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How to help a child who can’t face school

Is your child anxious and reluctant to leave home in the morning? Here’s a compassionate plan to help them get back to school

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Anna Smout

is a PhD candidate and psychologist at Monash University in Melbourne. During her PhD, she co-designed an online programme for parents of adolescents who refuse school due to anxiety and depression, with input from parents, school staff and young people.

Glenn Melvin

is a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Deakin University in Melbourne. He conducts research into school attendance problems and works clinically in the area. He is a founder of the International Network for School Attendance.

Marie Yap

is a professor and psychologist at Monash University in Melbourne. She is an Expertscape world expert in family relations and founder of the Parenting Strategies programme, which translates research evidence into accessible resources for parents, benefitting thousands of families worldwide.

Edited by Christian Jarrett





Need to know

Six-year-old Anjali has been reluctant to attend school ever since she started there, but things escalated at the beginning of her second year when she found she didn’t like her new teacher. Anjali started becoming very upset when her stepdad dropped her off at her classroom. She would scream, cry and plead with him not to leave her. She then grew increasingly upset on school mornings. She started hiding from her mum and stepdad, hitting them when they tried to get her dressed and crying inconsolably. Things grew so difficult that Anjali’s mum had to work from home on school mornings to help, and it took both parents to get Anjali into the car.

Henry is a 15-year-old who has struggled with attendance since starting high school. If his parents manage to get him out of bed, he becomes tearful and distressed, and complains about bad headaches and nausea. His parents try to talk with him about why he feels this way, but he can’t explain it. He says he feels ‘frozen’ and ‘just can’t do it’. His parents feel exhausted and hopeless – they desperately want Henry to get to school, and they know he wants that for himself too, but how hard can they really ‘push’ when he won’t get out of the car? After a few weeks, Henry’s parents managed to speak with a psychologist, who told them Henry’s experience had a name – ‘school refusal’.

Although it is widely used, the term ‘school refusal’ is not universally accepted. The word ‘refusal’ can imply a child-motivated defiance, but there are numerous individual (child), family, school, community and other circumstances that can contribute to a child’s difficulty attending school. Many young people with experiences similar to Henry and Anjali may desperately want to go to school, but feel they can’t. For these reasons, some families and professionals prefer alternative terms such as ‘school can’t’, or ‘school avoidance’. For the purposes of this Guide, while we acknowledge these important caveats, we will use the terms ‘school refusal’ and ‘struggling to attend school’ interchangeably.

School reluctance and school refusal are often misunderstood

School reluctance and refusal are deceptively complex issues that are often misunderstood. A child is experiencing school reluctance if they are unwilling to attend school, but they are still attending school. A child is experiencing school refusal if they have difficulties attending and/or remaining at school during the day due to emotional distress about attending school. School refusal is equally common between genders. While it can show up any time, it’s often during transition points into primary or secondary school.

If your child is struggling with school attendance, you might feel like school nights or mornings are a ‘battle’. Your child might cry, yell, feel sick or complain of headaches, and have trouble sleeping. In an effort to manage their school-related anxiety or distress, they may attempt to avoid school by not getting out of bed or into the car, not getting ready for school, hiding or locking themselves away, threatening to hurt themselves, or becoming uncharacteristically aggressive.

School refusal is usually driven by a child’s attempt to manage overwhelming difficulties related to school attendance, rather than by disobedience or defiance. Young people experiencing school refusal remain at home with their parents’/caregivers’ knowledge (henceforth, we’ll use the single term ‘parents’ for simplicity), and despite their parents’ best efforts to get them along to school.

It is important to address school reluctance or refusal

The school environment plays a crucial role in fostering social and emotional development. Attending school can build resilience and confidence, and keeps your child connected with their peers and learning. School absences arising from school refusal can lead to a range of consequences including missing out on education, exiting school early, difficulties with friendships/peer relationships, and later problems with working life (eg, unemployment). Missing school can also contribute to mental health problems, conflict and strained relationships within the family, and decreased income in the family (eg, if family members stay home from work to care for the child). Doing what you can to support your child’s school engagement can therefore minimise these potential consequences of not attending. The traditional school model may not suit all young people or families. You know your child and family best. However, it’s important to remember the value of school.

