Now that schools have returned to a ‘COVID as usual’ state (give or take the occasional lockdown!), many parents have begun to worry because their child won’t go to school.
Although school refusal is a complex problem with many factors, it is also very common in homes across Australia right now.
Imagine it is 6am on a week day and you hear your daughter in year 7, crying in her bedroom. She becomes extremely anxious and tells you she hasn’t slept well.
Eventually after lots of trying, you decide you just can’t get her to go to school. As her parent you try to calm her down but nothing works. Soon this becomes a regular occurrence each morning and she is no longer attending school. What’s going on?
What is School Refusal?
School refusal is a term used to describe the situation when a young person becomes so distressed, they are unable to attend school. They often experience extreme anxiety as well when trying to attend.
This is different from deliberately not attending school as the parents are often aware of the situation. The parents are experiencing distress and are feeling a sense of despair, often not knowing what to do. It can start in primary school and continue on well into high school, leading to significant disruption in the young person’s education and impacting their opportunities in later life.
Signs of School Refusal
Symptoms of school refusal can start well before there is a problem with attendance. Have you noticed your child doing any of the following?
- Feeling distressed about going to school – which may start the night before;
- Anxiety or worry;
- Crying before school in the mornings;
- Physical symptoms such as nausea or headaches;
- Poor sleep;
- If attending school, being late or going to the office/sick bay to report feeling ill, or often being sent home from school unwell;
- Absences from school.
Why is my Child refusing to go to School?
This is a complex question that can have many layers to it. However, with the children and young people I work with I typically see one or more of the following factors contributing in some way:
- A change in schools – for example transition from a smaller school to a larger one, or from primary to high school or even prep to year 1;
- The journey to school can sometimes play a part in increasing anxiety;
- Friendship group issues or bullying;
- A change in the family situation such as parental separation, geographic relocation of the family for example for work, or family illness or death of a family member;
- Difficulties within the school environment related to learning or teacher conflict.
Tips for Parents
If you have a child or young person refusing to go to school, try the following ideas:
- Act early and don’t delay, as the longer you leave it the worse it will become.
- Talk to your child and reassure them, and ask what is happening for them at school?
- Teaching them some easy breathing and relaxation strategies is very helpful, and you can work with them to co-regulate. This means sitting calmly with them when they are distressed and helping them to breathe and manage their inner voice or self-talk.
- Contact the school, as they may have staff to support you and your child.
- Consider a referral to a professional who may be able to assist you and your child. They can explore what is happening for your child/young person and build sustainable strategies to support their return to school and build their psychological resilience.
Will this go on forever?
No, it may not. I have worked with many children that have experienced school refusal and it is something they can recover from. Most children go on to enjoy a successful school career – and your child can too!
Author: Maree Stevens, BAdVocEd; GCert Sp Ed; M SocWk; M HumServ; GDipCouns; GCert MentalHlthPrac.
Maree Stevens is an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker with several years’ experience working with children and young people affected by school refusal and other mental health conditions.
Maree is currently not taking bookings. Our team can assist you with placing you with another clinician. Please call Vision Psychology on (07) 3088 5422.