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Wellbeing: Tips to help with school refusal

8 September 2021

According to Dr Michael Carr-Gregg school refusal is a complex issue and there is rarely a single cause. It may be linked to separation anxiety, worries about leaving home, a phobia, depression, social problems or learning difficulties. It can start gradually or happen suddenly.

What is school refusal?

Though many children will refuse to go to school at some stage in their lives, school refusal is very different to truancy. It is a more serious condition than separation anxiety and often stems from a child’s anxiety about school.

For some students, school feels so difficult and overwhelming that they experience significant, distressing anxiety around attending and staying in school. To relieve this anxiety, a child or teen may begin to avoid school.

School refusal can take many forms. It can include behaviours like frequently struggling to arrive at school on time, leaving before the school day ends, or not attending school at all. Headaches, fatigue, stomach aches, and other physical symptoms of anxiety may make it hard to get off to school in the morning or make it feel necessary to leave early.

School avoidance allows a child or teen to escape distressing aspects of the school day, which provides immediate short-term relief. However, when a student continues to miss school, returning can feel harder and harder as they falls behind academically and starts to feel socially disconnected from classmates and teachers. Additionally, the child doesn’t get the chance to learn that it’s possible to handle school-related anxiety and cope with any challenges the school day brings. This can keep her stuck in a vicious cycle of school avoidance.

What can parents do to help stop the cycle of school refusal?
  1. Step in quickly

Missed schoolwork and social experiences snowball, making school avoidance a problem that grows larger and more difficult to control as it rolls along.

Be on the lookout for any difficulties your child might have around attending school on time and staying for the full day. If the problem lasts more than a day or two, step in. Act early, mobilise your support network and, if needed, seek professional help.

  1. Help identify issues

Try to find out why your child is avoiding school. At a time when you’re both calm (and not on school mornings), ask your child to describe the key challenges of going to school. Gently ask, “What is making school feel hard?” Is your child struggling socially? Afraid of having a panic attack in the classroom? Worried about their academic performance or public speaking? Fearful of being separated from their parents for a full day? Together, you may be able to solve these problems or develop a plan to manage them.

  1. Communicate and collaborate

Your child’s school is a key partner in combating school avoidance. Contact the Leader of Wellbeing or Counsellor to share what you know about why your child is struggling to attend school. The more information the school has about why school avoidance is occurring, the better prepared they will be to support you. Collaboratively problem-solve with your child and the school by identifying small steps that can help your child gradually face what they are avoiding at school.  For example, some children may have a fear about speaking in front of the class. In this situation, a child might be permitted to give speeches one-on-one to a teacher, then to their teacher and a few peers, and gradually work up to speaking in front of the class.

  1. Be firm about school

Be empathetic but firm that your teen must attend school. Tell them you are confident they can face their fears. Let your child know that while physical symptoms of anxiety, such as stomach aches, headaches, and fatigue, are certainly unpleasant, they are not dangerous. Generally, children should only stay home from school for fever, vomiting, or a few other reasons. It’s important for anxious teens to learn that they can persevere and do what they need to do even when experiencing physical anxiety. Physical symptoms often ease up as the school day progresses and children face their fears. Learning this firsthand can empower a child.

  1. Make staying home boring

Is there anything about the out-of-school environment that makes it extra tempting to stay home? Make home as school-like as possible. If you find your child at home on school days, set up a home routine similar to school:

  • Get up and dressed by school time
  • Limit access to TV and the internet during school hours
  • Encourage the child to complete their school work
  • Limit one-on-one time with the parent until after school hours
  • Reduce activities out of the home, such as shopping
  • Reduce sleeping or lounging in bed unless genuinely sick.

Be clear that if your teen does not attend school, you will be collecting all screens and/or turning off data and home wifi. Then follow through!

School avoidance is a serious problem that can worsen rapidly and we encourage you to work closely with the school. It may also help to consult with a licensed mental health professional who specialises in child anxiety and can support you in helping your teen re-engage in school. Additionally, your paediatrician may want to schedule a visit to rule out any health problems.

Helpful websites:

Adapted from articles by: Julia Martin Burch PhD, September 18, 2018, Harvard University & Jade Sheen Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, Deakin University and Amanda Dudley Psychologist and Lecturer, Deakin University, The Conversation: July 18, 2018.

College Wellbeing Team

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