High school aged girl, smiling, and re-enged at school.

Overcoming School Refusal: Creating Positive Change in Your Child's Life

You may well have noticed that school refusal, also called school avoidance, has become the number one discussion in Australian schools. If you have a child who is not attending school or who is at risk of disengaging from school, then know that you are not the only one. 

You're Not Alone, School Refusal is on the Rise.

Truancy went through the roof last year across Australia. Primary and Secondary schools are challenged to respond to parents reaching out for guidance in navigating a return to school and off the streets.

What is School Refusal? Understanding School Refusal

School refusal occurs when there are misunderstandings between the young person, the family, and the school, and a breakdown in effective communication has occurred.

As school refusal experts will say, the subject message here is to fully understand the function of the school refusal behaviour before making a change.

These ‘care seeking’ behaviours from Australian students is a call for action and if it isn’t addressed, an increasing amount of distress, reluctance, and refusal will continue to build.

The wellbeing responsibility of the school must be a priority and it is important that school staff have all the information possible to make an effective response.

An increasing number of students with neurodiverse needs and mental health disorders, increase the risk of disengagement as schools are not always well equipped to manage these needs.

Common Feelings Parents and Carers Experience

It is common that parents and carers who have a child refuses to go to school, or not enjoying being at school, experience a high amount of embarrassment and shame.

Their families, friends, and often the school, don’t understand the issue and quite often parents and carers are blamed for it. This can cause high levels of mental and physical distress, a dismissal of their own self-care and wellbeing, and often a mental health diagnosis themselves. They feel exhausted at having to constantly advocate for their child with the school. A break in the routine post the pandemic has increased the feelings of fear and anxiety around being with other people and this relates directly to school refusal in many cases.

Why Do Some Kids Refuse to Go to School?

Some kids refuse to go to school because of social pressures and anxiety to do with their learning expectations, depression of feeling they aren’t good enough, a reluctance to leave the home where they felt comfortable to learn away from the school, the feeling that the school doesn’t understand their neurodivergent needs (e.g. Autism, ADHD, dyslexia etc), a decrease in a sense of belonging in their school community.

Stressful or Traumatic Experiences

The pandemic brought a lot of stress, fear, anxiety, and ongoing trauma to school communities across Australia but particularly Victoria where there were extended lockdowns.

Like many people, students have had to rebuild their confidence and bend on their resilience to re-engage in school. Many students enjoyed learning from home the longer the lockdowns went on, and this has made it harder to attend school again the longer they were away.

Fears and Anxiety

School refusal can stem from the anxiety or fear of bullying, not meeting expectations, not being understood, being frustrated or angry at not being listened to, and the fear of not being accepted by peers or the school community.

For neurodivergent students, the anxiety of change to routine has a huge impact on school attendance and can cause distressing behaviours related to self-harm and ongoing mental health issues.

Diverse Learners & School Refusal

Students with diverse learning needs are at a higher risk of school refusal behaviours. Schools must create a sense of belonging by not singling neurodiverse students out, but ensuring that they are a part of an inclusive environment. Feelings of shame are common with diverse learners which can contribute to significant school refusal.

Bullying or Abuse

School refusers’ are at a higher risk of being targeted for bullying and developing mental health problems because of risk factors such as; high anxiety levels, having a lack of sense of self, an embarrassment of feeling that they can’t keep up with the academic pressures, and social disengagement.

Family Dynamics

Often, it is the parents who are challenged with the problem of advocating for change with the school in navigating steps to help their child attend school again. This can be enormously draining for parents and can lead to an increase in negative conversations at home regarding going to school both in the morning and in the evening.

A Problem with Socialising

Relationships and connections in schools are critical to the engagement of students and one of the reasons your child refuses to attend school. A recent increase in social anxiety for students across Australia, has caused an increase in distress and increase in school refusal behaviours. 

It has been challenging for students to rekindle social relationships again post the pandemic. 

Schools have the capability to encourage social skills. Students are happiest and learn the best when the people around are responsive to their needs and really know them.

Common Signs and Symptoms of School Refusal

There are any signs of school refusal and some are more common than others. Below are some of the signs you may have noticed.

Desire not to go to school

School refusal behaviours will be shown when students feel that they are not accepted at school, are not understood, have a fear of failure, or are frustrated at feeling a low sense of self-esteem. When these factors are in place, then a strong reluctance to attend school sits in.

Refusal to go to school

School avoidance can sometimes be due to anxiety to do with social pressures, learning expectations, depression of feeling they aren’t good enough, a reluctance to leave the home where they felt comfortable to learn away from the school, the feeling that the school doesn’t understand their neurodivergent needs (e.g. Autism, ADHD, dyslexia etc), a decrease in a sense of belonging in their school community.

