Dealing with school refusal

Young people experiencing school refusal can struggle to get out of bed.

By Melissa Grant

For most kids, getting to school each day is pretty uncomplicated.

They have breakfast, brush their teeth, put on their uniform and go.

However some students find attending school difficult and struggle
with what’s called ‘school refusal’.

In its simplest form, school refusal is when a student can’t go to school. They don’t want to be there and will show features of emotional distress such as headaches or stomach aches.

Prolonged lockdowns in Victoria have led to more families experiencing school refusal.

Before the pandemic, an estimated 2-5 per cent of students were school refusing. It’s estimated those rates tripled when school returned between lockdowns.

Education expert Dr Lisa McKay-Brown says school refusal can happen at any point, but can be linked to periods of transition. It also seems to be more prevalent between Years 5 and 9.

This is because of shifts in friendship groups and increased challenges of schooling at this time, according to Dr McKay-Brown who is part of the learning intervention team at Melbourne University.

She says there are usually warning signs for parents.

“Often you’ll hear things like ‘I don’t feel well today’, ‘I have a headache or a stomach ache, I don’t think I can face it’. Generally the symptoms subside if they don’t have to go to school,” she said.

She said children may also negotiate about going to school by asking to be picked up early, or struggle to get out of bed, the house or the car.

The return of school after the weekend or holidays can also be particularly challenging, with children becoming clingy or tearful.

In these situations, Dr McKay-Brown said it was important to note that school refusal might just be one of the things going on.

“Research shows around 50 per cent of children presenting with school refusal have a mental health disorder,” she said.

Dr McKay-Brown said while there is anecdotal evidence that school refusal rates had tripled since the pandemic, more research is taking place.

“It’s been a time of high stress,” she explained.

“I think some people who may have been at risk of school refusal before the remote learning experience, for them it (remote learning) became an experience that the feelings of anxiety and worry when they had to go to school lessened.”

She said parents and schools had to be careful when considering remote learning or home schooling as a solution to school refusal.

“Anecdotally we find that young people who are school refusing are less likely to engage in those types of learning situations,” she said.

It’s important to address school refusal. In the short-term, school refusal can impact on a young person’s education, learning and peer relationships. Leaving school altogether can have long-term impacts as the young person won’t achieve their educational potential. Any mental health issues that aren’t address can have impacts into adulthood.“

So what can you do if your child is school refusing?

Dr McKay-Brown suggests the following:

– Have conversations with your child to get a better sense of what is happening. Ask questions like ‘how are you feeling about school?’ and ‘are there some things that are difficult for you at school?’

– Communicate with your child’s school. You don’t want absences to continue so let the school know what’s happening and ask them if they have any support or advice

– School relationships. Relationships are important when returning to school. What check-ins can be organised? Is there a way of having peer connections maintained?

– Seek professional support. A GP is your first point of call. They will determine if there needs to be some kind of mental health referral. Starting this process is important given the long wait times to see mental health professionals.

– Maintain school routines. If you are at home it’s important to maintain the routine of a school day. Get your child out of bed, get them sitting at the table when it’s class time and keep them from more pleasurable activities such as gaming. If you are going to go for a walk do it in recess time.

– Self-care. Parents need to think about their own self-care. They may need to seek support and family counselling can be helpful as school refusal is something that can impact the family unit.

The good news is that with the right support, young people who are school refusing can return to the classroom.

“It’s not forever – we know we can get young people back to school, it just takes time and it takes working on it,” Dr McKay-Brown said.