Understand the cycle of anxiety and avoidance

Cycles of anxiety and avoidance can play a key role in the development and maintenance of school refusal, and it’s worth bearing this in mind as you seek to support your child. Here is an example of how this can play out for families:

Initially, in an effort to reduce their high levels of anxiety about school, a child might avoid what is making them anxious by refusing to go. This will often lead to arguments with parents, and the child resisting their parents’ efforts to get them to attend. Eventually, many parents might (begrudgingly) give in and allow the child to stay home. This way, everyone gets to avoid a bigger argument and feels better, temporarily. The child’s anxiety is relieved, at least for now.

After managing to avoid school, the child feels better, but usually only in the short term. They also become less confident about attending school again. Both of these things contribute to more anxiety about school.

The next time parents try to get their child to go to school, the child continues to refuse as they still don’t feel they can cope with school, and often their behaviour will escalate because of their increased anxiety. At the same time, parents may learn that their attempts to get the child to go to school do not work, and might dread getting into an even bigger argument next time. School mornings can become very emotionally draining for both parents and the child. Although this paints a worrying picture, be reassured there are several practical steps you can take to support your child.

You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) manage this alone

If your child is unwilling or unable to return to school, it’s essential that you work together with your child, school staff and any other professionals involved to address the problem.

Seek professional help early, within weeks of your child refusing to attend school. The more severe a child’s difficulties with school attendance become, the more resources, time, monitoring and professional help might be needed.

Although parents are certainly not to blame for a child’s school reluctance or refusal, there are many things you can do to support your child’s attendance. This Guide can help you make sense of your child’s experience, identify the type of help they might need, and put plans in place to work towards their school attendance goals. While our advice is primarily for parents whose children are facing difficulties similar to Anjali and Henry, we hope the information will also be useful for school staff supporting families in this situation.

What to do

Look beneath the surface

School reluctance or refusal is best understood as a child’s way of communicating their distress about school. Their protests in the morning and school absences are only the visible tip of the iceberg, and to support a child who is struggling to go to school, it’s important to consider the deeper issues at play. Beneath the surface lie all the factors putting them at risk of missing school (known as ‘risk factors’) and the other factors that sustain that avoidance behaviour (known as ‘maintaining factors’).

If you are concerned about school reluctance or refusal, a good place to start is to consider the different risk factors that might be playing a part for your child. These include factors specific to them as a person (such as any mental health concerns), school factors, and factors related to your family’s circumstances. Although some risk factors can’t be changed or avoided, addressing them early on where possible may prevent school reluctance or refusal from developing or persisting.

Anjali’s risk factors included her anxiety and attentional problems. She had also just started primary school, and her mum and stepdad believed the approach of her new teacher was not the best match for Anjali. What’s more, Anjali’s mum and dad separated two years ago, before her mum partnered with her stepdad. Anjali stays with her dad every second week, and he is more agreeable to letting her remain home when she is distressed. Though well intended, this has reinforced Anjali’s cycles of anxiety and avoidance.

Henry’s risk factors included his social anxiety and depression, low self-esteem, his struggles with academic work, and the pressure he put on himself to do well. He was also about to start a new level at school. Also relevant is that Henry’s mother struggled with anxiety and found it difficult to connect with the staff at school, which made communication about Henry’s needs challenging. These multiple interacting factors contributed to Henry’s first experiences of school reluctance and refusal. Then, once cycles of anxiety and avoidance took hold, they continued to drive the problem.