Poor school performance

Particularly with secondary school refusers, the recent pressure of academic performance has increased through exams, expectations to catch up on any learning deemed lost after the pandemic, and a breakdown in positive communication with their school. Increased school refusal adds to poor school performance and general happiness.

School avoidance and behaviour problems at school

Behaviour problems are also named ‘Care Seeking’ behaviours. Teachers and schools need to identify students' lagging skills and unsolved problems related to behaviour problems. The kid is not the issue. Collaboration between teachers and students with problem solving promotes a problem-solving partnership and engages students in solving problems that affect their lives.

Difficulty concentrating in class

Students demonstrating school refusal behaviours, is often due to distress and having a different voice going on in their head making it really challenging to focus for extended periods of time.

If a student isn’t feeling like they are being listened to, rather being spoken to, then this is a reason to switch off and stop concentration.

What Can Families Do To Support a Child That Refuses to Go to School?

Students demonstrating school refusal behaviours, is often due to distress and having a different voice going on in their head making it really challenging to focus for extended periods of time.

If a student isn’t feeling like they are being listened to, rather being spoken to, then this is a reason to switch off and stop concentration.

1. Be Understanding and Supportive.

Listening to what your child has to say about their reasons for refusal is really important and often something that is forgotten in the stress of the situation.

As well as listening and acknowledging what your child is saying, it is also a very supportive approach to make sure that as a parent you hold yourself accountable for any support you are offering.

This is such a great example to your child when they see you do this as it makes them feel safe and know that you are trying your best to make a change.

2. Talk to Your Child About Their Feelings and Concerns

This can feel like a difficult balance between talking to them, listening to them, and then having to go into a school and advocating for them.

Sometimes it might be easier for children to draw their feelings, or choose from a picture rather than find the words. Being honest, taking it slowly, changing routines, and keeping a light mood can assist with these discussions.

In our work, we always consider student feelings, strengths, and interests as a motivation to return to school.

3. Acknowledge Your Child's Feelings and Empathy

Sometimes just checking in with your child is enough to make an acknowledgment of where your child is at at that present time. A good way to acknowledge this is by listening and agreeing with them.

If you are able to share how you also feeling during this time this can help find some common ground.

4. Provide Reassurance to Your Child

Taking the pressure off your child, creating routines and sticking to them, allowing them proper relaxation time and not expecting them to complete any work are good ways of reassuring your child they are safe.

This time is challenging, but it is not forever if you have the right support in place. When these are in place, then you can begin to celebrate the small wins along the way, for yourself as well.

5. Work Together to Create a School Attendance Plan

Before we see changes in students, we need to see changes in the adult mindsets and approaches.  The vision for schools needs to be ‘helping students to learn, rather than teaching them’. 

The student, the parent, the psychologist, the occupational therapist, the speech therapist, the wellbeing leader, the Principal all need to have a voice and be on the same page for the plan to work.

How to Work with Schools on School Avoidance Strategies

This is all about relationships and having a clear collaborative approach. Having just one staff member at the school who can be “that person” who is batting for your child, can have a huge impact.

As reengagement specialists, we are well positioned as a point of difference to establish this relationship and advocate on parents or carers behalf, supporting the school to increase their understanding of the function of the school refusal behaviours, and help to navigate through an increase in school attendance.

What School Refusal Support Services and Resources are Available?

There are a range of school refusal support services and resources available which can all help in different ways depending on your current situation. Here are a few services that may help you:

Catholic Care: Counselling Support to help young people reduce their anxiety about returning to school

Hester Hornbrook Academy: Healing Oriented Program or Education

Headspace: school refusal work and study centres, career advice

School Refusal Clinic: Helping Students Return to school

Can't Face School: School Refusal Experts, Advocates, Support Services, and Planning ( Contact: Richard@cantfaceschool.com.au )

You Can Make Positive Change in Your Child's Life

While school refusal can be a challenging and distressing experience for both children and their families, it's important to remember that there is hope and support available.

Remember to celebrate even the smallest victories along the way, as each step forward is a significant achievement.

Don’t feel like you need to be alone here and carry all of this responsibility, know that there are services out there who take this responsibility off your shoulders.

Engaging the right services when your child refuses to go to school along with taking some of the advice above can help them return to education and reduce your stress as a parent or carer.

 

Can't Face School offer services to help coordinate teachers and other professionals, bring clarity to all the information that is going around, listen to what your child is saying, and make achievable step by step stages.

Book a FREE 15 Minute Consultation to find out how we can help.

BOOK NOW