance will remain the expectation, the way that you start your days can offset or negative emotion. A calm morning routine can be the difference between a child happily going to school and a child refusing to go to school at all. I’ve written a New York Times piece about how to make your mornings magic (see it here) in which I outline the importance of preparing the night before, waking up a little earlier than needed, having a clear routine and system, and keeping things calm while building up your child’s capacity and competence for getting things done.

.05 Build up friendships

When your child is looking forward to being with someone at school, it’s unlikely that school refusal will play a part in your morning. Find creative ways to help your child develop and strengthen relationships. Perhaps a sleepover, a movie afternoon on the weekend, some extracurricular activities, a joint family picnic at the park, or even a text to a few parents to see if they’ll meet somewhere with the kids one afternoon or weekend. All of these kinds of activities will draw children together (when done well) and help your child consolidate relationships.

.06 Expand your view of what the problem may be

Any number of things could be the cause or contributor. And any number of things might be your solution. Be open to possibilities and solutions.

You might find distraction is helpful. Or using the timer to keep forward momentum. It could be counting or stimming. Perhaps you’ll find working together is the best way forward. Maybe it’s meditation or mindfulness, more sleep, or a heartier breakfast. Maybe mum is triggering for your child but dad is doing it just right. It could be that a change of schools is needed – a place with more friends, or a fresh start?

And it may be none of those things. But be open. Try things out. Exercise hope. Be resourceful. Engage with your child. 

.07 Change schools

Sometimes the best thing we can do is change schools. Send your child to a new place with new people, hopefully some of whom will be friends and known to your child. (New starts can be tough though, so be careful with this solution.) Perhaps distance education might be the circuit-breaker you need, even for a short time. Alternative school solutions - private and state-funded - should be on your radar as potential strategies here. 

.08 Seek medical guidance

There may be other reasons your child isn’t eager to attend school. Perhaps you are dealing with undiagnosed dyslexia, ADHD, ASD, anxiety, or another medical, psychological, or neurological condition. For established, longer term school refusal, working with a multidisciplinary mental health team may be required.

Is traditional school right for your child?

This may be the most fundamental question of all. School can put a lot of pressure on children. They’ve got to find a friendship circle, navigate classes, sports, and other activities, deal with different attitudes and expectations from adults around them (who are not always consistently in their lives), learn and retain substantial quantities of new information, deal with being away from loved ones for large parts of the day, and so much more.

Most children adjust to school without fuss. But school doesn’t suit everyone. For a variety of reasons, school could be a reality your child can live without. And research supports the benefits that those children can find when alternative arrangements are made. Research has shown that most parents who decide to home educate due to school refusal report that their children’s physical and psychological symptoms lessen or disappear. They behave better. Their anxiety drops. And many choose to continue with home educating as a result. This will typically require a period of ‘de-schooling’ before improvements are fully realised.

And there are practical realities parents must consider before making a choice like this. Even if it is better for your child, can you afford it? Are you willing to put the time into educating your child yourself? What resources can you access to encourage your child to develop friendships outside the home setting? How will you transition your child into their life after home-schooling is done? But from my perspective, home-schooling should be considered as an option for many children refusing school. 

Some advice for all occasions

Ultimately, a child who exhibits school refusal behaviours is going to become emotionally elevated as we attempt to prod them towards the school gates. We can best support our children by improving emotional regulation. How?

I’ve written about this previously (here). But in short, our aim is to:

  • stay calm and see our child’s emotions as a chance to connect, not correct
  • describe the emotions we’re seeing in our child (name it to tame it)
  • allow the emotion to occur in a safe way and a safe place (without trying to fix it)
  • when things are calm, we problem solve and find solutions and limits together

Avoidance reinforces anxiety

Sometimes you might do everything I’ve outlined and still find yourself at a 7:55am impasse. The car is running. You’ve honked the horn. You’re running late and the pressure is rising.

In this instance there are no easy answers. But I offer a caution…

Avoidance reinforces anxiety. 

When your child discovers that refusal and tantrums leads to permission to avoid school, it feels wonderful to them. (Actually, it often feels horrible. It can feel like a failure. Your child feels unworthy and stupid and pathetic. But… it still feels better to feel like that to have to face school.) The reprieve feels rewarding enough that it provides reinforcement to the idea that school is better when it’s avoided. 

This means that tomorrow at school time, the anxieties return and that feeling of relief from the day before cue that craving to remain at home. In response, the craving kicks off challenging behaviours. And we find ourselves in the same tense stand-off over and over again, culminating in the reward of staying out of school.

I say this carefully: if you can get your child to school without excessive outrage, and if your child seems to settle into school well, it may be worth pushing through the challenges. 

Summary

School refusal is a sign that something is wrong.

It might be an issue with the school environment. It could be an issue with home life. It may even be a sign that your child is struggling with some big challenges themselves. If school refusal is occurring, getting a care team on board will increase chances of successfully seeing your child resume school attendance. Talk to a GP about setting up a mental health care plan, talk to the school principal or school wellbeing team, recruit friends (yours and your child’s), plan gatherings, and build resources for your child’s wellbeing.

Most practitioners stress the importance of a swift return to school. The consequences of missing school quickly snowball (falling behind academically, long term makes it less likely to graduate etc.) because those needs of relationships and mastery are undermined and school becomes increasingly threatening.

Ultimately, listen to your child. Really understand their needs. Build connection. And be patient. Being a parent is one of the hardest jobs there is. The only one that’s almost certainly harder is growing up.

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