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Why won’t my child go to school? Recognising and managing school refusal

Many families experience difficulties related to school attendance. School refusal is a pattern of repeated absences from school, difficulties getting to school or leaving school early, which is often due to anxiety or mood difficulties. However it isn’t always clear that school attendance difficulties are related to mental health. Particularly in the post-COVID world, it can be difficult to tell the difference between your child being physically unwell and struggling with their mental health. Here are some ideas about what to look for and how to manage.

What to look out for:

  • Complaints of feeling sick in the stomach or headaches that mostly occur on school mornings and might go away if the child stays home

  • Reports of not wanting to attend school or disliking teachers

  • Worries about being away from caregivers, academic challenges or difficulties with friends

  • Changes to sleep or eating patterns

  • Patterns of struggling to get to school after breaks. The start of a new school year, a new term or even Mondays can be difficult for many young people. 

  • Behavioural difficulties at school or prior to going to school.

  • Any family stressors which might make being away from the family difficult. 

How to manage:

  • Talk about feelings at home, including how they feel in our body.

  • Talk together about ways to make big feelings more comfortable within our body. Some ideas might include guided meditation (there are many free apps such as Smiling Mind), Cosmic Kids Yoga (available on YouTube for younger children), listening to music, going for a walk, slow breathing or drawing. 

  • Gently encourage your child to go to school. It can be tempting to allow them to have time off, but if your child is anxious about attending school, time off will make this situation worse. Even if you are running horribly late, it is better to go to school for part of the day than stay at home. 

  • Encourage your child to maintain in-person social contact with friends.

  • Let your child know that you are available and want to understand what is happening for them. Try to connect to their experience, maybe you also struggle with going to work some days or maybe you were bullied at school too. 

  • If your child stays at home, try to follow a normal school day routine. This might including doing work (allocated school work or house work) during class time, taking breaks of a set length and limiting screen time. 

Where to seek help:

  • If possible, it is best to seek help early. If children miss too much school, they fall behind socially and academically, which generally makes their anxiety and school attendance much worse. 

  • Speak to your GP to rule out medical issues. They can also refer you to a mental health professional for support managing anxiety and reintegration to school. 

  • Meet with the school to discuss the difficulties you are having getting your child to school. It is important to let the school know what is happening and have a joint plan about how to manage the situation. This may include which classes your child goes to, a ‘green card’ or pass out of class if they are anxious, a buddy system or an adapted curriculum. 

Written by Sarah Hollingworth, Clinical Psychologist

More information

If you would like to know more about helping a child with school refusal, or want to book an appointment with Sarah Hollingworth, or another one of our experienced clinical psychologists, contact our friendly client relationship team by calling 6143 4499 or email via our contact page.

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