How do I deal with school refusal and Emotionally Based School Avoidance (EBSA)?

It can be worrying if your child is avoiding going to school.

In this guide, you’ll find information on possible reasons for school refusal and anxiety and how you can get your child the support they need.

Read this in Welsh/ Darllenwch hwn yn Gymraeg: Sut ydw i’n delio â gwrthod mynd i’r ysgol a gorbryder ynghylch yr ysgol?

What is school refusal?

School refusal usually happens when a child is too anxious to go to school. It’s sometimes called school anxiety, school phobia or Emotionally Based School Avoidance (EBSA). If your child won’t go to school, it’s important to focus on the reason for their anxiety to help them get back to school.

Depending on their age and development stage, your child with school anxiety might:

  • Get upset and cling to you at drop off.
  • Be physically unwell before school.
  • Refuse to leave the house to go to school in the morning.
  • Become agitated or aggressive, particularly in the morning.
  • Leave school or miss lessons during the day.
How much school can my child miss?

Most children miss some school due to illness or for medical appointments. Your school’s attendance policy will explain how to let them know if your child needs to miss school. If your child has long term medical needs, you should tell the school and they should take this into account. GOV.UK has advice on illness and your child’s education.

If your child misses school regularly (usually more than 15 days) without a good reason, the school will need to report it to the local authority. They can give you:

  • A Parenting Order – you will need to go to parenting classes and follow court ordered advice.
  • An Education Supervision Order – a supervisor will be appointed to help you get your child to school.
  • A School Attendance Order – you will be asked to provide evidence that your child is getting an education.
  • A fine – parents will be asked to pay a fine, and if you do not pay you may be prosecuted.

If you’re worried you or you child might get into trouble due to their school refusal, you’re not alone. There are ways to support your child and help them get back to school.

Why is my child refusing to go to school?

There are lots of reasons children can feel anxious about going to school. Understanding what they are anxious about is the first step to getting them the support they need at school.

Falling out with friends

Friendships are an important part of your child’s school life. When they feel like they don’t have any friends, or if they have fallen out with a friendship group, this can leave them feeling lonely and isolated. For teenagers, first relationships and breakups can also lead to anxiety about school.

  • Let your child know that they can talk to you about problems they’re having with friends. You can follow our active listening advice. You could also encourage them to write down their feelings.
  • Depending on your child’s age and understanding, you could talk to them about how to manage conflict. You might feel like you want to get involved and speak to the friend that’s upset them, or their parents, but it’s better to teach your child to resolve it themselves.
  • Help them come up with a plan for when they’re at school. Are there other groups they could start spending time with, or is there a trusted adult they can turn to if they find themselves alone and without friends?
  • Support them to make friends outside of school, perhaps by joining clubs or picking up hobbies. If they are talking to people online, make sure you’re aware of online safety.
  • Make sure the school are aware. They can help to resolve issues and encourage other friendships so that your child isn’t left out.
If your child is being bullied

Your child has a right to feel safe at school and if they are avoiding school because they are being bullied or threatened, this needs to be taken seriously.

  • Let your child know it’s safe for them to tell you what is going on and what they’re afraid of. It’s important they feel understood and supported.
  • Take practical steps like gathering evidence and making a safety plan. You can read advice on what to do when your child is being bullied.
  • Report it to the school. Their bullying policy should tell you how they respond to bullying and they might also need to involve the police.
  • Get support for your child’s mental health. If they are struggling with anxiety after being bullied, you can talk to a GP or a counsellor.
Problems with school

It’s not just the social side of school that can make your child feel anxious. Sometimes children worry about their schoolwork or other parts of school life. Try to talk to your child about their day and find out which part is troubling them.

