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School refusal - a problem for the whole family

Advice from Dr Asha Patel from Innovating Minds, a not-for-profit that advocates an early intervention approach to supporting young people's mental health.Innovating Minds Logo

What is school refusal, and what might be behind it?

School refusal is often known as school phobia. There is an element of fear for children who do not go to school, a feeling that they cannot cope. They might be anxious about schoolwork, or struggling with relationships with friends or teachers. Some children feel out of step with their classmates: this is especially true of children who are young for their age and see all the others in their groups as older, more confident and more grown up.

Some younger children might become very clingy and want to sleep in their parents' bed. This is a difficult one especially if the child is having nightmares and waking up distressed at night or sleepwalking, but it is not a long-term solution.

Your child might be worried about things going on at home. Big life changes, family breakdown, mental illness or bereavement can all affect their sense of security and well-being, and some children worry that bad things will happen at home while they are at school. Is it long-term problem? The longer children are away from school, the harder it can get for them to return. We have worked with children who quite unknowingly end up being the one who controls the situation so that they decide which days they go into school and which lessons they attend. This is known as a maladaptive coping strategy. It seems like a step towards a solution but in fact reinforces the unhealthy coping strategy and maintains the problem.

For many children school refusal is a temporary state, but for some families it is more serious and talking to your child can seem to make the problem worse. Sometimes family life can become a battleground so that every time you start to talk about the issue, the conversation quickly descends into confrontation and even screaming matches.

If it is hard for you to talk to your child, see if there is someone who can act as an intermediary, perhaps a sympathetic teacher or a family friend whose judgement you trust but who is not too close to the situation. Young people are more likely to have a heart-to-heart with somebody where there is no history of conflict and no emotional baggage.

Once you - and the school perhaps- have come up with a plan, stick to it for at least half a term. It is important to have some consistency because that will increase the child's sense of security and give them a routine. It also gives all parties the chance to evaluate the success of the strategy. The danger is that families career from one solution to another and have no idea of what works. It can take time.

Pupils who can’t attend mainstream school for a variety of reasons, including school refusal, are entitled by law to alternative provision which might be home tuition. This is an extreme solution because children are getting an education but missing out on all the social and emotional education and many opportunities to have different experiences that can build their self-esteem.

What are the warning signs?

'I don't want to go to school today. I don't feel well!' These are words that every parent dreads. It is hard enough to rearrange your day to look after a sick child but it is even more worrying if you have a nagging suspicion there is nothing physically wrong.

Look first at the physical symptoms. Do you have evidence that the child is physically ill, for example rapid heartbeat, vomiting, pale skin? Does the child complain of stomach pains regularly? Make an appointment with a doctor to rule out an illness such as grumbling appendix and talk about your concerns.

Is your child always tired? This could be because they are going to sleep late at night, perhaps playing on Xbox or social media beyond bedtime. Are they happier and healthier at weekends and during the holidays? This will help you build a picture.

Some children mask their feelings by being over bright and talking too much. They need to be the centre of attention and to seek reassurance and will describe every little detail of the school day. Their brothers and sisters get fed up with this as every mealtime is dominated by one child's concerns which can easily absorb all the parents' attention. Make time to talk to them on their own and try to encourage turn-taking skills so they are not always filling the space.

How parents can help

What you can do

Look for patterns - is your child reluctant to go to school on particular days or all the time? Perhaps they want to avoid a teacher or subject they don't like. If it is a constant problem it might be a classmate or group of children they are avoiding.

Talk to the school as soon as you are worried. Find out if your child has unexplained absences or latenesses that you do not know about. Sometimes children do not behave at home and school in the same way. See if the teachers have noticed changes in mood or behaviour. Perhaps something has happened at school, bullying or a perceived injustice that has rankled them. There could be something bubbling under the surface that you are not aware of because your child has deliberately kept it from you or not known how to raise the subject.

Check if your child talks about other children in the class, mentions friends or things that have happened during the day. They may be positive or negative about school but if they are talking, it is easier to move towards a proper conversation. Talk to your child about school and try to keep questions light. 'How was Mr Evans?' may get a better response than 'What did you do at school today? or 'Did you get your science project back?' which can seem like loaded remarks to an over-sensitive child.

If your child opens up, listen but try not to jump in with comments or conclusions because refusal to go to school is often just the tip of the iceberg and you need to listen uncritically until you uncover the real issues that lie behind their feelings.

What you don't do

  • Do not jump to conclusions – you may think you know what the problem is but you need to talk to your child and the teacher
  • Do not get overwhelmed – you may feel it is your fault in some way but you need to keep calm
  • Do not interrogate or blame. Statements such as, 'Grow up!' 'You are always looking for a way out,' 'You need to stick at things' make the child feel guilty as well as anxious and don't offer strategies or solutions
  • Do not criticise the school or teachers because you may be transferring your negative thoughts to the child
  • Do not rush into decisions. Think twice before agreeing that your child can continue to miss school. Work together with the school before you make any big decisions

Sources of support

The child's form teacher and, if there is a bullying issue, the safeguarding lead will need to be involved.

Kooth Kooth, from XenZone, is an online counselling and emotional well-being platform for children and young people, accessible through mobile, tablet and desktop and free at the point of use.

National Autistic society Autistic children and young people can find the school environment challenging. The National Autistic Society looks at the reasons that could be behind this and suggests strategies to try at home to help maintain school attendance or reintegrate your child back into school.

Young Minds are 'leading the fight for a future where all young minds are supported and empowered, whatever the challenges. We're here to make sure they get the best possible mental health support and have the resilience to overcome life’s difficulties.'

Dr Asha Patel Innovating Minds An award winning social enterprise that is passionate about providing accessible psychological support for young people in education, training and employment to foster emotional wellbeing and resiliency.

Reviewed: August 2018
Key points
  • School refusal is often known as school phobia
  • For many children school refusal is a temporary state
  • Once you've come up with a plan, stick to it for at least half a term
  • Pupils who can't attend mainstream school are entitled by law to alternative provision
  • Warning signs can include physical symptoms, make an appointment with the doctor to rule out illness
  • Make time to talk to your child and try not to jump in if they open up to you
  • Seek support from your child's school

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