School refusal


Naomi Humber on the causes and signs of school refusal, and what to do when it happens.

School refusal, also known as school phobia or school avoidance, refers to a child’s fear or reluctance to attend school. This goes beyond typical occasional complaints about school and can result in continued absences. It is important to differentiate school refusal from truancy, where children skip school without permission. School refusal is driven by emotional distress or anxiety related to school, while truancy is often motivated by other factors.

There are many different possible causes of school refusal, including anxieties such as Social anxiety, separation anxiety, or a specific phobia relating to school. Fear of bullying, academic difficulties, or social situations can all contribute to anxiety. Undiagnosed or chronic health problems may cause migraines, stomach issues, or other physical symptoms. Struggling academically can be a significant source of stress for children, especially if they become overwhelmed by schoolwork, or family problems such as divorce, conflict at home, or the loss of a loved one.

The signs of school refusal can vary from child to child, but some common signs include:

  • Frequent complaints of illness or pain on school days.
  • Crying or tantrums when it’s time to go to school.
  • Refusing to get out of bed or get dressed in the morning.
  • Saying they don’t want to go to school or that they’re afraid of school.
  • Acting withdrawn or depressed.
  • Losing interest in activities they used to enjoy.
  • Having trouble sleeping or eating.

What to do

Addressing school refusal requires a shared effort between parents, teachers, and mental health professionals. Here are some steps to consider:

  • Open communication: Encourage your child to talk about their fears and concerns related to school. Be empathetic and non-judgmental when listening to them.
  • Consult a healthcare professional: If your child is suffering with physical symptoms, consult a health professional to rule out any underlying medical issues.
  • Meet with school staff: Work closely with teachers, counsellors and school administrators to develop a plan to support your child’s return to school.
  • Therapeutic interventions: Consider seeking the help of a mental health professional who specialises in working with children and anxiety disorders. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has been shown to be effective in treating school refusal.
  • Gradual exposure: Develop a step-by-step plan with your child’s school to gradually rebuild their exposure to the school environment, starting with short visits and building up to full attendance.
  • Create a supportive environment: Adopt a nurturing and supportive home environment that encourages emotional expression and coping strategies.

If you are concerned that your child may be experiencing school refusal, it is important to talk to your child’s doctor or a mental health professional. They can help you assess the cause of the problem and develop a treatment plan. Here are some additional tips for helping children with school refusal:

  • Be supportive and understanding. Let your child know that you believe in them and that you are there to help them through this.
  • Avoid giving into demands to stay home from school. This will only reinforce the fear of school.
  • Establish a regular routine and structure. This will help to reduce anxiety and make it easier for your child to get ready for school.
  • Talk to your child’s teacher about their concerns. The teacher can help to make accommodations for your child and create a positive learning environment.
  • Get involved in your child’s school. This will help you to stay informed about their progress and build a stronger connection with their school community.

School refusal can be a challenging problem, but it is treatable. With the right support, most children can overcome their fear of school and return to learning.

Naomi Humber
Author: Naomi Humber

Naomi Humber
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Naomi Humber, Head of Mental Wellbeing, Bupa UK

X: @bupauk
Facebook: @BupaUK


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