Talk with your child and listen to them

Building on that first step, as soon as possible, try to talk with your child to understand the reasons they are reluctant or refusing to go to school. During this conversation, seek to understand the things that are going on beneath the surface, from their perspective. Bear in mind that it is common for young people to struggle to identify any such reasons, so they might need help and time to put words to what they are feeling. It is also common for these conversations to bring up difficult emotions such as anxiety, fear or shame. So, go slowly, and open the conversation when you are both calm. Talk in a private, distraction-free space, and allow plenty of time.

Try to resist the urge to problem-solve straight away. Even if you disagree with what your child says, an important first step is to use active listening skills to show you understand this is hard for them. For example:

  • Child: I don’t have any friends at school anymore. Everyone does better than me and I don’t see the point.
  • Parent/teacher: Sounds like you are feeling really self-conscious about friends and school work. I can understand that it must be really hard to get to school at the moment. I can see even talking about this is upsetting for you.

It is important for young people to hear that they have not done something wrong. Also, that you care about them, and want to help them overcome what is concerning them about school. For example:

  • You’re not in trouble, and you’re not disappointing me. There are lots of other young people who struggle with the same thing. I am here for you and want us to work through this, together.

Using these strategies during tough conversations can reduce the likelihood or intensity of a highly emotional response. Your child may also be more likely to confide in you in future. If things do escalate, stay calm and let them know you’ll try again another time. For example:

  • I can see you’re feeling really upset and angry right now. I’m going to give you space and check in with you later.

If your child can’t identify the reasons or is unwilling to talk, there are other approaches you can try:

  • See if your child can write or draw about their experience instead.
  • With your child’s knowledge, parents can share ideas with school staff (and vice versa) about why your child is struggling.
  • Keep a record of the days your child doesn’t attend, the circumstances surrounding these (eg, first day back after holidays, a test, a specific class, or a teacher), and any other concerns they express. Family members and school staff can share this knowledge to identify patterns in school reluctance or absences.
  • Seek input from a health professional – for example, a general practitioner, a psychologist or a school counsellor – in identifying barriers to attendance.

Remember, there are likely multiple reasons for your child’s school reluctance or refusal, and these can change over time. While you might not ever find all the answers, gathering as much information as you can will help you identify what type of support might be more helpful.

Decide on the best schooling option for your child

When your child is struggling to attend school, it’s normal to wonder whether a different school or learning pathway would solve the problem, or better suit your child’s learning needs. To make an informed decision about the best schooling option for your child, it’s important to consider carefully whether the factors contributing to their struggles to attend school (that you identified in the steps above) could carry over into a different school setting; the advantages and disadvantages of their current school placement; and any future career aspirations they might have. It’s also best to discuss any options under consideration with your child, co-parent(s), and any other professionals involved. Ensure you’ve agreed on a decision about the most suitable school setting before working on helping your child get back to school (to be covered in the next step). Here are some examples of alternatives to full-time, face-to-face schooling that you could discuss:

Alternative learning pathways that might be available within mainstream education where you live. For example:

  • a reduced workload (eg, achieved by dropping a specific school subject);
  • an ungraded final school qualification (eg, completing the final year of school without a final score/grade);
  • completing the final years of secondary education over three years instead of two; or
  • completing an applied learning qualification (eg, certificate or diploma in trade or hospitality) in place of an academic qualification in secondary education.

If none of these options are suitable, you may wish to consider alternative learning settings, where available, in your location. For example:

  • flexible learning settings: these may be government or non-government schools with face-to-face settings but with smaller numbers of students and higher levels of wellbeing support;
  • distance/virtual education: students enrolled with a distance or virtual-education provider attend virtual classes and complete their schoolwork online, mostly in an independent and self-led manner. Parents are required to supervise their child’s learning at home; or
  • homeschooling: if a student is homeschooled, parents become responsible for providing their child’s education.

Work as a team to address underlying causes of your child’s school reluctance or refusal

At this point, you’ve agreed together on the best schooling arrangement for your child. You also have a clear, shared understanding of the reasons your child is reluctant or refusing to attend school. Now it’s important that you, your child, school staff and any health professionals involved make a plan to address these collaboratively. Such plans look different for every child, and are likely to involve some trial and error.

