What To Do When Your Child Refuses To Go To School

Teenage boy looking sad due to school refusal

School refusal is one of the most difficult challenges a parent can face.

As Australian school attendance statistics reach a concerning level of decline post covid, an increasing number of parents and caregivers struggle with the stress and conflict that arises from school refusal.  A child may exhibit school refusal behaviours for many reasons, some of these can be stress or anxiety and can stem from family, personal, school or societal issues.

Parents may experience a sense of failure or hopelessness when parenting a child who won’t or can’t attend school.  Conversations between parent and child have the potential to be fraught with tension so it is important that parents act promptly and seek immediate support, guidance and strategies for managing school refusal.

Why is my child refusing to go to school?

The onset of school refusal may occur gradually or be quite sudden. There are a number of reasons a child may be reluctant or unable to attend school, some reasons may not be connected to school itself.  While having a relaxed parent-child conversation to ascertain the underlying factors behind school refusal can be difficult, the first step to resolving the issue is understanding and accepting the reasons your child has for avoiding school.

Let’s explore some of the many potential triggers for school refusal or “school can’t” as it’s also known, and consider effective strategies to manage it:

  • Mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.
  • Social problems within or outside of school such as bullying.
  • Learning difficulties.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Societal problems such as domestic violence in the home.
  • Changes to family life like moving house, divorce or the death of a family member.
  • Pressure to achieve high academic standards.
  • Fear of failure.
  • Low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence.
  • Conflict with peers or discord amongst friendship groups.
  • Lack of support or conflict with teachers.
  • Lack of direction/goals or motivation to succeed.
  • Lengthy absences from school caused by illness, holidays, lockdowns.
  • Changing to a new school.

How do I talk to my child about school refusal?

While you may be feeling extremely concerned and frustrated, it is important to communicate effectively with your child in a calm and positive manner.

Demonstrating genuine acceptance, curiosity and empathy will always encourage two-way effective communication with children and teens. This will help you understand the situation and collaborate on a plan forward.

Encourage your child to share how they are feeling with open questions using non-judgmental language and a show a genuine desire to understand what it is like to be in their shoes. Communicating with empathy and understanding will help them to open up so that you can ascertain their real reasons for not wanting to go to school and find ways to solve the issues. 

If necessary, you might gently suggest seeking input from professionals such as school counsellors, favoured teachers, psychologists, therapists and/or GP’s.  It may be very helpful to get the perspective of others.

Strategies for dealing with school refusal

Often parents are unsure whether to take a firm or acquiescent approach to school refusal. In choosing your approach focus on taking a balanced perspective, you want to be accepting of your child’s real difficulties but also firm that not attending education is not an option.

Consider the following effective strategies for dealing with school refusal:

  • Reassure your child that your goal is to help them feel more comfortable at school.
  • Regularly let your child know you support their efforts no matter how small.
  • Talk to their teachers to see if they have any insight, helpful strategies or ways to provide more academic or social support for your child.
  • Have a discussion with the school counsellor or principal if your child is being bullied.
  • Discuss with the school a graduated return to school plan or alternative learning environments/schedules.
  • Help them be more organised. Establish a morning and evening routine. Wake them in time for school each morning (regardless), set regular homework/study times and enforce school-night bedtimes.
  • Remind them of the positive aspects of school that they enjoy.
  • Organise ways to reduce academic pressure with options such as changing classes, engaging a tutor or relinquishing some school-based activities.
  • Teach them positive conflict resolution strategies.
  • Encourage positive friendships and setting social boundaries.
  • Visit your GP to ensure there are no underlying health conditions affecting their state of mind.
  • Enlist the help of health professionals such as counsellors, mental health clinicians or psychologists.
  • Consider family therapy or parent therapy to work through the problem as a cohesive and caring family unit.

Most importantly, be kind to yourself and resist panic.  School refusal does not have to be the end of the line.  There are many alternative learning pathways available and prolonged school refusal doesn’t mean the demise of your child’s education.  Many kids take a break from school then return; sometimes their brain needs time to heal from bullying or trauma. School refusal is not a sign of parent failure, it is a sign that your child needs support. Be open to receiving support for yourself to do this toughest of tasks.

 

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Relational Minds Child and Family Mental Health Clinic provides professional support services in Victoria for parents, caregivers and families struggling with the mental health and emotional wellbeing of children.

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