By Casey Standen, Cluey Learning
Everyone has days where they just don’t want to go to school, right? Maybe it’s because they stayed up too late the night before, have a scary speech to give or just don’t feel like lugging sporting equipment across the city on public transport. These are one-off responses to the complexities of school life and the exhaustion of growing up, and often a single mental health day will solve the problem. This is not school refusal.
School refusal is a consistent behaviour of avoiding school, initiated by the student. School refusing behaviours are often emotionally charged and may present as angry and rebellious, or sad and scared, or even as lethargy and apathy.
How do you know if it’s school refusal?
1. Consistency in refusal – this isn’t just every now and then, and it’s also not just on every sport day or during assessment season. School refusal will feel like a constant, if not daily, battle.
2. Variety in execution – school refusal is largely fuelled by fear, which can manifest as anxiety, anger or aggressive apathy, and it might differ day-to-day. This consistent aggression will bring unpredictability to your morning routine and may extend throughout the day into calls from school and mystery ailments arising at school needing your urgent attention.
3. You know where they are all day – unlike students who skip school, you know exactly where your child is when they’re not at school, and they’re likely to be willing to work from home.
4. Bedtime can be miserable – sometimes anxiety will show up the night before, and some school refusers will delay going to bed to delay the inevitable conflict in the morning, or even to delay going to bed because the anxiety might be ruining their sleep.
5. Bed becomes a magnet in the morning – consistent refusal to get up despite being awake and physically healthy, and developing a range of physical excuses suggests school refusal.
6. Self-destructive behaviours – your child isn’t just in conflict with you but with themselves. Self-destructive behaviours don’t have to be dramatic displays of self- harm (although they can be and should be taken very seriously). They can be as small as nail biting or pulling at cuticles, chewing on or peeling lips, scratching, hair pulling, or holding their head more tightly than is comfortable.
Why is my child refusing to go to school?
While school refusal may come as a surprise, it’s almost always a sign that your child has been trying to process something for a while, without success.
Every child is unique, so there is no uniformity of cause for school refusal. One child might be avoiding school because of bullying, or a bad relationship with a teacher, or because they’re not excelling in a subject when they’re used to higher marks. Another might be struggling to deal with a change in family or geographical circumstances and school refusal is them demanding the time and space to process things alone.
The person who’s most likely to know why your child is refusing school is your child. Choose a time and place that isn’t associated with the school refusing behaviour and have the awkward conversation. Remember to put yourself in your child’s shoes, be compassionate and open minded, no matter how illogical or frustrating you find their behaviour to be.
Sometimes school refusal can be an indicator that something serious is happening that your child feels powerless to manage. These questions might give you more insight into whether you need to investigate further or whether it’s time to seek further help to solve problems with your child.
So should I force them back to school?
No. Forcing your child to go to school without doing anything more about the problem will only bring bigger problems later on. You have to access and address the core problem – why are they refusing to go to school? Ultimately, you may end up changing schools but that is not perpetuating school refusal. Rather, that is showing your child how compromise works and that their health and wellbeing matter enough to you to be worth making big changes.
Some helpful questions to open a dialogue with your child about their school refusal include:
- If you could change one thing about your school, what would it be?
- Is there anyone bothering you at school?
- How can I help you with school?
- What do you miss about homeschooling (assuming there was a period of homeschooling during pandemic lockdown)?
- Are you worried about anything at school?
- How are your friendships at school going?
- Is anything worrying you in general?
- Is there anything you wish your teachers knew?
- Is there anything you wish I knew?
Daily strategies for dealing with school refusal
1. Stay calm. You have more power to influence the situation than you realise so by appearing calm, you leave all of the work of creating a conflict to your child, while also creating space for them to come to you in a calm way themselves.
2. Use positive presumptions. If the problem seems to be more about the process of getting to school than of actually being at school, lace your language with positive presumptions. This means avoiding asking questions or shaping questions so that all responses suit your goals. For example, instead of ‘are you going to get up and go to school today?’ try ‘what shall we do after school today?’. This creates more distance between your child and refusing school. Instead of just saying ‘no’ they have to explain that there won’t be an ‘after school’ because they’re refusing school today.
3. Debrief. Make a habit of debriefing about every single day. This creates lines of communication for your child to share what might be bothering them, or what might be so appealing about being at home all day.
4. Call in reinforcements. Carpooling with friends can be a very helpful way to get your child in the car (or on the bus, train or footpath) and off to school, and can take some of the fear of school away by proving to your child that they have a friend, that their friendship goes beyond the school gate. The accountability of making someone else late or worse, miss out, can be enough to crack open the school refusal conversation.
What if that’s not enough?
School refusal is a complex mental health issue. It can indicate so many other things going on that a few survival strategies and deep conversations might only be able to help your child manage the behaviour, not overcome it. Professional help (whether that’s an educational or a psychological professional) may prove invaluable in getting your child back on track in both attending school and managing their own wellbeing.
School is a good place to start. It may be the focus of the problem but that means it’s also the focus of the solution. You and a trusted teacher or school counsellor may be able to help your child articulate what it is about school that they’re avoiding.
Once you open up the school refusal conversation, your school or your paediatrician may recommend a child psychologist or other expert health professionals. This is something to embrace, for you and your child, as it means that you’re addressing a problem that isn’t going to solve itself.
HOW CAN CLUEY HELP?
Cluey can help children to build their confidence in learning, and can help them stay in touch with their school work while they’re refusing formal schooling. Cluey’s expert tutors are patient and kind, and often having an adult to communicate with who is new to your child’s world might be the opportunity they need to open up about their school refusal. Cluey can also help with supplementing school work during extended periods of school refusal and can help your child catch up on work when they haven’t engaged with their education at all for some time.
Cluey Learning is Australia’s leading online tutoring provider for school students and provides each student with their own learning plan, tailored to their unique learning needs. Cluey support a variety of learning needs, from students who need to catch up, keep up or excel, as well as those with additional learning requirements such as ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, and more. If your child would benefit from additional learning support, Cluey is here to help. cluey.com.au