Understanding School Refusal & What You Can Do

School Refusal

Children of all ages may refuse to go to school for a range of reasons. The reasons may differ for different ages but it is helpful for parents and teachers to know why the child may be avoiding school. Understanding the underlying reason for the child’s school avoidance is essential in order to put appropriate strategies in place.


  • Separation anxiety
  • Problems at school including:
    • Being bullied
    • Problems/ conflict with friends
    • Learning difficulties
    • Not getting along with teacher/s
    • Fear of getting in trouble
  • Fear of failure – school work is too hard, avoiding assessments/ tests
  • Fear of new situations – new school, new activity (e.g. swimming)
  • Fear of losing a parent
    • Parents are fighting
    • Parent illness
    • Knowing another student with parent issues
  • May be rewarded by staying at home – if allowed to watch television, play games, avoid uncomfortable situations


Children or adolescents may demonstrate different symptoms depending on their age and gender but may include:

  • More tearful than normal
  • Throwing tantrums regarding going to school
  • Refusing to move or get ready
  • Reporting illness – e.g headaches, stomach aches when needing to get ready for school. These complaints may also be evident at school and may result in frequent visits to the sickbay or being sent home.
  • Showing high levels of anxiety and in extreme cases threatening to self harm
  • Begging or pleading to stay at home.


School refusal does not only impact on the child’s academic progress from missing important curriculum at school. Other implications include but are not limited to:

  • Missing opportunities to develop social relationships.
  • Parents missing work if needed to stay at home to care for the child – this may lead to a loss in income depending on job.
  • Development of poor coping strategies – accepting avoidance as an acceptable strategy to avoid unpleasant scenarios/ events.
  • Anxiety about going to school may intensify the longer the child misses school.


As mentioned above, school refusal is accompanied with additional difficulties which can lead to frustration for both parents and teachers.

Parents can:

  • Listen and acknowledge the child’s anxiety – e.g “I understand you feel anxious about going to school and it is normal to sometimes feel anxious”. Do not dismiss the anxiety.
  • Discuss the reasons for refusing to go to school and brainstorm possible outcomes. Explain that you understand they are anxious and remind them that it is important to go to school. Remind them that they can talk to teachers at school when feeling anxious.
  • Model ways to respond when they are feeling anxious – taking a deep breath, going for a walk, talking to a friend, thinking of a peaceful place.
  • Model making mistakes and praise effort. Explain that mistakes are necessary for learning to happen. Many children are very anxious about making mistakes.
  • Talk to the school about your child’s anxiety so that they can also put strategies in place or further investigate concerns such as bullying, friendship conflicts.
  • Help get the child organised the night before so that everything is ready for the next morning. Try to remain positive during the morning activities before school.
  • Ensure that if the child stays at home they are not able to do anything ‘fun’ that may appear to be a reward for staying at home – e.g watching television, playing games. Staying at home should be considered ‘boring’ in comparison to going to school.

Teachers can:

  • Model making mistakes to alleviate anxiety about getting an answer wrong.
  • Avoid sending the child home if they appear to be going to the sickbay as a way of school avoidance. Encourage the child to come back to class after a set time and help them to finish what they missed.
  • Provide the child with something important to do when they arrive at school to distract them at the start of the day – especially helpful for children with separation anxiety as drop off may cause distress.
  • Acknowledge the child’s anxiety and model ways to respond to the anxiety – taking a deep breath, going for a walk, talking to a friend, thinking of a peaceful place.

These are just a few strategies and always looking for more – have a strategy to share? Comment below.

Further information can be found at:

1. Raising Children – the Australian Parenting Website 

2. Child and Youth Health

3. Psych4schools

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