School refusal

Children and young people are sometimes reluctant to attend school, sometimes significantly worried or upset to the point of refusal.
Students play outdoors

What is it?

School refusal is not ‘wagging’ or truancy; in this case, non-attendance is related to worry or anxiety about going to school.

Students who refuse school don’t typically engage in antisocial behaviour usually linked with truancy (such as lying, stealing or destruction of property). Unlike truancy, the absence isn’t usually hidden from family. In fact, families may have attempted many strategies to reduce the child or young person’s anxiety to help them attend. 

School refusal is also different from ‘school withdrawal’, which refers to circumstances where the family keeps the child at home for various reasons (such as to support an ill family member). School refusal can be considered as a psychological issue rather than misbehaviour. 

  • What are the signs?

    It's not unusual for students to sometimes be nervous or worried about going to school.

    As an educator, you might notice some of the following signs:
    • tantrums, clinginess, dawdling or running away on arrival (in primary school-aged children)
    • frequent complaints of illness (such as stomach aches, headaches, dizziness or fatigue)
    • frequent requests to go home or call a family member
    • absence or lateness to school after weekends, holidays, school camps or sports days
    • long, unexplained absences from school
    • periodic absences or missed classes, with no explanation given
    • absences on specific days (such as sports day or days with tests or presentations)
    • frequent lateness to school
    • long periods spent in the sick bay or the school office.
    Family partnerships

    Families may indicate their child or young person experiences issues at home, such as morning tearfulness prior to school, difficulties falling asleep the night before or protesting going to school the next day. They may also report oppositional or challenging behaviour from a child or young person intent on avoiding school. It’s important to share information with families as soon as possible and seek their perspective on these issues.

    Be You Professional Learning

    Check out tips for creating and maintaining strong relationships with families in the Family Partnerships domain.

  • What causes school refusal?

    There are lots of reasons why a student might refuse school

    These will be different for each child or young person. School refusal can happen at any age but is more likely to occur during transitional life changes (for example, starting primary or secondary school) or major family events (such as separation or family bereavement). Usually there’s no single event or reason, but rather various factors that contribute to a child or young person’s non-attendance.  

    Contributing factors might include:
    • anxiety about social situations
    • anxiety around activities that involve a performance or evaluation (such as sports days, tests or speaking in front of the class)
    • peer issues, such as social isolation, bullying or conflict with friends
    • difficulty or conflict with educators
    • academic problems or learning difficulties
    • anxiety around being separated from significant family members
    • traumatic events, such as a family illness, grief or parental separation/divorce, exposure to family violence
    • difficulties with transition, such as moving to a new school, returning to school after a long absence due to illness or entering or exiting primary school
    • mental health issues.

    School refusal, non-attendance or reluctance to attend are symptoms of an underlying problem. It’s important to identify, understand and address these deeper causes when supporting a child or young person to return to school or attend consistently. Getting help from support services within the school or local community can be a good first step, as early detection and intervention is essential. The longer the issue persists, the more difficult it can be to re-engage the child or young person with their learning.

  • What are the consequences?

    School refusal is a serious issue that’s best managed early

    Long absences mean children and young people miss out on large chunks of the curriculum, which is detrimental to their learning and development. A week can be a long time in social relationships, so frequent absences can also jeopardise friendships.

    School refusal can also create conflict and strained relationships within families through disruptions to their routines. It might even affect income when family members forgo work to stay home with the child or young person. 

    Children and young people who miss school by refusing to go might also face long-term problems. Research shows school refusal can contribute to mental health issues, emotional and social issues, exiting school early and occupational dysfunction in later life.

  • Promote school attendance

    Schools that actively encourage mental health and wellbeing for children and young people can help to reduce school refusal with the following approaches.

    Building a mentally healthy community

    A positive school culture makes children and young people feel safe and secure. It promotes a sense of belonging and helps positive relationships thrive. Students are more likely to attend school regularly when they feel supported and valued as an important part of the school community.

    Creating family partnerships

    Partnerships between school staff and families will mean that attendance problems are detected early and everyone’s on the same page to support the child or young person. Regular communication between schools and families during periods of non-attendance helps everyone work together to support the child or young person to return to school.

