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How to Deal with School Refusal

Blog - 29 March 2023

How to Deal with School Refusal

With children back at school and Term 1 in full swing, there is one challenge in education that seems to be impacting schools and families. We’re seeing the continuing fallout of COVID, where last year there was a big drop in attendance rates from the impact of the pandemic and lockdowns.

School attendance is a massive issue, according to Hon Jason Clare, Minister for Education, and something that wasn’t just hit by COVID. He plans to address this issue for the next meeting of Education Ministers, along with challenges of teacher shortages and funding arrangements for schools.

There is evidence that school attendance rates have been dropping for the last 10 years, and it’s not just a certain age group, gender or State that are part of this. School refusal happens amongst boys and girls, and in every year from kindergarten to high school, in every State and Territory across the country.

So, why are children refusing to go to school?

School refusal is different from skipping school. It happens when children (or adolescents) regularly refuse to attend school and/or experience significant stress when faced with the idea of leaving for school each day.

There are several possibilities why children may refuse to go to school:

  • Social anxiety (fear of social situations, separation anxiety)
  • Learning difficulties (struggling with academic work)
  • Mental health issues (depression, anxiety)
  • Family problems (trauma, divorce, violence)
  • Negative school experiences (challenges with peers such as bullying)

Understanding the root of the cause and being supportive and responsive (as a parent) is the best way to approach school refusal with children.

Some people believe tough love is a simple, ‘quick fix’ to school refusal. However, research has shown such an authoritarian approach can have negative impacts on children. If they are being forced or punished because of it, children are likely to develop low self-esteem, a lack of independence and difficulty forming healthy relationships.

Major concern for children’s mental wellbeing

Camp Australia's Child Impact Survey (Dec 2022) has found that 68% of school leaders are concerned about the mental wellbeing of children, and more than a third of families (36%) concerned about children’s socialisation, despite the end of lockdowns.

From the survey, we have found 5% of families said school refusal was their main concern, where 9% of those said their child’s behaviour/situation to school refusal got worse compared to the last 3 years.

Helpful school refusal strategies for parents

Address the issue in a supportive way and work together as a family to find a solution that works for your child. You can’t necessarily go from 0 to 10, but there are small steps you can take to encourage and let your child understand the need for school in a positive way. There must also be a promising partnership between the parents and the school for the child to go back to school successfully.

School refusal strategies include:

  • Developing a plan together to work on alternative ways (home/online schooling)
  • Providing emotional support to help the child feel more confident about attending school
  • Encouraging positive relationships with peers, teachers and the school community
  • Seeking professional help through counselling

Hon Jason Clare MP held a press conference earlier this year in support of this issue.

“We’re going to roll out more than $200 million in a wellbeing boost to help students right across the country to bounce back from the impact of COVID. That’ll mean, on average, about 20 grand to each and every school across the country to spend on things like psychologists or counsellors or school excursions or school camps – the sorts of practical things that we know make a big difference to student wellbeing.”

The focus for families with children who are refusing to go to school may be more on identifying the cause and addressing the issues, while working with the school to create a positive and encouraging environment to support them. The important thing is to approach the situation with empathy and understanding.

If this blog has raised issues for you or someone you know, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.

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