Coping with school refusal

Unhappy child: school refusal
What do you do if your child develops a phobia of going to school? We look at strategies for handling school refusal.

All kids have the occasional day when they don’t want to go to school, but for around 90,000 UK children, it’s not just a matter of trying to avoid their least favourite lesson or wangle a day in front of the TV.

These children suffer from school phobia or school refusal: a problem that can result in them missing long periods of school, and cause extreme tensions within the family.

What is school refusal?

School refusal is, as the name suggests, the refusal by a child to go to school. Some will get as far as the school gate and then be unable to go in; others can’t even leave the house.

School refusal isn’t just not wanting to go to school; it’s an extreme form of anxiety that debilitates the child,’ explains Kay Mawson, founder of School Refusal Support Services.

‘The term “school refusal” implies a choice, but children are no more able to go into school than you or I would be to jump into a pit of spiders.’

School refusal affects around one per cent of children. It’s more common in boys, and tends to peak between ages five and six, and 11 and 12.

Symptoms of school refusal

Children who are experiencing school refusal may demonstrate a number of different symptoms and behaviours, including:

  • Refusal to go to school in the morning
  • Leaving or running away from school during the school day
  • Tantrums and outbursts, especially in the morning
  • Threats to harm themselves if they’re made to go to school
  • Physical symptoms like headaches, stomach aches, panic attacks and diarrhoea
  • Extreme clinginess: not wanting to be alone in a room
  • Sleep disturbances.

What are the causes?

Many children who experience school refusal have autism spectrum disorders (ASD), where anxieties and sensory issues contribute to their difficulties at school.

This anxiety itself triggers a fight or flight response where children attempt to conform to school life, but are unable to go in.

Children with mental health issues like anxiety often have difficulty going to school: 75 per cent of kids who suffer from separation anxiety refuse school.

‘We also see school refusal in children who’ve had a traumatic experience, such as losing a loved one,’ says Kay.

Sometimes, the school environment itself causes the problem. Children with autism or other ‘differences’ from their peers may be bullied, leading to an understandable fear of school.

It’s also more common when children start school, and again when they’re transitioning to secondary school, but it can manifest at any stage.

School refusal and the law

The law states that every child of school age must receive a suitable full-time education. This usually means attending school regularly.

If your child is persistently absent from school, you’ll be contacted by the local authority’s Education Welfare Officer (EWO). Their job is to help you with getting your child to school.

If your child isn’t attending school or getting a suitable education outside school, you as a parent may be fined or even prosecuted.

‘Often, if parents are taken to court, the case is thrown out because the judge acknowledges that the child has a genuine reason for absence,’ says Kay.

‘We have, however, heard of parents being fined, and even of social services turning up on people’s doorsteps, asking why their child isn’t at school.’

What the school should do

If your child is absent for more than 15 days, their school should:

  • Notify the local council of their absence, giving them information about their needs, capabilities and their programme of work.
  • Keep you informed about school events and clubs.
  • Encourage your child to keep in touch with their friends, through visits, messages or video calls.
  • Help them reintegrate when they’re ready to attempt school again.

Tackling school refusal

If your child is refusing to go to school, Kay recommends speaking to your GP as a first port of call. ‘If your child has a diagnosed mental health condition, you’re protected by law under the Mental Health Act, which should remove the threat of being fined or prosecuted for their non-attendance,’ she explains.

‘Keep a diary of your child’s behaviour as evidence, and if possible, video them discreetly so the GP or any other people involved can see what the situation is like.

‘They can then make a referral to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), or set the wheels in motion to have your child assessed for autism.’

It’s vital to keep communication open between yourself and the school so they’re aware of the problem and recognise that you’re trying to get your child to attend.

It’s natural to be worried if your case is referred to the EWO, but they’ll work with you and the school to come up with a plan for getting your child into school.

For example, you may be allowed to go into the classroom with them and stay until they’ve settled, or arrangements could be made for a trusted member of staff to collect them from your car.

They may offer suggestions like a reduced timetable, or starting school later so your child isn’t caught in the morning rush.

‘Sometimes there’s a trigger, like the school bell ringing, that reinforces their anxiety,’ says Kay. ‘Being able to avoid it by going into school late could help your child overcome a trigger issue.’

It’s also important to talk to your child about what’s making them anxious.

A worry book, where your child can write or draw pictures to show what’s on their mind, can help, and sometimes, a talking therapy like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can get to the bottom of their issues.

When you’re tackling the daily task of trying to get your child into school, break it down into manageable steps.

Keep them really small: your first goal could simply be for them to put their school uniform on.

When they’ve managed that, the next aim might be to get into the car.

Give lots of praise for every step that your child manages, and try to keep your frustration and disappointment under wraps if they don’t succeed: if they feel they’ve let you down, the pressure will only mount.

What not to do

When it comes to school refusal, what you don’t do is as important as what you do.

  • Don’t physically force, or emotionally blackmail, your child to go to school. ‘This increases the trauma and adds to the problem,’ says Kay.
  • Don’t make your child make promises about going to school, as they will feel they’ve let you down if you don’t succeed.
  • Don’t remove their devices. ‘Parents often think they should do this as a consequence of not going to school, but actually, time spent on their phone or tablet can distract your child from their anxiety,’ Kay explains.
  • Don’t panic about the long-term. ‘It’s natural to worry about your child’s education, but even if they’re still refusing school at GCSE age, it doesn’t mean they can’t go on to get their qualifications later,’ Kay says.

Alternatives to school

If your child is unable to go to school, the local authority has to provide a suitable alternative.

This could be:

  • A place at a Pupil Referral Unit: small units that cater especially for children who have difficulties with school, including those who’ve been excluded and those with health issues that mean they can’t attend a mainstream school. Usually, this is a temporary placement with a view to reintegrating your child to school.
  • Home tutoring.
  • Online learning in a ‘virtual classroom.’

Sometimes, withdrawing your child from their school and enrolling them at a different one can help.

‘This is unlikely to help if your child’s issues are the result of autism or an anxiety disorder, but might solve the problem if, for example, they’ve been badly bullied,’ says Kay.

Often, however, the most viable option is to home educate your child. This may sound daunting, but it doesn’t have to be as difficult as you might expect – and it means that you’ll no longer be pursued with the EWO or local council.

And perhaps surprisingly, home educating could be the key to getting your child back to school.

‘Once you’ve taken your child out of school and they’ve had a period of suitable respite, they often come to the decision independently that they want to try going back to school,’ says Kay.

At this point, you and the school can work together and come up with a reintegration plan that your child feels is achievable.

School Refusal Support Services supports parents who are dealing with school refusal, school phobia and anxiety in their children.