  • Schoolwork. They might be struggling or feel like they are falling behind in a particular subject or they might have missed some homework.
  • PE lessons. If your child is insecure about their body or finds physical activity difficult, they could have anxiety about getting changed or the lessons themselves.
  • Lunch times. The lunch hall can be a noisy and busy place which can be particularly challenging for neurodivergent children. Sometimes children have issues with food and eating around other people, especially if they have an eating disorder.
  • Conflict with teachers. Your child might be avoiding a teacher who they feel doesn’t like them or is victimising them. If you are worried this is happening, report it the school.
Things happening at home

Sometimes there are short term or long-term issues that can make it difficult to get your child to school. There are support services available to help you with things like home to school transport or getting a support plan. Find out how early help services can help.

  • If your child is a young carer, they might miss school because they feel they have responsibilities at home.
  • If you have recently moved or your child is new to the school. This can be particularly difficult for families who move around a lot, such as Travellers and families with a parent in the armed forces. You can find support for parents and children on the Traveller Movement website.
  • If there are problems at home like domestic abuse or alcohol or drug misuse or anything else having a negative impact on your family.
  • If there has been a divorce, separation or bereavement in the family.
  • If a parent is away from home, such as working away or if the parent is in prison.

How can I help my child get back to school?

If your child has school anxiety or is refusing to go to school, it can be a worrying time for you as a parent. It’s likely you will want to get them back to school as soon as possible and get back to your normal routine. The most important thing is to make sure your child feels supported through their anxiety, then you can build on a plan to get back to school.

Help your child tackle anxious feelings

Remember that your child is probably struggling with feeling anxious. Talk about what’s worrying them, making sure you listen to what they say. Try to help your child lessen their anxious feelings rather than fight against them.

  • Try to spot their triggers. See if you can think of strategies that can support your child when they face things that make them resistant to school.
  • Avoid arguing to get them into school and look at the underlying 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 activity to help them gain control over their worries. You can find more tools to use on the Decider Skills app.
  • Use positive praise and reward with your child and make sure you notice any efforts they’re making.
  • Help your child practise breathing exercises and calming techniques. This can help them build the confidence they need to return to school.
  • Be consistent with your approach. Make sure that you give your strategies time to work.

We have some advice on how to help if your child is anxious about changes or transitions at school.

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. Where possible, make the mornings feel normal.

With the help of your child’s school, set home-learning tasks. Put limits on gaming and TV time, and avoid giving them ‘fun’ food and treats. This can encourage your child to stay home more often.

Create a plan with your child to help them overcome their worries.

  • The first goal might be to complete the morning routine.
  • Next, it might be travelling 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.

One step at a time

If your child finds the idea of going back to school too much, you can break down the challenge into smaller parts and build up to it. This is particularly helpful for neurodivergent children. Instead of going from the morning routine to travelling to school without going in, you can 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.

Where can I get help?

It can be a difficult time when your child is struggling to go into or stay in school and hard to know where to turn, especially as a lot of the challenges will be happening at home before you even get to school. It can become increasingly difficult when school may be looking at attendance, and it may be impacting your ability to get to work, as well as the concerns you have for your child’s wellbeing and missed education.

It’s good to understand that you can ask for support with this and who may be able to help.

Work with the school

It’s best to work with the school wherever possible when you are having issues with school attendance, whatever the reason behind the issues.

  • Make an appointment to talk to your child’s form teacher, Head of Year or SENCo and discuss what issues your child is having to see if any additional support may be offered.
  • If your school has sent you a letter about your child’s attendance, ask for a meeting with the attendance lead who may be able to help with making a support plan.
  • Depending on the reasons your child may be struggling to go to school, look into the schools’ policies and ensure that they are following their set protocols (for example where bullying may be involved or if there are additional learning needs or there are friendship or communication issues).
  • Make sure you are in communication with the school about any issues your child may be having and that there is a support plan in place. Support plans should be reviewed regularly and shared with parents.
  • If your child is on an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) you can request a review if you feel that the support strategies in place are not effective.
  • If your child doesn’t have an EHCP, you can request an EHCP assessment for anxiety.
  • The school may be able to offer support with referrals to other professionals if it is felt more support is needed that they are not able to provide.
Involve other services

Alongside the school, you can work with other professionals to get support for your child and build a record of evidence to help when you’re making a support plan.