    Developing resilience

    Embedding teaching of social and emotional skills into the curriculum, with opportunities to practise these skills across a range of contexts, gives children and young people tools for managing uncomfortable emotions like anxiety. Having these real-life skills makes school refusal less likely.

    Providing early support

    Recognising the signs that a child or young person might be experiencing social or emotional difficulties helps educators to take appropriate action. School refusal can flag anxiety or another mental health issue like stress or trauma. Recognising and responding to school refusal means that educators might pick up on issues that would otherwise be missed. The child or young person and their family can also be referred to other services or professionals who can support them.

    Be You Professional Learning
    Learn more about providing support for children, young people and their families, by helping them access information and internal and external supports, in the Provide module.

  • What can schools do?

    Early recognition of attendance and school refusal issues is essential.

    Strategies can be put in place to support the student before the behaviour becomes entrenched.

    At the whole-school level
    • Create a positive school climate in which children and young people feel supported by peers and educators, and have a sense of connectedness to the school community.
    • Establish peer support or mentoring programs to increase a sense of belonging among students.
    • Closely monitor student attendance to enable early detection of attendance problems and make efforts to follow up with the student and their family.
    • Communicate the importance of consistent attendance to the school community.
    • Develop a school policy specifically on school refusal with defined processes for when and how to respond.
    • Ensure students know where they can go and who they can talk to if they’re feeling worried or overwhelmed.
    • Develop effective programs to support students and their families during the transition to school and between schools.
    • Ensure all school staff are aware of the factors that contribute to school refusal and receive support when working with students displaying persistent school refusal.
    At the individual level
    • Work closely with the family to understand the underlying reasons behind the school refusal and problem-solve together.
    • Work with the school’s wellbeing team, learning support team or pastoral care (depending on resources available at your school) and get advice on supports the student might need.
    • Seek information about professionals within the broader community who may be able provide support.
    • Maintain close contact with the family, even during extended periods of non-attendance.
    • Acknowledge the challenges faced by families of children and young people who refuse school.
    • Develop a return-to-school plan in collaboration with the family and student. Depending on individual needs, this might include gradual re-entry, a flexible learning program or timetable, or special arrangements for recess. The aim of the plan should include the expectation of gradual full attendance.
    • Support families to implement a morning routine that sets the expectation of school attendance.
    • Consider the support the child or young person might need upon arrival at school. This might include meeting with a friend at a specific place and time, using a quiet space to settle before school starts, engaging in an activity or responsibility, or meeting with a key staff member.
    • Provide recognition and positive feedback for any efforts towards school attendance.
    • Respond to any school-based needs, such as academic support, dealing with bullying or support with social relationships.
    • Link families with appropriate support services for assistance with family-based issues which might be impacting on the child or young person’s attendance.

    Be You Professional Learning

    Learn more about observing children and young people’s behavioural and mood changes in the Notice module.

  • References

    Flakierska-Praquin, N., Lindström, M., & Gillberg, C. (1997). School phobia with separation anxiety disorder: A comparative 20- to 29-year follow-up study of 35 school refusers. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 38(1), 17–22.

    Inglés, C. J., Gonzálvez-Maciá, C., García-Fernández, J. M., Vicent, M., & Martínez-Monteagudo, M. C. (2015). Current status of research on school refusal. European Journal of Education and Psychology, 8(1), 37-52.

    Kearney, C. A. (2008). School absenteeism and school refusal behavior in youth: A contemporary review. Clinical Psychology Review, 28(3), 451–471.

    McKay-Brown, L. (2016). Getting school refusers back to class. Melbourne: University of Melbourne Graduate School of Education. Retrieved from https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/getting-school-refusers-back-to-class.

    NSW Government Ministry of Health. (2014). School Refusal – every school day counts. Sydney: NSW Health. Retrieved from http://www.health.nsw.gov.au/kidsfamilies/youth/Documents/forum-speaker-presentations/2017/webster-greenberg-sr-booklet.pdf.

    Wimmer, M. (2008). Why kids refuse to go to school and what schools can do about it. Education Digest, 74(3) 32-37.