Below are some common reasons young people may develop school reluctance or refusal, with examples of collaborative approaches to address them at home and at school. This list of reasons is by no means exhaustive and, even if your own child’s situation is different, you might find some of these suggestions helpful.

If your child is struggling academically

When a child or teenager has difficulty understanding and/or completing their schoolwork, it can make them feel frustrated, anxious and affect their self-esteem. Here are some ways you can support them:

  • At home: ask your child’s teacher(s) for ideas on how to support your child. Help your child complete homework by breaking down tasks into smaller chunks. Create a distraction-free space at home. For example, set up a clutter-free desk space in a quiet spot where they are unlikely to be disturbed, and ensure family members reduce noise during homework time. Encourage and enable your child to set aside time to do things they enjoy, are good at, or find motivating (eg, sports, creative hobbies). Make sure they feel loved and supported regardless of their academic achievements by showing affection, using words of encouragement and spending quality time with them. If they have or might have a learning difficulty, it’s important to seek professional assessment and intervention. School staff can often arrange this or recommend someone who can.
  • At school: ask teacher(s) for ideas on how to foster your child’s interests and strengths at school. Teachers can communicate the student’s school-related needs to parents and relevant staff members (they should let the child know they are doing this). School staff can also create an individualised learning plan that accommodates your child’s needs. Ask the school about the support available to help your child understand and/or complete tasks (eg, more time to complete assignments/exams, rest breaks). Request that a trusted teacher checks in with your child regularly to ensure that any implemented supports are maintained.

If your child is experiencing difficulties with peers or bullying

Always take bullying seriously. If your child feels psychologically or physically unsafe at school, it’s understandable that they are more likely to be reluctant or refuse to attend.

  • At home: stay calm and try to get the full story from your child, including what solution they want. Let them know you won’t do anything they don’t want you to do (and stick to this). In the case of online bullying, offer to help them save evidence of the bullying, block the bully, and report the behaviour. Avoid banning them from using online platforms because this could isolate them from their friends. If your child struggles to make friends or build social relationships, seek support from school staff or a professional (eg, a psychologist) to help with this. Encourage and facilitate opportunities for social interactions, for example, by assisting them in joining a club or sports team, or inviting over a new friend at the weekend.
  • At school: with your child’s knowledge, inform school staff about the situation. Seek involvement from school staff who have a good relationship with your child. Ask what school staff will do to manage the bullying behaviour and find out what resources are available to support your child, in line with the school’s anti-bullying policy. Keep lines of communication open about your child’s physical and psychological safety at school. Enquire about opportunities for students to meet and build relationships with others beyond their own class or cohort, such as through inter-class activities, or ‘buddy’ programmes.

If your child is living with a physical or mental illness, and/or disability

If your child has an illness or disability that leads to unavoidable and extended time away from school, or that makes it difficult for them to engage in school activities, it’s possible this could increase their risk of school reluctance or refusal. In this situation, it’s important to listen to and advocate for your child’s needs. This includes following guidance from the health professionals caring for them.

  • At home: together with your child and any professionals involved, make a plan for how they can be best supported in managing their symptoms at home and at school.
  • At school: with your child’s knowledge, provide school staff with information about their condition and any recommendations made by professionals to support their wellbeing at school. These might include temporary reductions in their timetable (eg, attending half days, or only certain classes); making adjustments to assessments or exams (eg, allowing extra time, using a scribe or reader); or allowing your child to complete work from a quieter space. Ask for a primary contact at school who can ensure any recommendations are communicated to and implemented by school staff, and that details of any progress or setbacks are conveyed back to you. Request that this person checks in with your child regularly to show they care about their wellbeing at school.