  • SENDIAS – if your child has a special educational need or disability, you can contact your local SEND information and advice service. They are run by the local council or commissioned third parties and are there to offer support to children and young people with SEN and their parents.
  • Education Welfare Officer (EWO) – every school has a named EWO. You can ask the school to refer you to the Education Welfare Service and they will meet with you and your child to discuss any issues they are having with going to school.
  • Early Help – this service is there to identify and coordinate any professionals needed to support your child. You can ask the school to refer you or you can refer yourself. Find out more about early help.
  • School Nursing Team – the school nursing service is run by your local NHS trust. They work with you, your child and the school to ensure your child’s health and wellbeing. If their mental or physical health is making it hard for your child to school, the nursing team can offer advice and support.
  • GP – if your child is feeling anxious, it is a good idea to talk to their GP. They can make referrals, to other services for help and you might need a medical record of your child’s anxiety if you are applying for an EHCP.
  • Healthcare professionals – if your child is under the care of any other health professionals like a speech and language therapist or a pediatrician can also provide evidence for a support plan or EHCP.
  • Children and young people’s mental health services – sometimes called CYMPMHS or CAMHS are services to support young people with their mental health and wellbeing. You can get a referral to CAMHS through your GP.
  • Legal advice – if you feel the school and other agencies aren’t supporting your child with their school anxiety in the way that they should, you can get advice from Citizens Advice or Child Law Advice.
Support for you and your family

When your child is refusing to go to school it can have an impact on the whole family. If the situation is affecting your mental health, it’s important to get help for yourself. Read our advice on what to do if you’re struggling to cope.

Make sure people around you know what’s going on so that they can support you. It’s a good idea to talk to your employer in case you need to take time out of work to care for your child while they’re off school.

If you have friends and family around you, talk to them about what is happening. They might be able to help with looking after your child sometimes to give you some time to yourself or to focus on your other children.

How can I educate my child who won’t go to school?

Sometimes parents and carers feel that they have tried everything but there is no way to get their child back in school. At this point you might be thinking about taking your child out of the school and considering what your other options are. 

Try to involve your child as much as possible and discuss what they think would be right for them.

Part time and flexible schooling

Before withdrawing your child from the school completely, you could talk to the school about any changes in the timetable that would make school more manageable.

If the school are working with you to help your child, there should be a support plan in place. This can include a part-time timetable or a phased return. Consider which parts of the day your child finds most challenging and see if you can work a way around them. For example if lunchtimes are an anxious time for your child, you might be able to bring them home for lunch.

Part-time and flexible arrangements are usually for a measured period of time to help your child get back to full-time schooling. Some schools might accommodate a part-time timetable on a permanent basis, for example if you wanted to combine school with home-schooling, but this isn’t always possible.

Moving to a different school

If you and your child feel they might be better off at another school, you can apply to the school or local council to move to another school in your catchment area.

If the local mainstream state schools and academies aren’t the right fit for your child, you could look into different types of schools, such as:

  • Alternative provision – there are a range of learning environments for children who don’t cope in mainstream school, including pupil referral units (PRUs), forest schools and therapeutic farms. Find out more about alternative provision.
  • Special schools – if your child has additional needs and they have an EHCP, a special school or special unit attached to a mainstream school (this is sometimes called a specialist resource base (SRB) might be right for them. They offer small class sizes and specialise in different areas of special educational needs.
  • Technical colleges – if your child is aged 14 to 19 and prefers practical or technical subjects to academic work, a technical college might be right for them.
  • Private schools – some children and young people find the small class sizes in private school more suitable. Private schools are fee paying but often offer scholarships and bursaries. Waldorf or Steiner schools are a type of private school that focus on creativity.
Home schooling

More and more parents are choosing home education as an alternative to school. There are different ways of doing this. Some parents teach their children themselves, while others enrol their child in an online school.

Home schooling can be great for your child, but it is a big decision that affects the whole family. Read our home schooling advice:

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This advice was written by our experienced Parent Talk coaches. Parent Talk is a free online service for parents and carers, provided by the charity Action for Children. For more advice, message our parenting coaches with our online chat.

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