School refusal – “I’m just not going!” (Insert door slam here!)

There are many different reasons why a child or teen might not want to go to school. For some, the desire to avoid going to school can become so troubling that it can become associated with family conflict and significant mental health issues.

There are lots of words in the psychological research that are used to describe the problems faced by students who should be, but aren’t, going to school. When you take a close look at the child that is not going to school, you can usually see factors in the child, factors in the family, and factors in the school that are not quite aligned so that the child is getting the most of their schooling years. In fact, the words that are used to describe the different types of school non-attendance give some insight into which factors might be in play the children, the parents/carers and the school.

  • The word “truancy” is normally used when a child is skipping school and not letting their parent or carer know. There are usually legal-type sanctions for this when they are caught. Sometimes, ironically, sanctions include being suspended or kept away from school.
  • “School withdrawal” is the term normally used for students who are not going to school and their parents are aware, but do not take any action. Most of these students disengage from education systems completely.
  • “School refusal” is the term used to describe students who are not attending school and who have parents /carers who know they are not going and who want them to attend.

When trying to assist in a situation where a child is refusing school, there are two important questions to consider:

  1. What are the young person’s motivations to stay away from school?
  2. What are the young person’s motivations to stay at home?

These are similar but importantly different questions. It is worth considering the factors for the child that make up the “pros and cons” of going to school as well as the “pros and cons” of not going to school. In this way, we can see that sometimes the motivations are nothing to do with school alone. There may be concerns at home (for instance, a parent may be unwell or have had an accident) and despite being reassured by family, the child may feel that their priority is to be at home to keep an eye on things there rather than be at school. Indeed, many students who school refuse do so because they are anxious, fearful or depressed. Some find the school work too difficult or too under-stimulating, some don’t like classrooms where the teacher uses discipline to the point where there is an overall culture of conflict, and some find it more satisfying to pursuit rewards outside of school.

Some children and teens might require extra help with managing stress, dealing with their own stage of development, managing social situations, solving problems, or dealing with depression.

Emerging research is suggesting that these developmental differences need to be addressed if we want to help students to re-engage in schooling.

Different children at different ages have different age-linked reasons behind their lack of attendance. It’s important that people trying to help take a child’s developmental stage into consideration. If a primary school-aged child is not attending school, CBT-based psychological treatment can usually improve the situation quite quickly. However, for teenagers, the problems associated with school refusal become much more complex and additions need to be made to treatment to ensure that the complex interplay of factors is being addressed. There are often a bevy of complex things going on for the teen school-refusing student – the secondary school environments are much more academically demanding, peer issues are much more complex and the young teen is working on sorting out the sort of person they think they are. Also, because the teen is developing some autonomy, he or she may be more likely to want to make decisions about school for themselves.

From a family or carer’s perspective, it can be both concerning and frustrating when a child won’t attend school. Tensions can become high.

The best interventions for getting children back to school also involve work with parents and carers, too. Providing parents with the information and support around teenagers and youth development, skills for parenting teenagers, “how to’s” to bolster a young person’s confidence or respond to boundary breeches, and solving family problems can all assist and especially so when done in conjunction with the work being done for the child who is refusing to attend school.

If we look at school factors that are linked to school refusal, generally they have to do with the schools size, its culture and rigidity.

Some teenage students find it easier to attend school when the school is smaller, when classrooms are peaceful, were teachers are allowed some flexibility and where students feel that they have a relationship with the teacher and that they are known and belong. Students also appreciate school more when they have a role to play in the school community. Large schools now are finding that dividing the school up into junior, middle and senior years and allowing leadership positions at each of these levels can assist to keep the notorious junior and middle years of high school (ie years 8 and 9) better engaged.

A range of alternate school options have sprung up for students who were beginning to disengage. The options for alternate education vary from region to region and, unfortunately, from year to year as many are funded by short term funding sources. To find out more about main stream school alternatives in your region, contact the Youth Affairs Department in your State or Territory.

Because there are so many factors that may be contributing to school refusal, there is no single quick-fix for all school-refusers.

Good treatment requires careful consideration of all the factors affecting the child, the family and the school and then a cleverly crafted series of interventions to get all parts of the picture functioning in the best interest of the student.

For help for a student who is slipping away from the school system, be sure to listen to the student, understand all of the things that may be influencing friends and family, and check what is going on from the school’s perspective. Once the reasons for the absences are understood, involve the student, family and the school in a shared plan towards returning that targets the practical, emotional and skills issues needs be the child, family members and school. If there are emotional, mental health, social skills or family communication issues adding to the complexity, consider a trip to the GP and a psychologist to assist.


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