Encourage a child who refuses to come to school back

October 11, 2011

The beginning of a new term can provoke anxiety for some children. Some children will cope with this anxiety by refusing to go to school.

When a significant number of school absences occur that are not related to illness, this may be described as ‘school refusal’. School refusal is a more serious condition than separation anxiety and usually involves the child staying at home, with the parents’ knowledge, but against their wishes. 

The reasons children refuse to attend school are often complex and may be due to a combination of factors, rather than one single issue. These factors may include academic problems; teacher, friendship or relationship concerns; or issues at home.

It is important that parents are contacted to inquire why a child is absent if they have been away for two or more days or have been absent frequently.

If a child refuses to come to school:

Respond to the absence immediately.

Meet with the parents and if possible the child at school. Involve a senior staff member and the school psychologist if available. Discuss possible causes of the child’s anxiety and brainstorm solutions.

Formulate an attendance planThe plan might: 

  • Encourage a gradual re-entry and reintegration to the school environment.
  • Consider a shorter school day for a set period.
  • Start the day with an activity enjoyed by the child.
  • Arrange for a caring peer to greet and to socialise with the child.
  • Use rewards and privileges for attendance, for example, extra reading or computer time, special leisure time activities with parents after school or on the weekend.
  • Obtain a commitment by all involved to follow the plan to help the child to attend school regularly. 
  • Reschedule a follow up meeting to check progress and to provide feedback.

School refusal is most successfully treated if addressed early. The longer the child remains away from school, the greater their anxiety can become and the more difficult it will be for them to return to school. Involvement with one or both parents, a school psychologist or social worker and other school personnel is essential for successful treatment.

For the secondary-school refuser who has a long history of staying at home, referral to a multidisciplinary mental health program or team may be required.

For more information on working with a child who refuses to come to school (school refusal) click here.