How to manage school refusal

Read our advice on how to recognise school refusal and discover ways to help your child overcome their reasons for refusing to go to school.

school refusal
Cluey Learning Friday, 19 March 2021

Everyone has days where they just don’t want to go to school, right? Maybe it’s because they stayed up too late the night before, have a scary speech to give or just don’t feel like lugging sporting equipment across the city on public transport. These are one-off responses to the complexities of school life and the exhaustion of growing up, and often a single mental health day will solve the problem. This is not school refusal.

TLDR? Jump to each section below and see how Cluey can help

What is school refusal?

School refusal is a consistent behaviour of avoiding school, initiated by the student. School refusing behaviours are often emotionally charged and may present as angry and rebellious, or sad and scared, or even as lethargy and apathy. The core of school refusal is that more often than not, your physically healthy child is not going to school, or if they do they are avoiding participating, and the avoidance is being initiated by them.

How common is school refusal?

Whereas school reluctance strikes us all on some days, school refusal happens to about 2-5% of children, although this has been reported to have tripled since the global COVID-19 pandemic caused mass lockdowns and homeschooling, upset all routines and triggered what some are calling a ‘mental health crisis’ for young people. It is also a difficult situation to quantify as it’s not a diagnosable condition that could be reported by mental health professionals, nor do schools collect data on whether an absence is due to refusal as it’s often masked with a physical excuse.

How do you know if it’s school refusal?

There are a few tell-tale signs that you’re dealing with school refusal.

  1. Consistency in refusal – this isn’t just every now and then, and it’s also not just on every sport day or during assessment season. School refusal will feel like a constant, if not daily, battle.
  2. Variety in execution – school refusal is largely fuelled by fear, which can manifest as anxiety, anger or aggressive apathy, and it might differ day-to-day. This consistent aggression will bring unpredictability to your morning routine and may extend throughout the day into calls from school and mystery ailments arising at school needing your urgent attention.
  3. You know where they are all day – unlike students who skip school, you know exactly where your child is when they’re not at school, and they’re likely to be willing to work from home. This isn’t about rebellion for its own sake, this is about avoiding school at all costs.
  4. Bedtime can be miserable – sometimes anxiety will show up the night before, and some school refusers will delay going to bed to delay the inevitable conflict in the morning, or even to delay going to bed because the anxiety might be ruining their sleep.
  5. Bed becomes a magnet in the morning – consistent refusal to get up despite being awake and physically healthy, and developing a range of physical excuses suggests school refusal. Bear in mind that teenagers in general do find it harder to get out of bed earlier int he morning but they tend to be clinging to sleep, not the bed.
  6. Self-destructive behaviours – your child isn’t just in conflict with you but with themselves. Self-destructive behaviours don’t have to be dramatic displays of self-harm (although they can be and should be taken very seriously). They can be as small as nail biting or pulling at cuticles, chewing on or peeling lips, scratching, hair pulling, or holding their head more tightly than is comfortable.

Why is my child refusing to go to school?

While school refusal may come as a surprise, it’s almost always a sign that your child has been trying to process something for a while, without success. Schools are complex and competitive environments, and they can be your child’s whole world. So if something is causing them anxiety, fear, depression or stress, it can build rapidly to a breaking point.

Every child is unique, so there is no uniformity of cause for school refusal. One child might be avoiding school because of bullying, or a bad relationship with a teacher, or because they’re not excelling in a subject when they’re used to higher marks. Another might be struggling to deal with a change in family or geographical circumstances and school refusal is them demanding the time and space to process things alone.

The person who’s most likely to know why your child is refusing school is your child. Choose a time and place that isn’t associated with the school refusing behaviour and have the awkward conversation. Remember to put yourself in your child’s shoes, be compassionate and open minded, no matter how illogical or frustrating you find their behaviour to be. With all the conflict their behaviour has been causing, remember to tell them that you love and are proud of them.

Some helpful questions to open a dialogue with your child about their school refusal include:

  • if you could change one thing about your school, what would it be?
  • is there anyone bothering you at school?
  • how can I help you with school?
  • what do you miss about homeschooling (assuming there was a period of homeschooling during pandemic lockdown)?
  • are you worried about anything at school?
  • how are your friendships at school going?
  • is anything worrying you in general?
  • is there anything you wish your teachers knew?
  • is there anything you wish I knew?

Sometimes school refusal can be an indicator that something serious is happening that your child feels powerless to manage. These questions might give you more insight into whether you need to investigate further or whether it’s time to seek further help to solve problems with your child.

What’s wrong with school refusal, really?

In the short term, the simple fact of missing a little bit of school isn’t really a problem. It happens all the time for a range of reasons – travel, moving homes, student or family illness – what’s the big deal?

First, there’s the impact on your family. The constant conflict between you and your child can take years to resolve if you’re not communicating honestly and openly with your child about their school refusal. You know you want what’s best for them but in a moment of school refusal they’re communicating as loudly as they can that school is not what’s best for them at that time. This kind of conflict can confuse children, especially as they usually can’t articulate what’s going on. The solution? Communicate as compassionately as possible and work with your child towards a solution, every single day.

