Saturday, February 25, 2017

School Refusal - The New Epidemic?

In 1998 I worked on a campsite in the USA. It was an amazing experience, living with a bunch of children for a week or two at a time. The camp site held around 200 children. There was one particularly memorable camp when around 25% of our children came to camp with Ritalin, a medication used for managing the behaviours associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I remember all the Camp Counsellors being surprised by how many children had been given this diagnosis and were subsequently medicated. I can assure you it was quite an action-packed camp with so many dynamic children gathered together in one place. This camp also coincided with a tornado warning, so we had 200 kids running wildly around the campsite in fear of being blown away.....Good Times!

When I commenced teaching in 2000, it was common to have one or two students in a class who had been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD. We were sent to Professional Development sessions to assist us in developing strategies to meet the needs of our students. I must admit, it took me several years to figure out that every student is different and no one strategy would be the 'educational answer' for the needs of our diverse student population. 

Toward the mid 2000's, we were hearing more about children who had been diagnosed as being on 'The Spectrum.' The term was used to encompass a condition many would know as Aspergers Syndrome or Autism. The impact of condition upon children is many and varied. Once again we were sent off to Professional Development seminars to understand what school is like from the perspective of a student on the Autism Spectrum. 

Whereas ADHD seminars were about containing and entertaining the student. Spectrum seminars were more about providing a predictable, calm environment for students so that they were able to learn without distraction or distress.

In 2017, our schools have a small representation of students who have been diagnosed with ADHD and a significantly larger representation of student who have been diagnosed somewhere along the Autism Spectrum. However, we are now seeing a new condition impacting a growing number of students in our schools. The student known as 'The School Refuser.


Every parent has days when their child just doesn't want to go to school. Maybe they're sick, it's school athletics day, they have an exam or a school project due that day. The parent decides whether to push their child to go to school or to let them stay home. For most parents, regardless of their decision, their child will happily rock up to school the next day and carry on with their school life without a problem.

However, some children find it hard to return to school after an absence. Some may argue that the child is 'taking advantage of their parents' by conning them into having more time off, but this is rarely the case. For many families, school refusal has become a huge challenge and one that we must work together to combat. 


The original reasons for missing school are be many and varied. Some reasons could be
  • illness
  • avoidance of a subject due to incomplete work 
  • fear of a teacher
  • fear of other students 
  • fear of becoming unwell at school
  • mental health issues e.g. depression, anorexia
  • Post traumatic stress disorder - induced by a factor either within or outside of school
The list is endless. 

What is common to all these situations is that having missed a few days of school, the student has found themselves in a position where the thought of returning to school is overwhelming. This is not a case of a child being stubborn and 'putting one over mum and dad'. Rather, the student is so fearful of attending school that they physically and mentally cannot go through the motions of 'going to school'. Unless the parent physically forces their child into a vehicle and drags them to their classroom, there is actually nothing a parent can do to at that moment to get their child to attend school.

What is needed is a long term approach. You cannot get a student who is refusing to go to school to suddenly 'cheer up' and jump on the school bus. Instead, the family need to gather people around them that will work alongside them to identify the factors that are causing this student to be fearful of school. Having identified those factors the student needs to be provided with the educational, physical, emotional and psychological support to take control of their fears of school. This takes time, patience, insight and a bit of trial and error. 

It isn't a matter of just sending teachers off to a Professional Development session to learn how to cater to the needs of a 'School Refuser'. Instead, we all need to be watchful of how the young people around us are coping with school. Listen out for any indication that they are finding school difficult and be quick to offer support before they become overwhelmed and fearful of the 'school experience'.

If you suspect your child may be developing a fear of school that is beyond what is 'normal' for a young person, take the following steps.

1) Encourage your child to talk about the highs and lows of their school day. Give them your full attention. Don't ever tell them that they are being silly or that they are 'just imaging it'. If your child is worried about school, then there is something causing it. Hopefully, just debriefing about school is all your child needs to do to stay motivated and happy with attending school.

2) Speak to your child's teachers. Ask them if they have noticed anything about your child. Let them know what you have observed and see if there are accommodations that can be made to make school less stressful for your child.

3) Speak to your family doctor about any possible medical or psychological causes for your child's distress. Doctors can also provide medical certificates to vouch for the genuine need for your child to have time off school whilst they lower their anxiety levels.

4) Look for other trusted adults who can support your child with their schooling. Exploring All Options provides this service. We sit down with students and chat about how things are going at school and then carefully address subject areas that have homework and assignments due. By working alongside a trusted adult that is not a parent, students can remain on top of their work, thus reducing the likelihood of refusing school due to incomplete work. 

5) If your child is refusing to go to school despite employing all the above options, seek out the help of a support worker who can spend significant time with your child addressing the issues that led to their school refusal. The end goal is to see your child returning to school with the support and strategies in place to keep them attending school.

Next time you hear about a student who is 'refusing to go to school', don't be hasty to judge the child or their parents. Instead, offer the family your time and support to get them through this difficult period.

If you are concerned that your child may be developing school refusal tendencies, call me on 0425 792 189 for a FREE chat. Sometimes we need to Explore All Options to ensure the best outcome for our children.  

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