What is the Difference Between School Refusal vs. Truancy

Although school refusal and truancy both refer to a child’s absence from school, they don’t refer to the same thing. Two ways in which they differ relate to 1. Whether or not permission has been granted for a child to be absent from school and 2. The reason as to why the child has not attended school. 

In this article, we will delve into the differences between school refusal and truancy, their definitions, and some examples.

Note: You may have heard the term ‘School Avoidance’ being used in replacement of school refusal. The terms ‘School refusal’ and ‘school avoidance’ are interchangeable as they both refer to the same thing.

However, school avoidance is our preferred term because much of the time, the reason a young person is not going to school is because they don’t feel they feel safe there or are being included or their learning needs are being met hence they can’t access the curriculum.

The word ‘refusal’ is more of a term referencing truancy. Here is the difference between “Can’t go to school" and “Won't go to school”.

Young people who ‘can’t’ go to school most of the time actually do want to go to school, they just can’t because of a mental health problem or another circumstance.

School Refusal vs Truancy

School Refusal and Truancy are not the same thing and the distinction between the two are important for understanding the difficulties face by students and to decide the appropriate interventions.

We’ll discuss this in more detail below but first lets define both terms.

School Refusal Definition

School refusal (avoidance) is a situation where a child refuses or has difficulty staying in school for the whole day and can often involve severe emotional distress at the time of or before attending school. 

There are numerous descriptions provided for school refusal and there isn’t one agreed upon definition.  However, the Victorian Government has described school refusal as:

“A severe distress and a reluctance to attend school due to a range of factors such as anxiety and mental health, not feeling included at school, negative student transition experiences and changes in family circumstances.”

Example Scenario of Truancy

14 year old James has a diagnosis of Autism and ADHD. As he is progressing  through Secondary School, he has found it harder and harder to engage in his academic work. He feels that the school just doesn't understand his learning needs. Feeling unheard and ashamed that he isn’t learning very much he avoids school by refusing to leave his bedroom.

Definition of Truancy

Truancy can be defined as a situation where a youth does not attend or leaves school early without permission and/or without a good reason to justify their absence. 

The Oxford Dictionary defines truancy as:

The practice of staying away from school without permission”

Example Scenario of Truancy

Jimmy (15yo), has decided he wants to go watch a movie with some of his friends so instead of going to class he meets his friends at the cinema. Jimmy’s parents don’t know he is not at school and his teacher assumes he is away sick for the day.

School Refusal (Avoidance) is Not Truancy

As you can see, school avoidance (refusal) and Truancy refer to two very different situations.

However, they do have some things in common. Both situations are very serious and can have detrimental effects on a child's academic success,  

The way in which you would approach either of these situations would vary depending on a child’s unique situation and motivation. 

It’s important to investigate the underlying causes for the school avoidance or truancy before deciding on the best strategy for the child, their family, and the school. 

Here at Can’t Face School we specialise in ‘school avoidance’ and creating customised re-engagement strategies and offer FREE Consultations to listen to your unique situation and understand how we can best help you through this time.


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.