School avoidance refers to when a child wants to go to school but feels unable to do so, while school refusal is when a child or young person is able to go to school but simply doesn’t want to do so.
Schooldays are a mix of classroom work, schoolyard fun, activities, sports and even the odd playdate or two. But what if your child is refusing to go to school or won’t stay in school for the entire day?
The terms ‘school refusal’ and ‘school avoidance’ have been used somewhat interchangeably to describe this not uncommon phenomenon but they are different.
School Refusal is the more common of the two where a child insists that they don’t want to go to school anymore – often directly after the summer or Christmas holidays – simply because they prefer their life in holiday mode or don’t like having to go to bed early.
Children may refuse to go to school at any age but it most typically occurs in those between five and seven years of age and 11 and 14 years of age.
Parents of children from the age of six to 16 must ensure that they attend a recognised school or receive a certain minimum education.
However, school life may be too much for some children and they are struggling to cope. Their insistence that they can’t go to school is an attempt to control their own environment.
They may get upset every morning at the thought of going to school, which can result in them missing large parts of the academic year, which can bring a whole new set of problems.
Reasons for school avoidance include:
- Death/divorce/separation – these things can cause a child to want to stay at home with their parent for comfort or safety. For older children, it can lead to a lack of concentration and inability to get their homework completed.
- Individual issues – your child’s unique temperament, their anxiety, coping skills and self-esteem all play a part in how well they navigate school.
- Change – it’s not unusual for a child to want to avoid school if they are in a new class, have a new teacher or are just entering an exam year.
The number of children not going to school has increased over the last couple of years, and experts say that mental health and anxiety problems were exacerbated due to the pandemic.
This emotional distress may manifest itself in fear and panic at the thought of going to school, and so they try to avoid it.
Signs of School Anxiety
- Not wanting to get up and get ready for school
- Daily tears or distress at the thought of going to school
- Complaining of stomach pains or headaches during school term
- Worrying a lot about small issues
- Ignoring homework
- Lack of engagement with school-related situations and people
- Acting out or withdrawing
- Disturbed sleep
Some children may not be sleeping well due to anxiety about going to school. This can exacerbate the situation as they may have little energy and so find it hard to motivate themselves to go to class.
How can parents help?
It is understandable that parents would get worried when their child refuses to go to school or tries to avoid it, but a big row or standoff resulting in a child getting upset at the school gate or being dragged into school is not the answer.
- Don’t increase the pressure on your child as this will only exacerbate the problem.
- Focus on listening to your child and providing emotional support. Find out what are their triggers for school avoidance. Let them know what you can work together to improve the situation and help them feel better.
- It may seem to you that what your child is worried about is minor or unimportant but it is essential to listen to them, hear their concerns, validate them and show that you care.
- It’s important to have open and honest communication with your child’s school. Remember that you’re not alone when it comes to tackling this issue. Letting them know why your child is avoiding or refusing school will guide them in offering support and coping strategies to tackle the underlying issue.