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Q&A with Psychologist Rashida about School Refusal

Discussion forum for parents in Australia

Q&A with Psychologist Rashida about School Refusal


Q&A with Psychologist Rashida about School Refusal

Our community has had many conversations about school refusal, and each week, we speak to more parents and carers who share stories about the struggle to get their young ones to school. It’s a challenging position for you and your teen, so we asked a psychologist Rashida to share her insights and advice. 


What causes school refusal? 


School refusal refers to when a child or young person refuses to attend school and/or has challenges remaining in class for an entire day. This can be caused due to mental health conditions such as Anxiety, Depression or other challenges. Some other challenges could be if your child is across a spectrum of Neurodiversity. 

Some common experiences that may cause a child or young person to refuse to go to school could be: 


  1. having been subject to bullying
  2. feeling excluded or ‘othered’ amongst peers
  3. experiencing social anxiety
  4. finding it challenging to build a social network and friendship circle
  5. finding it challenging to keep up with the schoolwork
  6. not feeling supported by teachers and staff
  7. finding themselves disinterested or bored with the school material and subjects
  8. finding it difficult to concentrate. 


Some causes for school refusal may actually be unrelated to the school and what is happening there and more related to what is happening in the child’s environment outside of school. Some children or young people may be coming from environments in which they perceive that remaining at home is in some way more important than being at school. 


As we know, school entails a set of factors that are changing and can be perceived as overwhelming. Therefore there may be many variables as to why a child or young person has decided they are not wanting to go to school or find it difficult to remain at school the entire day. 


The years in which we experienced isolation and ‘home schooling’ during COVID-19 may be impacting a child or young person’s current school refusal due to having to become used to face-to-face learning and interaction once again. School refusal can be common and once the causes are unpacked, can often be proportionate to what the child is experiencing. 


What are some of the common challenges? 


The common challenges faced by families who have a child experiencing school refusal are not having an understanding of the cause, which may be exacerbated by the child's fear or lack of explanation as to why they don’t want to attend school. Underneath that, there’s many other factors: 


  1. pressure from the school to encourage the child to return. 
  2. fear of the child falling behind in their studies and having to repeat a year or not be able to catch up.
  3. fear of future challenges that the child may face having missed certain amounts of school. 
  4. fear of what the child will do when not at school, and the impacts this may have on their overall social life, learning and development.
  5. fear of entertaining ideas such as home-schooling due to the families/parents/ guardians schedules + potentially not knowing how to access this pathway.
  6. perceived fear of having ‘failed’ as a parent, if the child does not want to attend school. 


What can I do about school refusal? 


Management of school refusal would commence with discovering the cause of the refusal to then arrange a suitable support plan. 


  1. If the child or young person is not currently seeing a therapist, seek a therapist within your area - one who specifically works with young people to engage the child in supportive sessions.
  2. Engage with your GP and keep them up to date with what is currently happening - They may discuss medication as an additional treatment pathway, however, medication alone may not be the only solution.
  3. Once the cause has been identified - a graded exposure plan can be arranged with the school to help support a child in returning, based on the causes leading towards the refusal. This may look like the child only returning on certain days at certain times/ for certain subjects until they gradually build back up to a full time schedule. Understandably this may not be accessible to all families based on other factors or be safe based on the cause. 
  4. Distance Education is also an option and may be suitable until the child’s overall challenges are supported for them to return. 


Remember if the causes are unresolved and resulting from something happening at the school - sending the child back will only exacerbate their overall distress. When a child is significantly distressed, their ability to retain information and learn is significantly impacted. So the main focus should be on ensuring the child's well-being and mental health is managed prior to arranging a return to full-time school.


For parents/ guardians and families currently experiencing this, knowing the toll it can take on the entire family is important to ensuring your own mental health is being managed. Spending some time engaging in self-care and leaning on others for support can help you support your child.