How to deal with a child’s refusal to attend school

Most children should be settled back into school by now – but what if your child is still in tears at the gates? Educational psychologist Richard Hogan has some advice.

We are now several weeks into the new school term, and for most children the initial negative reaction that ‘back to school’ brings in its wake has dissipated and the family has settled into the new rhythm of school life.

However, there are a growing number of children for whom the notion of going back to school has become a deeply traumatic event.

For parents, confronted with school refusal, it can be a stressful and confusing time as they desperately try to understand what it is their child is going through and what best they can do to help ease their child’s transition back into the school system.

There are many reasons why a child may refuse to attend school. Understanding the behaviour and what it is saying to us is paramount if there is to be a successful outcome.

Some of the reasons for school refusal may be originating within the ecology of the school, such as social and peer related difficulties, learning and curriculum difficulties, notions of perfectionism or difficulties with the physical environment.

Other reasons may be rooted in the family system, such as marital issues, home appearing more attractive than school, attention receiving behaviour or parental inconsistencies.

Early identification and causes of the behaviour are key factors in developing appropriate strategies and interventions that the school, class teachers and parents can adopt. Parents can, at times, feel very ashamed about their child’s opposition to going to school.

However, research shows that the longer a child refuses to attend school the more entrenched the child becomes in the behaviour, which makes breaking the pattern of refusal more problematic for all concerned. So, early intervention is critical.

In my own practice, I met a family who came into therapy because their young adolescent daughter was refusing to go to school.

The urgency the family felt to get their child back into the school system was very much in the room.

If a child misses more than 20 days the school must inform the statutory Educational Welfare Services of the Child and Family Agency.

The parents were cognisant of this and so they were extremely eager to get their daughter back into school before they had to engage with this agency. In one of our conversations, the girl disclosed to me that when she was in school she couldn’t help her parents.

The child felt that if she stayed at home she could prevent her parents from fighting and therefore keep them from separating. However, her school refusal, which was designed to save the family from disintegrating, was in fact placing more pressure on her parents.

She found herself caught in a very complex cycle — that which was designed to elevate parental distress was in fact creating it. When I pointed out this pattern to her, her school refusal ended.

What should parents do?

Parents, in their desperation to solve the issue, can at times further exasperate the problem. For example, recently I came across a mother at the school gate consoling her crying child. I listened as the mother frantically reassured him.

The child’s sobbing only grew worse as each new reassuring word landed in his eardrum. Eventually, the parent turned away with the child and left the school. I could feel her frustration and despair, because I have been there myself with my own daughter.

Mike Tyson once said that ‘everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face’ and when my own child started crying hysterically all the theory I had almost disappeared. However, the way we react in these situations is crucial to a positive outcome. We have to be careful of the way we communicate to our children.

If a child avoids an anxiety provoking situation their anxiety subsides without learning that by staying in that situation the anxiety will eventually decrease of its own accord.

In the situation I just described the parent was telling the child that ‘everything was going to be all right’ but her body language was saying something else and the child was picking up on this inconsistency and it was further increasing the child’s sense of anxiety and fear.

A question I often ask myself when analysing school refusal is ‘what is the underlining feeling here?’ Normally, parents will say ‘fear’ but in many cases it is pleasure — more time with mum, playing computer games more, more attention, family rallying around this behaviour, it seems powerful, I have a voice now.

When I feel that school refusal is pleasure driven, I inform the parents to take all the home rewards away. I instruct them to remove all computer games, TV, phones etc. By making the day as dull as possible, school becomes more attractive.

Nearly every child at some point in their educational career develops feelings of anxiety about their school environment.

While, for most students these feelings dissipate over time; for others students, however, these feelings develop into long-term school refusal.

It is vital that parents communicate with the school when difficulties emerge so that the school and the family are united in an intervention that best suits the child.


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