No matter how hard parents try, some students may be reluctant or refuse to go to school.
But there are many other reasons why a young person might not be engaging fully in their education.
Why does my child not want to go to school?
Some of the more common causes of school problems are underlying learning difficulties or learning disabilities or behavioural or emotional issues. But there are many other reasons why a young person might not be engaging fully in their education.
School factors might include:
- bullying or cyberbullying
- feeling isolated at school
- disliking, or not feeling connected to, the school culture or environment
- falling behind on school work or feeling overwhelmed about keeping up
- disliking school subjects, not liking the choice of subjects, or not feeling challenged by the work
- poor school or academic support, especially in relation to heavy workloads
- not getting along with teachers or other students at school
- competing demands on time, such as extracurricular activities
- not feeling understood and fully accepted by peers or teachers
- cultural acknowledgement and understanding.
Personal factors might include:
- chronic illness
- intellectual or cognitive disability
- behavioural or developmental difficulties or disorders
- mental health issues such as depression or anxiety (For more information see: My child or teenager has anxiety)
- history of abuse and neglect
- poor self-concept or self-esteem
- poor communication skills
- poor social skills
- poor sleep habits
- difficulty with listening, concentrating or sitting still
- generational trauma.
Family factors might include:
- parents who aren’t involved in their child’s education
- a home environment that doesn’t or can’t adequately support a young person’s learning
- family problems such as relationship breakdowns
- competing family or social responsibilities, such as caring for family members, or working outside school hours
- cultural differences with the school culture and environment.
My child refuses to go to school
Children who refuse to go to school experience significant emotional distress not only when going to school but also at the thought of going to school; they may be absent from school for weeks or even months at a time.
Refusing to go to school differs from truancy as children generally stay home with the knowledge of their parents and despite their best efforts to encourage their child to go to school.
It is also very different to an occasional reluctance to go to school or the normal kind of anxiety everyone experiences at some stage.
When a child refuses to go to school it can be very distressing for parents who can find it difficult to manage and address; it can cause conflict in the home and disrupt routines.
Identifying the cause of why your child refuses to go to school can be difficult and there may be a number of factors that contribute to it. Early intervention is essential as prolonged absences from school can greatly impact a child’s social and emotional development, academic achievement and vocational opportunities.
If you are concerned your child is refusing to go to school, you may need assistance from professionals. Discuss your concerns with your child’s teacher or the wellbeing staff at your child’s school.
Going to school is usually an exciting and enjoyable event for children and adolescents. However most children are occasionally reluctant to go to school or have some anxiety about activities like school camp; it is also normal that at some stage in life every individual will feel anxious when faced with a difficult situation. Anxiety becomes a problem when it is persistent and prevents a person from enjoying normal life experiences for a long period of time.
You can help your child to cope with anxiety in effective ways and, in doing so, help them develop self-confidence and resilience.
How can I tell if my child has anxiety?
Signs of anxiety include:
- having lots of worries and a strong need for reassurance
- psychosomatic symptoms which occur before school (e.g. nausea, stomach aches, headaches or shortness of breath). These symptoms will reduce when the threat (fear of going to school) is removed
- crying, being clingy or fidgeting when nervous
- sleep problems such as difficulty falling asleep, nightmares or trouble sleeping alone
- fear and avoidance of a range of different issues and situations.
Why are some children anxious about going to school?
Anxiety may affect children at any age. The causes of anxiety may be different for young children than for teenagers:
- separation anxiety (being afraid to be away from parents)
- problems at school such as:
- being bullied and/or cyberbullied
- learning difficulties
- social isolation, not fitting in, friendship conflicts
- feeling lost at school
- fear of getting into trouble
- not getting along with a teacher
- new situations like the first day in a new class or the first day in a new school
- failure – worry their schoolwork will be too hard, they won’t be able to keep up, or they won’t know the correct answer when called on in class
- fear of losing a parent. They may think something bad will happening to a parent due to:
- a parent being ill
- family problems and fighting
- parents separating
- knowing another child who has lost a parent or whose family has broken up.
How do I talk to my child about it?
It is important not to dismiss your child’s anxiety but to help them see that the situations they are worried about may not be as bad as they think.
