In recent years, Australia has seen a concerning rise in the phenomenon of school refusal, with an increasing number of students struggling to attend school due to anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges.
School refusal – when a child experiences severe emotional distress and anxiety, leading to persistent resistance or refusal to attend school – presents educators with yet another complex youth mental health issue to navigate.
Frustratingly for principals, teachers and support staff, the lack of reliable data about this phenomenon makes it hard for schools to measure, and subsequently, respond to.
However, leading youth mental health organisation ReachOut has been monitoring school refusal closely, and has been working with schools and families to help children re-engage with their learning.
Below, Linda Williams, clinical lead at ReachOut, tells The Educator about the different signs and underlying causes of school refusal, and shares some strategies on how teachers and principals can respond.
TE: I understand that ReachOut has observed a “considerable” increase in demand for support from parents and carers for school refusal since May 2020. Can you tell us about the latest data on students’ school refusal and its implications for Australian schools?
ReachOut’s key school refusal resource more than doubled in 2022, compared to 2021, and remain very high. Education issues and school refusal are among the most discussed issues within ReachOut’s Parents Forum. School refusal is different to regular truancy. It stems from a student’s belief that they won’t be able to cope with attending school and is accompanied by emotional distress and anxiety. If a young person is refusing to attend school it can impact their social development, mental health and wellbeing and academic progress. In Australia there are legal requirements around school attendance. We encourage families and schools to keep communication open and work together.
TE: What are the different signs and underlying causes of school refusal?
The most common signs to look out for are high levels of absenteeism and frequent lateness. These will likely be without explanation or justification. Absenteeism or lateness might occur after weekends, holidays, school camps or holidays. Or they might occur on significant days such as days with tests or speeches, sports events or when a certain class is timetabled. If a student is regularly requesting to go to the sick bay, or to go home from school they might also be struggling with school-related anxiety. The reasons for school refusal are complex and will vary depending on the student. It could be driven by a trigger event, such as parental separation or divorce, or the death of a loved one. Or it could be a result of a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression. School refusal might stem from experiences at school. These could include peer issues such as bullying or social isolation, conflict with educators, academic problems or learning difficulties and anxiety around performance.
TE: Can you share some strategies on how school leaders can address this issue?
Engage with the family to try and gain a deeper understanding of what might be happening with the student. These initial conversations with both the student and family can be difficult. The NSW Government and ReachOut have some practical conversation resources to help you prepare and feel more confident about handling these situations. Once you have identified the underlying cause for school refusal, work with relevant support services to get advice on the types of support and strategies the student might need. You might consult your wellbeing team, learning support team, pastoral care team or external sources of support such as professionals in the wider community. It’s important to keep in mind that each student’s experience with school refusal is unique. Collaborating with the student, family and other support services will help you come up with a school return plan that works for the individual student’s needs. The plan might involve gradual return to school or a flexible learning program. Once the plan is in place it is important to keep up the contact with the student and the family. Regularly check in to ensure the plan is still working for your student and to keep the family updated on progress. Managing school refusal can be a challenging and emotional experience for everyone involved, including educators. Don’t forget to prioritize your self-care during this time. You will be better equipped to support your students and their families if you’re looking after your own mental health and wellbeing. If you are having a difficult time dealing with school refusal, know you are not alone. Have a chat with a colleague, GP or local health service if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Alternatively, if your school has an employee assistance program (EAP) make use of the support on offer.