What is school refusal and how do I deal with it?

If your child is refusing to go to school, this is known as ‘school refusal’ or ‘school phobia’. When children refuse to go to school, it can often be because of extreme fear and anxious feelings.

Your child might be feeling overwhelmed with anxious feelings about schoolwork, relationships with friends or teachers.

As children have been off school because of the coronavirus lockdown, school refusal might be more common this term.

It can be very hard for you to get your child to go to school or stay in school. We’ve got some tips to help you cope with school refusal.

Child sat at the back of a classroom

Helping your child

  • Remember that your child is struggling with feeling anxious. The most effective response is to try to lessen that anxiety, rather than fight against it.
  • Make sure you are working with your child to address their anxious feelings. Try to avoid arguing to get them into school and look at the core issue, instead. This shows you are on their side, working towards the same goal. It can help make weekday mornings much easier.
  • Talk to your child about what’s worrying them, making sure you validate their feelings. This will help you to make a plan to help them deal with their anxious feelings about school.
  • Look at the main triggers. See if you can think of strategies that can support your child when they face these triggers.
  • Have set routines. Try and implement these before they are due to go back to school.
  • Use positive praise and reward with your child and make sure you are validating the effort that they are making – notice every small step.
  • Be consistent with your approach. Make sure that you give your strategies time to work.
  • Work on supporting their anxious feelings and helping them with calming strategies. You can talk to your GP, School Nurse and school if you need some extra help with this.
  • They may want to talk to someone about their feelings outside of the home. Kooth, Childline and The Mix have a range of online, phone and text support for children and young people.
  • Your child might find worry management techniques helpful. For example, ‘worry time‘ can help them gain control over their worries.
  • We have advice for how to help if their worries are directly related to Covid-19.
  • Help your child practise breathing exercises and calming techniques. These can be a great way to respond to symptoms of anxious feelings. In turn, this will help them build the confidence they need to return to school.

How to cope when they are refusing to go to school

  • Ensure that the morning routine stays the same, even if they aren’t going to school. Make sure they wake up at the same time and eat breakfast. They should put on their school uniform, too. As far as possible, make the mornings feel normal.
  • Avoid making staying home feel like a treat. With the help of your child’s school, set home-learning tasks. Your child should keep their school uniform on for the duration of a normal schoolday, too. Put limits on gaming and TV time, and avoid giving them ‘fun’ food and treats. This can encourage your child to want to stay home more often.
  • Try to stick to the same routine as there would be in school. Focus on learning, with a short break in the morning, and a longer lunch break. If possible, line up the timings of breaks with their school timetable.
  • Create a plan with your child to help them overcome their worries. At first, the goal might be to complete the morning routing. Next, it might be traveling to school but not going in. Then, try a morning or afternoon in school. Talk to your child about any feelings or concerns they have during the process. The idea is to help them to address their anxious feelings, one step at a time so as not to overwhelm them.

Working with the school

  • Contact the school. It’s important to work together with the school and to start putting a plan in place before they are due to start back.
  • Ask the school what options there are to help. Can they do reduced timetables or provide support during trigger times? They might be able to suggest staggered start times or home visits to help your child build up a trust relationship.
  • Make sure your child knows who is supporting them and where to go if they need help.
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