School Refusal

What is it?

School refusal is when children have difficulty going to school due to increased emotional distress including anxiety and depression, worries about leaving home, a phobia, learning difficulties, social problems, or issues within the family environment. These prolonged absences can significantly impact on a child’s development, learning, and social and emotional wellbeing. It is normal for most children to feel worried and not want to attend school occasionally, however problems that aren’t addressed, get worse, or persevere can lead to repeated school refusal. The longer the issue persists, the more difficult it can become for children to want to return to school and for you to support them in doing so.

What are the signs and symptoms?

School refusal is not a formal diagnosis, but rather the name for an emotional and/or behavioural problem. Children who are distressed at the idea of going to school might:

  • Cry, throw tantrums, yell, or scream
  • Hide or lock themselves in their room
  • Refuse to move
  • Beg or plead to stay home from school
  • Complain of illness such as headaches, stomach aches, or feeling generally unwell
  • Show high levels of worry or anxiety
  • Have trouble sleeping
  • Threaten to hurt themselves
  • Older children may appear to leave for school but end up truant or “wag” school.
  • Go to the school office or sick bay regularly and ask to be picked up from school.

How do we treat School Refusal?

Treating school refusal is best with the support of a mental health professional that can tackle the anxiety, family support that is understanding, compassionate but firm on the family’s expectation that a child attends school, and school supports to address the issues within the school environment contributing to the school refusal. This may include changes to social supports or addressing bullying, changes to the child’s learning environment or academic expectations, an in-school support person, and facilitating a return to school that accounts for uncompleted academic assessments.


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