School Refusal

By Brooke Trenwith

School refusal is a complex issue that can affect children and adolescents for a variety of reasons. It’s not just about not wanting to go to school; it’s a manifestation of underlying emotional, psychological, or behavioural challenges.

As whānau, caregivers, educators, and supporters, it’s crucial to recognise the signs, understand the underlying causes, and implement effective strategies to help individuals overcome school refusal in order to thrive academically and emotionally.

School Attendance is Dropping

You can download the latest school indicator on Education Counts which is from Term 4 2023. It is down compared to 2019. And yes, Covid has had a significant impact.

What this aggregated data doesn’t tell us is what areas we need to be focusing on:

  • What percentage are on an overseas vacation?
  • What percentage are refusing school?
  • What percentage are chronically ill (including long Covid, anxiety etc.)?
  • What percentage are actually wagging?

And on that wagging question, what are they doing? I have worked with gifted students who were facing disciplinary action for wagging their physics class every lesson. They were sitting behind the school gym doing Coursera University Physics lessons because the teacher was not teaching them anything new. They had spent one term being the ‘teacher helper’ and supporting other students, so they decided to take their learning into their own hands. 

Is it really wagging?

Data can give us an overview but it is actually in the detail that we need to decide our actions. What is put in place for someone who is wagging needs to be very different to someone who is school refusing.

And by the way, Australia is dealing with this issue too. Have a read of this ABC article on school refusal. So moving over the Tasman or following what they are doing is probably not going to help.

Understanding school refusal

School refusal is more than just occasional reluctance to attend school. It is a persistent pattern of avoiding school or experiencing significant distress related to attending school.

This can manifest as physical symptoms like headaches or stomach aches, emotional distress, or behavioural issues such as tantrums or defiance – leading to causing physical damage on property or loved ones.

Causes of School Refusal

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all explanation for school refusal. It can stem from various factors, including:

  1. Anxiety disorders
    Fear of separation, social anxiety, or generalised anxiety can make it challenging for children to cope with the demands of school
  1. Depression
    Feelings of hopelessness, sadness, or apathy can lead to disengagement from school activities and social interactions
  1. Bullying
    Experiencing bullying or harassment at school can make it a hostile environment, leading to avoidance (this can result in Collective Trauma)
  1. Learning difficulties
    Struggling with academic work can erode confidence and lead to avoidance behaviours (this can result in Collective Trauma)
  1. Family issues
    Problems at home, such as parental separation, family conflict, or illness, can contribute to school refusal
  1. Acute Trauma
    Experiencing a traumatic event, such as the death of a loved one or a natural disaster, can disrupt a child’s ability to attend school
  1. Intergenerational Trauma
    They may be carrying anxiety and a heightened fight/flight response biologically. Parents may also be carrying this which means both the child and the parent are traumatised by the school environment

Strategies to help

Supporting individuals experiencing school refusal requires a multi-faceted approach involving collaboration between whānau, educators, mental health professionals, and the child itself.

There is not going to be a ‘silver bullet’ that will deal with it in schools.

But schools can take the time to look at one or two cases individually, trial some strategies and, if they work, trial them with others.

Most schools would start here –

Identify the underlying cause: Work with the child and their family to understand the root cause of the school refusal. This may involve conducting assessments, talking to the child about their feelings, and gathering information from caregivers and teachers.

Sounds appropriate right? And in some cases, it would be, but with most of the students I work with the root cause is far too complex for us to identify.

Instead, we look at the small steps that we can do to help the student feel safe.

  1. Create a supportive environment to foster a safe and supportive school environment where children feel valued, understood, and accepted.
    This could include:
    * Instilling a Behaviour Response Plan like Ngātea Primary.
    * Implement anti-bullying policies.
    * Promote positive peer relationships.
    * Train your teachers in trauma-informed practice and educational neuroscience.

  2. Develop a personalised plan to help the student’s learning, social and emotional needs to be met.
    This could include:
    * Collaborate with the child, their family, and school staff to create a strengths-based IEP.
    * This may include accommodations such as modified schedules (e.g. attending school 9.00 am – 1.00 pm), alternative assignments, or access to counselling services (play-based therapy is better for younger students, ACT rather than CBT for neurodivergent students).

  3. Gradual exposure by helping the child gradually reintegrate into school by starting with small, manageable steps.
    This could include:
    * Initially attending for short periods or participating in non-academic activities before gradually increasing their time in the classroom.
    * Parent being outside the door, then moving to a different part of the school, then just outside the school etc.

  4. Teach self-regulation skills and use them regularly each day, every day. Do not just wait for a meltdown to implement them.
    This could include:
    * Bottom-up physical stress support like weighted blankets, Touch Points, Apollo Neuro, Safe and Sound Protocol, rhythmic movement like bouncing on a tramp, using poi or swinging.
    * Teaching breathing skills – physios can support the child to learn how to breathe effectively to reduce anxiety.

  5. Provide consistent support by offering ongoing support and encouragement to the child as they work through their challenges with school refusal.
    This could include:
    * Regular check-ins, monitoring progress and adjusting interventions as needed.
    * Identifying who the ‘one adult’ is that connects with the child and having them connect with them daily.

  6. Address underlying issues: If the school refusal is related to underlying mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression, ensure the child has access to appropriate treatment and support services.
    This could include:
    * Therapy, medication, or support groups.
    * Educational or clinical psychologist reports.

  7. Celebrate progress – no matter how small. Recognise and celebrate the child’s achievements. Positive reinforcement can boost their confidence and motivation to overcome school refusal.
    This could include:
    * Track how often they do go to school rather than how often they don’t.
    * Celebrate the one out of five days rather than berating the four out of five days.

School refusal can have significant implications for a child’s academic, social, and emotional development.

By understanding the underlying causes and implementing effective strategies for support and intervention – rather than punishing the child and/or parents, we can help children overcome their challenges and thrive in the school environment.

It requires patience, empathy, and collaboration among caregivers, educators, and mental health professionals (and the Ministry of Education) to create a supportive and inclusive environment where every child can succeed.