School refusal - the impact on families and how to help

Lou Fenlon
07 September, 2017 : 09:00
0     2

What is school refusal?

School refusal is an anxiety disorder related to separation anxiety where children refuse to attend school because doing so causes uncomfortable feelings, stress, anxiety, or panic. See The Encyclopedia of Children's Health for details. 

School refusal usually has a debilitating impact on a young person and their families, and can contribute to a deep sense of isolation. Symptoms can present when:

  • the young person’s trust in school has been broken
  • there are unaddressed stresses or concerns at school
  • there is separation anxiety from parents and/or home. 

How do I know if my child has school refusal?

A doctor or qualified person can help to make a diagnosis, but there are some common symptoms to be aware of, including:

  • anxiety
  • determination not to attend school, for example a reluctance to get dressed, to leave the house or enter school premises
  • agitation during school day mornings
  • difficulty sleeping on school nights 
  • social withdrawal.

My background in helping those with school refusal

I have over twenty years of experience working in SEN (special educational needs). Part of my role has been to integrate students back into school, many of whom had great anxiety when it came to attending, which is the basis of school refusal.

Living with School Refusal - a personal account

An acquaintance of mine who suffered from school refusal in childhood told me what she went through.

“When I was thirteen, I’d wake up with fear. My heart would pound and I would sweat, then run to the bathroom and vomit.

When I first experienced the feeling, I’d cry at the thought of having to go to school, walking through school gates, facing my peers and walking into the classroom. I didn't know what to say to my mum, so I pretended I had a bug took the rest of the week off school. I was due to go back into school the following Monday, but the fear and panic began again on the Saturday. I became withdrawn, barely eating and not speaking to anyone.

I didn't sleep during Sunday night and by Monday morning the panic was so overwhelming I was physically shaking. My mum found me in my room, sobbing. I could see in her eyes she didn't understand, but she held me and told me everything was going to be OK.

Other family members would make comments like, "She is playing games", "She is manipulating you", "Just force her to go in".

My parents felt helpless: we were all lost in our own individual torment.

I went from a happy child to someone who withdrew from society.

I never made it back into mainstream education, but I was lucky enough to find a small school that had specialised staff, and they understood my anxieties and my fear of attending school.  Although the process was long I managed in time to attend school, I repeated a year and even managed to sit my GCSEs.”

What helps children and their families to overcome school refusal?

It can take months of 1:1 work with students and their families to fully re-integrate them back into full-time school.

Good ideas to ensure success:

  • Each student has a voice – listen to their ideas when devising an integration plan in particular when developing strategies to help them to manage their anxieties and emotional difficulties, which can escalate if they are not managed effectively.
  • Find each student’s own skills and talents and help unlock a passion for learning.
  • Find the time to devise, implement and review behaviour management strategies specific to each student’s needs.

Alternatives to full-time schooling

Therapy for children suffering from school refusal can take a long time before they can be helped back into school full-time, depending upon individual circumstances and the severity of the affliction.

While there is no standard procedure in place within local authorities to provide education to school refusers, there are a few options or helpful resources parents may wish to explore further.

  • E-learning service: an alternative method of delivering education to children out of lessons or main-stream school using technology.
  • Home-schooling: as a parent, you have the option to educate your child at home.
  • Red Balloon Learner Centres: a charity specialising in helping young people get back on educational track and regain their confidence.
  • Education Everywhere: a dedicated helpline to advise parents on education provision for their children as an alternative to attending school.
  • YoungMinds Parents’ helpline: dedicated advice line for parents of under 25s.

The rewards of the job

Many of the young people with school refusal that I worked with never believed that they could and would become successful in their own rights, gain full-time employment and have a career because their self-esteem was so low, but we helped them towards sitting their GCSEs and securing college, work experience and apprenticeship placements. Seeing their confidence grow and their horizons expand was always a wonderful experience.

Our blog is a place for a range of opinions and debate on parents and their role in their schools and their children’s education. Whilst we think this debate is really important, we don’t always agree with the views being expressed.


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Lou Fenlon
Lou has over twenty years of experience working in SEN (special educational needs) with children whose backgrounds and history also covered trauma, abuse, ADHD, Asperger Syndrome, ASD, Tourette’s syndrome, anxiety, and other emotional and behavioural difficulties.

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