Second, there’s the impact on their schooling. This is both an academic and social issue as the longer your child stays away from school, the further behind they fall, and the more they miss socially. Friendships can falter when the reason for a friend’s absence isn’t really clear or compelling, and in some cases, friends may take refusal as a social slight against them. It may be that your child’s current friends aren’t their ‘forever’ friends, but there is a lot of value in your child figuring that out for themselves.

Third, there’s the impact on your child’s mental health. If school refusal is left unaddressed then the underlying cause is being unaddressed. Whether your child is refusing school because of the imagined ogre in the supply cupboard or because of serious misconduct by someone at the school, staff or student, something is happening in your child’s world that is causing them anxiety or depression or both.

Fourth, there’s the impact on your child’s long term mentalities around work. If school refusal is allowed to carry on, your child is learning that they can avoid whatever it is that’s troubling them (no matter how serious), and that removing themselves from the problem is a viable solution in life. This could compromise their problem solving skills, their social skills and their ability to achieve their goals in life as the scope of what they’re comfortable with becomes narrower and narrower.

So should I force them back to school?

No. Forcing your child to go to school without doing anything more about the problem will only bring bigger problems later on. You have to access and address the core problem – why are they refusing to go to school? Ultimately, you may end up changing schools but that is not perpetuating school refusal. Rather, that is showing your child how compromise works and that their health and wellbeing matter enough to you to be worth making big changes.

Daily strategies for dealing with school refusal

  1. Stay calm. You have more power to influence the situation than you realise so by appearing calm, you leave all of the work of creating a conflict to your child, while also creating space for them to come to you in a calm way themselves. Calm invites communication in a way conflict never can.
  2. Turn off the internet. If you have any doubts about your child’s reasons for refusing school, try turning off the internet when you’re not home. This will either bring the core issue out faster, or it will ensure that your child is reflecting on their thoughts, doing their offline homework or possibly even reading a book (radical!) while they’re at home refusing school.
  3. Use positive presumptions. If the problem seems to be more about the process of getting to school than of actually being at school, lace your language with positive presumptions. This means avoiding asking questions, or shaping questions so that all responses suit your goals. For example, instead of ‘are you going to get up and go to school today?’ try ‘what shall we do after school today?’. This creates more distance between your child and refusing school. Instead of just saying ‘no’ they have to explain that there won’t be an ‘after school’ because they’re refusing school today. This is far from a universal fix but it can be an enormous help.
  4. Debrief. Make a habit of debriefing about every single day, no matter how it went. This creates lines of communication for your child to share what might be bothering them, or what might be so appealing about being at home all day. It also gives them evidence (because words tend not to be enough) that you care deeply how their day went, every single day, even if it started out with conflict.
  5. Call in reinforcements. Carpooling with friends can be a very helpful way to get your child in the car (or on the bus, train or footpath) and off to school, and can take some of the fear of school away by proving to your child that they have a friend, that their friendship goes beyond the school gate. The accountability of making someone else late or worse, miss out, can be enough to crack open the school refusal conversation.

What if that’s not enough?

School refusal is a complex mental health issue. It can indicate so many other things going on that a few survival strategies and deep conversations might only be able to help your child manage the behaviour, not overcome it. Professional help (whether that’s an educational or a psychological professional) may prove invaluable in getting your child back on track in both attending school and managing their own wellbeing.

School is a good place to start. It may be the focus of the problem but that means it’s also the focus of the solution. You and a trusted teacher or school counsellor may be able to help your child articulate what it is about school that they’re avoiding. You may end up going in on a weekend when the school is just a building to establish whether it’s a physical problem or a social one. You might find trigger sites in the playground where negative social interactions have occurred or classrooms where tests are normally taken. The point is that you involve your child in solving the problem as practically and promptly as possible.

Once you open up the school refusal conversation, your school or your paediatrician may recommend a child psychologist or other expert health professionals. This is something to embrace, for you and your child, as it means that you’re addressing a problem that isn’t going to solve itself.

Equally, once you begin this discussion with your school, you may be recommended to seek external tutoring to help your child build up their confidence in general, or in specific skills, or even to help hone their social skills.

How can Cluey help?

Cluey can help children to build up their confidence in learning, and can help them stay in touch with their school work while they’re refusing formal schooling. Our expert tutors are patient and kind, and often having an adult to communicate with who is new to your child’s world might be the opportunity they need to open up about their school refusal. Cluey can also help with supplementing school work during extended periods of school refusal and can help your child catch up on work when they haven’t engaged with their education at all for some time.

What about you?

No matter what’s going on with your child, if you’re reading this article you’re probably carrying an awful lot of emotional weight that you can’t put down over a problem that you can’t really control, often caused by something beyond you and your family. It is perfectly valid and normal to feel frustrated, exhausted, sad, angry, confused and powerless in this situation.

You and your child both need you to look after yourself. Create time for yourself (even if that means having a relaxing bath at midnight or 2 in the afternoon), prioritise gentle exercise like walking and yoga, and if you need a mental health day – take one.

In fact, maybe you could plan a mental health day with your child in advance?

Knowing that they’ll get some time to do something they love with someone they love on a weekday might help both you and your child get along while you work to overcome their school refusal.

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