- remain calm – you will be better placed to make them feel more confident. Try not to let your child see that you are worried or frustrated
- listen to your child and encourage him/her to share their feelings and fears
- don’t dismiss your child’s feelings – everyone feels afraid sometimes and your child might perceive this as you not understanding or not caring about their concerns
- discuss various scenarios, possible outcomes and ways to handle situations to help your child develop problem solving strategies
- avoid taking over or giving your child the impression you will fight their battles for them. Some children with anxiety are happy for others to do things for them and if you take over it stops them learning how to cope for themselves. It also reinforces a perception that they are helpless and that someone will rescue them
- remind your child that everyone makes mistakes and that this is where the best learning comes from
- avoid being late when picking up or dropping off your child up from school
- problem solve with your child about what is causing the anxiety. For instance, if your child has problems walking through the front gate, arrange for them to meet a friend or use another entrance. If they find socialising in the yard before school starts a source of anxiety, arrange for them to arrive just before the bell
- encourage your child to go to school even if they will be late; reassure them that you will contact the school to explain
- arrange for a visit to the GP if your child reports persistent physical complaints
- have a clear agreement between parents (even if separated) that school attendance is not optional and communicate this in a clear and calm manner to your child
- provide rewards for appropriate behaviour and avoid unintentionally rewarding school avoidance
- be clear with instructions and requests and consistent with consequences
- be involved in your child’s school through things like the school council or the canteen
- support your child with homework and study, modelling skills for becoming more independent
- seek assistance from your child’s school – there is assistance and support available. The sooner you talk to your child’s school about concerns, the better.
What can I do?
These are some ideas which may assist you if your child is reluctant to go to school. Addressing attendance issues promptly and setting up good patterns in adolescence can lead to better educational and social outcomes for your child.
- Act early if you are concerned.
- Talk about the importance of showing up to school every day, make that the expectation.
- Regular attendance at school sets up good behaviours for regular attendance at future workplaces and other life commitments.
- Don’t let your child stay home unless genuinely sick. Complaints of headaches or stomach aches may be signs of anxiety.
- Reward appropriate behaviour and don’t unintentionally reward unwanted behaviour by letting children who stay home have access to their devices and the internet.
- Be sure to set a good example – how you meet your commitments impacts on how they will meet theirs.
Daily Routines and sleep
- Help your child maintain daily routines such as finishing homework and getting a good night’s sleep.
- Primary school aged children need about 10 to 11 hours sleep. Teenagers need an average of 8-9 hours of sleep to be healthy and alert.
- You may also need to monitor your child’s use of the Internet, mobile phone and TV at night to ensure they are not staying up too late or being disturbed while sleeping.
- Consider how your child is sleeping – is their room cool and dark and have all devices, including TVs and mobile phones, been removed?
Talk about school
- Talk to your child. What are their feelings about school? What interests them at school? Are there any difficult situations?
- For teens, it helps if you open these discussions in a relaxed way so that your teenager knows you are demonstrating concern, not authority. It’s often a good idea to have these conversations while doing something else together such as driving, preparing dinner or going for a walk. If your teen doesn’t want to talk right then, let them know you’re ready to listen whenever they’re ready to talk.
- For younger children, talking about the school day shows your interest. Ask simple, positive and specific questions about parts of the day e.g. What was fun? or Who did you play with today?
Extracurricular activities, social connections and part-time work
- Encourage meaningful extracurricular activities that your child enjoys, such as sports and clubs, to develop positive relationships and experience success outside of a classroom setting. These activities can help your child feel part of the group, important to the school, and more motivated.
- For teens, try to be aware of your child’s social contacts. Peer influence can lead to skipping school, while students without many friends can feel isolated.
- Set clear parameters around part-time work. Make sure that the hours your teenager is working do not impact on their ability to go to school the next day, or interfere with school assessment expectations or exam preparation. Most schools recommend no more than 10 hours per week.
Family holidays and appointments
- Try not to schedule hair, dental or medical appointments during school hours. Arrange family holidays during scheduled school holidays so that students don’t miss out on classes and feel left behind.
- If it is necessary to be absent from school for an extended period, arrange with your school for a Student Absence Learning Plan (docx - 39.74kb).
School policies and monitoring attendance
- Familiarise yourself with the school’s attendance policy. This can help when trying to reason with a child or teenager who is resisting going to school.
- Monitor your child’s attendance and school performance. Periodically check with their teachers to find out how things are going. If you find it difficult to contact several different teachers by phone, try email. Alternatively, the year level coordinator may be a helpful point of contact in relation to specific issues.
Homework and assignments
- If your child wants to stay home to finish an assignment, rather than letting them stay home, expect them to go to school – make attendance the number one priority. Later, you can discuss with them how they can improve their study habits or adjust their schedule.
- If your school has an assessment calendar on its website, use this to help your child plan their study so that they avoid working late the night before an assignment is due.
Remember: You can talk with school staff (such as a teacher, year level coordinator, wellbeing staff, careers staff, assistant principal or principal) to find out what support they can provide to keep your teenager attending and engaged.
More information and support
Sometimes you may need assistance from professionals who can help anxious children.
Discuss your concerns with relevant teachers or wellbeing staff at your child’s school. They can help address any school-based issues, refer your child to school counselling services and make recommendations about professional support.
Alternatively, you could seek support from your GP who can assist with a referral to mental health professional such as a psychologist, psychiatrist or therapist. They can help your child overcome their anxiety using mindfulness, improving self-confidence and self-esteem and helping children change the way they think about difficult situations.
Useful websites/ contacts