Make a plan to work towards your child’s attendance goals

Once you’ve made some progress addressing the issues that underlie your child’s non-attendance, a next step is to create a plan to support their return to school, or to increase their attendance (in line with their goals, as agreed upon earlier). In developing the plan, involve your child, school staff and any relevant mental health professionals. The aim of the plan is to gradually reintegrate your child into school (or their chosen learning setting) in a supported way. The plan should start with a small, specific, realistic goal and work up from there. This way, your child is more likely to feel a positive sense of accomplishment, which can increase their motivation to return to school. For example, after a period of absence, a realistic first goal might be to attend one class on a Friday morning.

Share the plan among all involved to ensure you are on the same page, and everyone is aware of their role. The plan should be as detailed as possible. To illustrate what an effective plan might look like, let’s return to the case of Henry.

Henry’s aspiration was to return to school full time. However, after a two-week absence, his first, realistic goal was to attend his favourite teacher’s class on a Wednesday morning. His parents helped him to develop a ‘return-to-school’ plan with input from his psychologist and the coordinator for his year group at school, Ms Yu. Here is an example entry in his plan:

When putting a return-to-school plan in place for an anxious child, parents often ask us – how hard should we push? Keep in mind that even when school attendance improves, a child’s anxiety is likely to increase or persist for some time because they are confronting their fears. This is why the recommended approach to overcoming anxiety is facing fears gradually, with appropriate support – even though this is daunting. It is important for you to show your child that you are confident in their ability to face their fears.

So, to work up to full-time attendance, each day in Henry’s plan included an achievable extra step towards increased attendance. For example, staying for recess, or for one more class. If one step was especially difficult, that step was repeated. Back-up plans remained in place so Henry and his family knew what to do on hard days. Henry’s parents continued to remind him that each step in the plan was helping him work towards his ultimate goal, and that they knew he could do it.

Although there are no perfect solutions, and things may not work out as you hoped, don’t give up – there will always be other strategies or approaches to try. No matter how things play out, building good school-family partnerships is an important part of any response to school reluctance or refusal. Keeping lines of communication open, regular and respectful, and taking things one (realistic) step at a time, will likely pay off.

If, despite your best efforts, you feel like you’re at a dead end, continue to show your child that you still care for them and love them. Have your normal everyday conversations with them. Create ongoing opportunities for connection, achievement and fun.

If your child continues to struggle attending school, you might experience feelings of distress, guilt and judgment. If this is you, know that you are not alone. It’s important to take care of yourself, and not blame yourself. As we mentioned earlier, there are many factors that can interact and contribute to a child’s school reluctance or refusal. Your connection with them just happens to be one of the most powerful tools you have in supporting them to overcome any difficulty they might face.

Key points – How to help a child who can’t face school

  1. School reluctance and school refusal are often misunderstood. School reluctance is when a child doesn’t want to go to school, but is attending. School refusal is when a child has difficulties attending and/or remaining at school due to emotional distress about being at school. Some people prefer other terms than school refusal (eg, school avoidance), because ‘refusal’ can imply child-motivated defiance when in fact many factors are likely at play.
  2. It is important to address school reluctance or refusal. Doing what you can to support your child’s school engagement can minimise potential negative consequences of not attending, such as missing out on education and friendships, and an increased risk of mental health problems.
  3. Understand the cycle of anxiety and avoidance. Avoiding school can alleviate a child’s anxiety in the short term, but longer term it is likely to reduce their confidence and make them even more anxious about attending school.
  4. Look beneath the surface. Children’s protests and absences are just the tip of the iceberg. The first step toward helping them is to consider the various factors contributing to their difficulties, including any personal difficulties, problems at school and challenges affecting family life.
  5. Talk with your child and listen to them. As soon as you notice your child is finding it difficult to go to school, try to talk with them about what they think the reasons are. Really listen, and don’t rush into problem-solving.
  6. Decide on the best schooling option for your child. Once you’ve spent time identifying the factors contributing to your child’s difficulties, then consider the best schooling option for your child. This might involve exploring alternative learning pathways or settings. Have these discussions with your child, their teachers and any other relevant professionals, bearing in mind the possibility of their difficulties carrying over to other settings.
  7. Work as a team to address underlying causes of your child’s school reluctance or refusal. Once you have a clear shared understanding of the reasons your child is reluctant or refusing to attend school, it’s important that you, your child, school staff and any health professionals involved work to address these collaboratively.
  8. Make a plan to work towards your child’s attendance goals. Once you’ve made some progress addressing the issues that underly your child’s attendance difficulties, a next step is to create a plan to support their return to school, or to increase their attendance (in line with their goals).

