If you are experiencing school refusal by your child, know that you're not alone. Each academic year, between 2% and 5% of children in the UK refuse to go to school. You'll probably be all too aware that school refusal can be extremely distressing not only for the child, but for parents as well, and can often feel like an uphill battle.
For this week's blog, we'll be defining what school refusal is, talking through its signs and symptoms and important factors to consider. We'll also give you our Mental Health and Wellbeing Co-ordinator, Ella's advice on how to support your child who is refusing to go to school, and options that are available to support you.
What is School Refusal?
According to the NHS, school refusal is 'a condition characterised by reluctance and often outright refusal to go to school'. Also known as 'school phobia', school refusal is usually brought about by underlying mental health issues that need treatment and support. Many children will refuse to go to school occasionally, but when it becomes consistent and distressing, it may point to a more serious issue.
There's a big difference between school refusal and truancy. With truancy, children or teenagers usually hide the fact that they aren't attending school from their parents. They may engage in antisocial behaviour, and be unwilling to do any school work. They also don't usually stay at home when skipping school.
On the other hand, when children refuse to go to school out of school phobia, parents are usually the first to know. More often than not, they also show willingness to do schoolwork at home - it's just the school environment that they have an issue with. The idea of going to school causes genuine distress for school refusers. Read below for some common signs and symptoms.
Signs and Symptoms
While the name really speaks for itself, it's important to understand the signs and symptoms of school refusal so you're better set to support your child. Signs are often gradual, getting progressively worse and more disruptive as time goes on. Obvious red flags are refusal to go to school in the morning or running away from school during the day to come home. Your child may also pay frequent visits to the school nurse for no real medical reason, or ask to call home a lot.
Symptoms such as fearfulness, crying, tantrums and panic symptoms are common. Your child may also experience some physical symptoms like sweating, trembling, dizziness and even nausea, vomiting and chest pain. These often get better when they're allowed to stay at home, which is a tell-tale sign that something about school is causing them major distress. They may be more likely to refuse to go to school after holidays, weekends, or periods of illness.
Factors to Consider
Children don't (consistently) refuse to go to school for no reason. There are a variety of factors to take in to account that may be impacting your child's ability to go to school as normal. First of all, think about your home and family environment. Has anything stressful or traumatic happened to your child or family lately at home? Stresses at home could be a potential reason why your child refuses to go to school.
Then, it's time to think about school. Is your child being bullied? Are they complaining about a particular teacher or class? Is there anything on their journey to and from school that could be causing trouble? It's also worth thinking about whether they might be feeling overwhelmed. Too much academic or even athletic pressure can be enough to make them avoid school altogether.
The most important factor, however, is your child's mental health. Depression, anxiety, separation anxiety, eating disorders and gender dysphoria are all important things to think about. Equally important is whether your child has any physical health conditions or Special Educational Needs that make school and class environments difficult to cope with.
School Refusal in Children with Autism
Many children who refuse to go to school have Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). If your child has ASD, you'll know that they'll often face additional pressures at school day-to-day that non-ASD kids won't necessarily have to deal with. For example, anxiety and sensory issues like noise, smell and lighting can make classroom environments overwhelming.
The social side of school might also be more difficult for them, as they may lack certain complex social skills. This can lead to difficulties making or maintaining friends, or bullying.
What You Can Do
School refusal can be very distressing for both the pupil and their family. There are various ways you can support your child:
- Reassure them that it is ok to feel like this, and you are going to support them in any way you can
- Listen to your child’s concerns and figure out if there are any external factors at play (this is not always the case)
- If there are external factors (like bullying), follow this up with the school as soon as possible
- Try not to make a big deal about saying goodbye/leaving for school or work in the morning
- Discuss your child’s fears about school with them, and reassure them that this will pass (convince yourself first!)
- If your child has a bad day, or week, try to return to a normal routine as soon as possible
- Consider counselling or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) if the problem doesn't resolve
- Sometimes medication can be necessary, depending on what the underlying issue is
If school refusal has become an ongoing issue and school is causing serious, long-term distress for your child, it may be time to consider alternative options. For example, switching to a different school may help, if it's the school in particular that is causing them problems. If your child has ASD or any other Special Educational Needs, you may want to look into SEN schools in your area.
Another option is home-education, where you would teach your child at home following either the national curriculum or a different curriculum of your choice. Home-ed is totally legal in the UK, however you would need to notify your Local Authority of your decision to take them out of mainstream education to home-school. It's also important that you let the school know. If you are living overseas, it's best to do your research on home-education laws in your country. Here is a useful list of international home-school laws.
If you are looking to home-educate your child but don’t feel equipped to do it all yourself, online education is a helpful option. It supports home-educating families in providing structure to your child’s school day at home for an affordable price.