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  • Writer's pictureDr Nicole White

School Refusal - 10 Tips to help get your child to school.

Are you having trouble getting your child to school each morning? School refusal can be a big problem for some families and can be even worse after school holidays or weekends. I have had some personal experience with this lately and it is certainly a stressful thing to deal with as a parent.

In some ways, I have my own version of school refusal going on. After 2-3 weeks of down time over the holidays, it has been challenging to get back into chaotic mornings, packing lunchboxes, running around to school sport, and the dreaded homework! Most children are also a bit sluggish and reluctant to get back in to the school routine, but most manage without too many troubles. For those experiencing true school refusal however, this is quite a different matter.

What is School Refusal?

School refusal is a form of anxiety where a child develops an intense fear around going to school. We see this occur in up to 25% of children at some stage during their schooling life. It tends to occur most commonly in 5-6 year olds and then again in older primary school aged children. School refusal results in marked distress for the child and also the parents!

What does school refusal look like?

This is more than just your child dragging their heels and not wanting to get ready in the morning. School refusal can take on many forms but most commonly we see things like:

  • Tearfulness and emotional distress around getting ready for school in the morning

  • Refusal to get in the car to go to school or perhaps refusal to get out at school drop off

  • Physical symptoms including abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhoea, headaches, dizziness, fatigue.

  • Running away at time of school drop off.

  • Excessive attendance at the school sick bay.

  • Behavioural changes at home with evidence of fear around going to school

Going to school becomes a phobia – something that your child is intensely fearful of. As a parent, it is particularly concerning to see your child in such distress and for most of us it is challenging to know how we can help them other than by letting them stay home.

Why now?

In many cases children who have been happily attending school and performing well will develop school refusal, there is a long list of reasons as to why this might happen. These may include:

  • Anxiety around a specific event or performance that is happening at school

  • Fear around separation from parents or a fear that something might happen to parents during the day

  • Issues with peers – difficult social relationships or bullying

  • Issues in the classroom – poor relationship with the teacher, challenges with learning or academic performance

  • Stressful events within the family such as parental separation, loss of a family member or even a change in environment such as moving house.

  • Transitioning to a new school

Maybe I should just let him have a day off – what harm can it do?

Obviously attendance at school is imperative for your child’s education and also enormously important for their social wellbeing. Long absences from school can result in missing out on valuable parts of the curriculum as well as missing out on peer activities. Not to mention the disruption to the family when a child stays home, particularly if both parents need to go to work. If you have more than one child then you are likely to have others who are late to school or impacted also by the child who is refusing.

The other issues here is that the longer your child is away from school, the bigger the barrier becomes. Getting them to school however is not always easy. I have been there myself and it is distressing as a parent but more distressing for the child who is fearful.

So how do we get her there?

This is tricky, especially when children have physical symptoms such as nausea or diarrhoea before going to school. How do you know if they are actually sick? In most children with school refusal when allowed to stay home, symptoms will generally settle down once the fear has been removed. I am sure you can recall a time when you have been intensely afraid of something and the relief felt when the threat has gone. This is how your child is feeling, he or she is not trying to be difficult and is not pretending. The physical symptoms are real, they are just caused by an emotional rather than a physical trigger.

So the path of least resistance is to allow them to stay home, however the downside of this is that it can add fuel to the fire, making it even more difficult to overcome the worry the next day. If you are able to get them to school and they are able to get through the day, they will have a sense of accomplishment at the end which can help add to their resilience.

Here are some tips which might help.

1. Provide a clear message about school attendance – acknowledge how they are feeling and offer support to help get them to school but also let them know that staying home is not an option.

2. Talk and listen to your child – try to elicit what has led to their fear and brainstorm ways to deal with this. Acknowledge their fear and make sure they know that you are there to support them.

3. Ensure that there is a clear and consistent approach between all caregivers – children will be able to identify very quickly if one parent is more likely to give in to their desires to stay home.

4. Try to maintain a stable morning routine despite the disruption caused by your distressed child.

5. If your child does stay at home – make sure they are not rewarded for this with access to technology and fun activities that they would not have while at school. Staying home needs to be boring!

6. Sometimes offering an incentive may help them get through the day – perhaps an ice cream on the way home if they are able to make it through the day. Or maybe a special outing on the weekend if they get to school every day this week.

7. Communicate with the school – it is important to discuss what is going on with your child’s teacher. They too can be supportive and provide some extra attention and distraction to your child while he or she is at school.

8. See if you can get to the bottom of why your child is refusing school. Address any social or bullying issues , engage with the school to increase support if your child is having difficulties with their learning

9. Sometimes arranging to meet a friend outside or engage in an activity on arrival at school can be helpful

10. If things are not settling down fairly promptly with these strategies, it is imperative to seek help from the school counsellor and perhaps a psychologist in the community. School refusal is a symptom of Anxiety and in some children there is a greater underlying issue. It is important not to assume that this will just go away by itself.

You may be reading this and feel as though you have tried all of these strategies and more and are still having problems getting your child to school. In some cases it can certainly become a more prolonged issue and I encourage you to seek help both for your child and also some support for yourselves – this is stressful!

So, I wish you luck. Go forth and provide your child with the loving support that they need. Be firm but kind. Remember that by helping them get to school you are helping to reduce the size of the worry mountain that sits in front of them. The view is much nicer from the other side! If you can’t help to get them over that hill and down the other side – please see your GP and arrange for some professional help.


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