Need to know
- A look at what to do when your child doesn’t want to go to school. What you need to know, how to navigate the problem and some helpful tips.
Occasionally, kids like to push back on going to school. Maybe they’re returning after a long weekend or perhaps they have an assessment they are avoiding. School refusal, however, is a regular and often distressing response to going to school.
Why it’s important
School refusal can be due to a combination of factors all of which culminate in overwhelming anxiety for your child. Sometimes the issues are well known, but other times there are things that you or your child might not be aware of. Ask yourself the following questions about your child:
- Have they expressed issues with friendships or bullying?
- Do they have a diagnosed or undiagnosed learning disability?
- Are they experiencing sensory overwhelm?
- Are there family challenges like divorce or serious illness?
- Have they recently moved schools or changed teachers?
- Are they struggling with social interactions?
- Do they have a diagnosed or undiagnosed neurodevelopmental difference (ADHD, Autism)
Your child might try different tactics to avoid going to school so it’s important to pick up on telling signs:
- Complaining about headaches, stomach aches and illness
- Troubled relationship with the teacher
- Friendship issues
- Refusing to wake up and get ready for school
- Anxiety about everything school related
- Picking fights with family members in the mornings
- Spending lots of time in sick bay or in the bathroom
- Sobbing and pleading to not go to school
- Hiding in the house or locking themselves in their room
- Clinginess at the school gate
On the days you haven’t been able to get your child to school, it’s crucial that you:
- Keep to the daily routine of getting up and dressed, and observing all the school breaks
- Set the expectation that you your child has to complete their school work while they are at home
- Make staying home as boring as possible by removing temptations like TV and iPad
Tips & strategies
Early detection – to help your child get back to school, you must first identify, understand and then address the factors that contribute to school refusal. The earlier you pick up on these signs the better the chance you have helping your child feel safe and happy to return to school.
Get medical concerns checked out – it’s best to see a doctor to rule out any medical complaints. Sometimes anxiety can present as physical symptoms but you don’t want to miss an underlying illness.
Choose the right moment to talk – you want to be able to talk to your child when they are calm. It’s important that they feel that they can trust you with what is worrying them, so you need to remain empathetic and avoid accusations. You are there to listen so ask direct questions. Use reflective listening by replaying back what your child tells you and allowing them to confirm or clarify.
Work together on formulating a plan – once you know what is driving your child’s anxiety, you can invite them to work through different solutions to ensure they are invested in making it work. Think of this as a great opportunity for your young person to practice problem solving.
Organise a time to see the teacher/principal/school counsellor – you will need support from teachers and school staff to implement the necessary accommodations or put into action the agreed plan. Be prepared to advocate for your child and keep pushing until you get a result.
Consider external help – depending on the severity of the problem, find a professional that is able to work with your child on dealing with anxiety. Find a psychologist that specialises in young people or look into programs run specifically for kids.
Sometimes none of the strategies above will work because the school can’t or won’t implement all the recommendations put forward. If this is the case you might want to evaluate other nearby schools. For neurodivergent kids who need accommodations that are not supported by mainstream schools, you might need to weigh up the pros and cons of homeschooling.