Learn more

Supporting your child on school mornings

School mornings can be a time of high distress for children and teenagers with school reluctance or refusal problems. This is when their anxiety about attending school can reach its peak intensity. It can be helpful to talk with your child about how you can best support them at these times. Here are some specific supportive strategies you can try at home:

  • Help them to develop a simple schedule for school mornings. Include key times when they need to have things done, especially if they tend to become distracted or lose track of time.
  • Reduce morning conflict by discussing with your child how they would prefer to be woken in the morning (eg, alarm, opening blinds).
  • Include in the morning schedule things that they find calming (eg, taking a shower, drawing, walking to school with friends, meeting a trusted staff member at the gate).
  • Help them to develop a routine to help them get a good night’s sleep, in preparation for school the next day.

Here are some strategies that involve school staff:

  • Discuss how your child would like to arrive at school. For example, by having a staff member meet them at the gate, or in the office.
  • With your child’s knowledge, ensure their teachers are aware of the day they plan to return if they’ve been away. Encourage teachers to take a calm, ‘no fuss’ approach when your child arrives in class.
  • Be aware of and support your child to use agreed-upon at-school measures to manage any distress they experience (eg, drawing or reading, going to the library), with support from their teachers.

Build a school-like structure into days spent at home

If your child is not attending school, there are things you can do at home to help them progress towards attendance. Make it clear to your child that these arrangements are intended to lead up to them returning to school or education. These include:

  • Maintaining a consistent routine at home that resembles a regular school week.
  • Setting a small amount of schoolwork or school-like work for your child to complete at home, during school hours.
  • Having someone available to support your child to complete schoolwork at home, during school hours, where possible.

Links & books

The recommendations in this Guide are based on the consensus of international experts who have supported many families facing the issue of school refusal. The full list of recommendations can be found in ‘Responding to School Reluctance or Refusal: Strategies for Parents’: a set of evidence-based parenting guidelines our team recently published to support parents of primary and secondary school-aged children who are struggling with school attendance.

In the episode ‘It’s Not a Choice’ (2023) of the Talking Teaching podcast, you can hear Australian clinicians and researchers discuss the complexities of school refusal, the challenges associated with its measurement, and practical insights into its intervention. This resource is primarily aimed at school teachers.

In this podcast produced by the School Avoidance Alliance, you can hear a parent and a clinical social worker in conversation about how parents can support their child to re-engage with school, and how to form strong school-family partnerships to this end.

The short videos ‘School Refusal Factors’ (2022) and ‘School Refusal Cycle’ (2022) available on Vimeo (free site registration required) provide helpful information relevant to school refusal, and illustrate some of the strategies recommended in this Guide.

The book Getting Your Child Back to School: A Parent’s Guide to Solving School Attendance Problems by Christopher A Kearney (rev ed, 2021) contains a collection of accessible and evidence-based strategies for parents struggling with school attendance problems in children of all ages.

The book You and Your Anxious Child: Free Your Child from Fears and Worries and Create a Joyful Family Life (2013), written by an industry-leading expert in child anxiety, Anne-Marie Albano, and the health writer Leslie Pepper, is a guide for parents to help children of all ages face their fears. Although it’s about parenting an anxious child in general rather than specific to school reluctance or refusal, it covers various topics that may be relevant to you.





8 November 2023