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School refusal: How to get kids back to class

Our Principal Consultant, Dr Lynette has spent many months working on a practical solution for school refusal. Dr Lynette worked closely with staff and parents of a local state school coaching the parents. Over a six-week period parents learned practical tips and strategies and had extremely positive results. Parents reported their households were calmer and children were attending school. We’ll call that a win!

“I feel so empowered with the strategies I learned.” – Parent

Because of the success of the workshops, Lynette has designed a 3-day Train the Trainer workshop to teach school staff to run the six-week School Refusal workshops for parents in their schools as well as a 10-Lesson online School Refusal Recovery Course for parents and caregivers.

School children walking happily through school grounds
Let’s get the children back to school

A quick history of school refusal

The term ‘school phobia’ was first coined in 1941 and was a term to describe students who exhibited emotional stress when attempting to attend school.  Today, the term ‘school refusal’ is also known as ‘school avoidance’ and ‘school phobia’.

The phenomenon was first researched in 1970s and has increased ever since.  Whilst there are varying degrees of capturing the data around the prevalence of school refusal, it is generally accepted that 1 in 5 children experience school refusal (Fremont, 2003). This figure is said to have increased three-fold since Covid, with some researchers suggesting 5% and 28% of children and adolescents now affected (Fornander & Kearney 2019).  

“The group was lovely and connecting with others on the same page was helpful. Learning new strategies and seeing the changes in my own family eg. children back at school and less arguing has been great.” – Parent

What is school refusal?

School refusal also known as school avoidance is a complex issue that negatively impacts the child, their caregivers, and the school staff.  School attendance is an important part of a child’s social, academic, psychological, and emotional growth and is underpins a safe and structured upbringing. 

Whilst school refusal is increasing, especially during and after Covid, and it is a behavioural condition, it is not yet included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM 5) the main diagnostic tool used by psychologists and psychiatrists.  However, it can be a manifestation of many psychiatric, mood or anxiety disorders such as generalised anxiety disorder, separation anxiety, panic disorder, major depressive disorders, or attention deficit disorder to name a few (Haddad & van Schalkwyk 2021).

Anxiety-based school refusal differs from truancy or ‘wagging’, in that the thought of attending school can cause anxiety in the student. This results in the student and often the parent being distressed, and an increase in school staff workloads.  Dr Lynette addresses both anxiety-based school refusal, and behavioural-based school refusal (truancy) in all her programs and workshops.

“It’s been very helpful and I’ve changed the way I deal with my teen.” – Parent

students gathered together over laptops with a teacher observing in the background
School is healthy for students in so many ways

The four drivers of school refusal

It is widely agreed that school refusal occurs because of one or more of four factors:

  • AVOIDING situations which evoke negative emotions.  Example: The student is being bullied, or needs to make a presentation, or it’s sports day.
  • ESCAPE from negative social and/or evaluative situations. Example:  The student isn’t keeping up their grades and is concerned others will think she’s dumb.
  • ATTENTION SEEKING Example:  When he doesn’t go to school mum takes him to Nanna’s and he’s fussed over and feels special.
  • REWARDS Example: When he doesn’t go to school mum lets him play games and they go out for ice cream.
Table showing the four reasons for school refusal
The four reasons for school refusal

Once the underlying reason for school refusal is established, it becomes easier to work on a strategy for treatment.

“The interaction and application to real life situations was helpful and the workshops were structured and comprehensive.” – School staff member

When is school refusal likely to occur?

While School Refusal can happen at any time. Researchers have found that it often peaks around transition periods such as entering kindergarten, moving from primary to middle schools, middle to senior and senior to university. School Refusal peaks from ages 5-7, and again at ages 11-14 and is just as common in boys as it is in girls. 

Other triggers of school refusal can be stressful events at home, family conflict, changing schools, bullying or poor school results.  

School Refusal and other avoidance-related behaviours are linked to attachment style and separation anxiety as a baby.  Lynette has designed these workshops for schools and parents to help our children back to school and equip them with the skills they need to handle the ups and downs that life throws us.

“I enjoyed listening to how other parents had implemented the strategies and how successful they had been.” – Parent

students running happily in school grounds

Key characteristics of school refusal

Anxiety-based school refusal Behavioural-based school refusal (truancy)
The student attempts to get to school, may put uniform on, may get into the car, but soon becomes anxious, angry, tearful, or distressed. Child will often say they want to go to school but can’t. Parents report moodiness after the child gets home from school, refusal to complete homework, aggressive behaviour, reduced appetite, changes in sleep patterns. These behaviours are worse on Sunday nights or before a new term begins.

There is no attempt by the student to get ready for school or they may hide the fact they are not attending school. They may spend the day hanging with friends, gaming, or doing other truant-like behaviours and are more likely to engage in criminal activities.
Risky sexual behaviours
Tendency to violence
Suicide ideation
Antisocial behaviours
The two types of school refusal addressed in the workshops

Why does it matter?

It is widely accepted that school teaches children values, social duties and societal norms as well as a host of other tangible, practical, ethical and physical objectives which are central for life success.  When a student refuses school, many of these pillars are disrupted often causing life-long difficulties for the child, and significant distress for families. 

school boys gathering for a game of soccer

There may be tensions between the families and the schools, as parents navigate work restrictions, other children, domestic tensions and the real and/or perceived judgements of others.  Often the family unit will be fractured with problems of missed work, social isolation, low self-esteem, issues with the law over non-attendance.

Some short-term outcomes include poor academic performance, family tensions, worsening peer relations all which can easily exacerbate the behaviour.  The longer the behaviour occurs, the harder treatment is effective.  

Long term consequences include academic underachievement, employment difficulty, an increased risk of mental illness, and a lifetime of economic struggle. Sewell (2008) argues that besides the social, emotional, and educational implications for the child, associated psychiatric disorders of anxiety and depression may progress into adulthood. 

“As a Guidance Officer, I enjoyed the practical strategies I can now give to parents.” – Guidance Officer

What can you do?

If you’re a parent or caregiver, talk to your school and let them know a Now Generation School Refusal program, exists where the school, the parents, the children and the staff work together to get the kids back to school using proven methods.

If you’re a Guidance Officer, provisional psychologist, HoD, or educator, contact Lynette now for more information about our three-day School Refusal Workshops so you can run the workshops for parents at your school. The Now Generation School Refusal Train the Trainer workshops have had proven results which have made homes calmer, more positive spaces, and with the children back in the classrooms.

School refusal train the trainer dates

The Train the Trainer program will run during every school holiday break, and in term in 2024 and 2025. Let us know if you’re interested and we’ll organise a suitable time to fit your busy schedules (Groups of 8+ required – so collaborations with other schools may be helpful).

Want to know more? Email now.