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”. If your child won’t attend school, it can often be because of fear and anxious feelings. This may be connected to the coronavirus pandemic. Or they may be worried about about schoolwork or relationships with friends or teachers.

Some children who have liked school in the past are finding it difficult to go now.  School refusal can be more common among children with additional or special educational needs (SEN). The way to support them is very similar.

School refusal: child sat at the back of a classroom

Help your child tackle anxious feelings

  • Remember that your child is probably struggling with feeling anxious. Talk to your child about what’s worrying them, making sure you validate their feelings. Try to help your child lessen that anxiety, rather than fight against it.
  • Look at the main triggers. See if you can think of strategies that can support your child when they face these triggers.
  • Work alongside 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.
  • Try worry management techniques. For example, use ‘“worry time”  or the worry tree to help them gain control over their worries. We have advice for how to help if their worries are directly related to Covid-19.
  • Use positive praise and reward with your child and make sure you are validating the effort that they are making – notice every small step.
  • Help your child practise breathing exercises and calming techniques. This can help calm them down and build  build the confidence they need to return to school
  • Have set routines. Try and implement these before they are due to go back to school.
  • Be consistent with your approach. Make sure that you give your strategies time to work.

Make a plan to help you cope

  • Ensure that the morning routine stays the same, even if your child isn’t going to school. Get them to wake up at the same time and eat breakfast. As far as possible, make the mornings feel normal.
  • 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.
  • 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 if possible. 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.
  • Create a plan with your child to help them overcome their worries. At first, the goal might be to complete the morning routine. 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.

How can I help my child who has SEN?

The ways to respond to school refusal are very similar for children with additional or special educational needs. Structure is key, as is taking things slowly.

You can also use a visual timetable. This will help your child to understand the journey they’re on to returning to school.

Don’t be afraid to break down the challenge into smaller parts. Instead of going from just doing the morning routine to travelling to school without going in, add in some stages. For example, if you child usually catches the bus to school, you could try the following:

  • Go to the bus stop but don’t get on the bus.
  • Get on the bus with a trusted adult or friend for one or two stops.
  • Get on the bus and travel all the way to school with a trusted adult or friend.
  • Get on the bus and travel to school while on the phone to a trusted adult or friend.
  • Get on the bus and travel to school while listening to music.The idea is to increase your child’s confidence and decrease how much support they have at each stage. After some time, they should feel comfortable with that part of the process. Then you can look at working towards the next goal.
  • Talk to the school. The staff who support your child at school may have some more ideas. The Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCo) may be able to give you specific advice.

    Get some outside help

    • Your child 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.
    • Work with the school and to start putting a plan in place before they are due to start back. Ask the school how they can 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. You can also talk to your GP or school nurse if appropriate.


    Worried about your child’s education? Our one-to-one Teacher Talk service is here to help. Ask about any education topic, from school refusal to worries about your child not keeping up. Our volunteer education professionals will listen and offer judgment-free advice. Fill in our short form, and we’ll put you in touch by email, phone or video call. 

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