School refusal (revised)

The following is an excerpt from the ebooklet Working with children who school refuse (revised) by Murray Evely and Zoe Ganim.

Other types of poor school attendance

School refusal is different from a range of other attendance problems. For example,

Truancy

Parents of the school refuser generally know their child is not at school, while those of a child who truants may not. The child who truants avoids school because they want to engage in activities, often antisocial in nature, that are typically outside both school and home. The school refuser often wants to be at school but cannot summon the courage to go, often due to feelings of dread.

School withdrawal

School refusal is also different from school withdrawal, where a parent or parents either condone or collude with the child to stay home. For example, to keep a parent company, for extended family holidays, for caregiving duties, interpreting, or visiting friends and relatives. Parents who either allow or encourage their child or children to be at home may be experiencing loneliness, parenting difficulties, mental health conditions and/or poor attitudes to education.

School non-attendance

School non-attendance is when a student simply stays at home instead of going to school. This may be because parents don’t reinforce the need to be at school or the student finds home more comfortable than school because they are involved in recreational activities such as watching television, playing video games, riding bikes, or playing. Non-attendance may occur with or without parent knowledge and it tends to be irregular or spasmodic.

Students who are disconnected and not enrolled

This group of children are detached from schooling and unaccounted for within education enrolment systems. They are not considered to be school refusers. Estimates indicate that conservatively 50,000 school-aged Australian children are not just absent from school but are educationally disconnected and not enrolled in a school [5] Watterston, J., and O’Connell, M (2019) Those who disappear: The Australian education problem nobody wants to talk about’ … Continue reading. A range of personal circumstances and school factors can contribute to this disengagement, such as homelessness, poor mental health, family dysfunction, bullying, disability and discrimination, or school exclusion due to misbehaviour or poor academic achievement. [6]Ibid

School exclusion

Anecdotal evidence suggests exclusionary practices are used in some schools to deal with problem behaviour. At present, little is known about such practices at a national level. An audit of policies and practices of suspensions and expulsions across Australian schools in 2019 found a disproportionate number of vulnerable children; indigenous, male and students with disabilities were excluded [7]University of South Australia. (2020) Schools unfairly targeting vulnerable children with exclusion policies. … Continue reading . School exclusion is currently being further investigated by the University of South Australia to help schools better understand and manage challenging behaviours. [8]University of South Australia. (2019) School Exclusions Study: Exclusionary policies and practices in Australian schools and the impact they have on … Continue reading

Often attendance related issues overlap, so it is important to identify school refusal as early as possible.

Typical school refusal behaviours

Children who school refuse may exhibit the following signs:

  • 50 per cent or less school attendance during the past month, despite follow up from school
  • Crying, being withdrawn or distressed at drop-off
  • Increase in stomach-aches, dizziness, headaches, and/or other physical complaints
  • Lack of friends, social isolation or withdrawal from peer activities
  • Decreased participation in class activities
  • Nervousness
  • Difficulty concentrating or remaining on task.

Early warning signs

Warning signs of school refusal may appear very gradually. At home, the symptoms can escalate at night but diminish once the child is sure they don’t have to go to school the next day. These signs include:

  • Regularly late to school
  • Pattern of absences on significant days
  • Tiredness
  • Complaints about students and teachers
  • Being disinterested in school life in general
  • Loneliness and/or reporting teasing at school
  • Having difficulty with schoolwork, giving up, appearing not to care
  • Failure to meet school-based deadlines
  • Mood swings, anxiety, tearfulness, irritability, loss of energy, becoming withdrawn
  • Excessive worry about a parent while at school
  • Exhibits strong emotions if forced to go to school
  • Over-reacts when asked to explain situations
  • Threats of self-harm.

Signs of school refusal at home

If a child refuses to go to school, parents might feel that school nights and mornings are a ‘battle of wills.’  The child may:

  • Have difficulty getting out of bed
  • Complain of aches, pains or illness the night before or on a school morning, but recover after a short time, if allowed to stay at home
  • Cry, throw tantrums, yell or scream
  • Beg or plead not to go to school, refuse to leave the house for school, refuse to leave the car on school arrival
  • Hide or lock themselves in their bedroom or another room
  • Refuse to leave their bedroom and want to eat all meals in their bedroom
  • Stop showering, cleaning teeth and attending to personal hygiene
  • Show high levels of anxiety and distress
  • Have trouble sleeping
  • Threaten to hurt themselves.

Caution

School refusal is most successfully treated if identified and 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 psychologist and often a social worker, and other school personnel is essential for successful re-engagement.

School refusal can occur in the context of child safety and child protection concerns. If after a carefully planned intervention, a regular attendance pattern has not been achieved after several weeks, and the child’s safety or wellbeing is a concern, or is unknown despite attempts to check on the child’s wellbeing via parents/carers, then an immediate notification to the government department overseeing child protection should be made. All parties should be consulted, the attendance plan modified or reviewed, and additional external support sought from appropriate agencies and mental health service providers. [9]NSW Ministry of Health, School Refusal – Every school day counts. … Continue reading

The chronic school refuser and many secondary school refusers will have a long history of staying at home and referral to a multidisciplinary mental health program or team may be required. It should be noted that some mental health agencies don’t offer an outreach service which can place further strains on engaging and assessing the needs of the school refuser. In a small number of cases extensive one-to-one mental health support may be required.

Without treatment and support, there is increased risk of escalating mental health issues and significant problems with social skills, and the skills required for independence in daily living and occupational difficulties in later adolescence and adulthood.

ISBN 978-1-921908-51-4

Copyright © Murray Evely and Zoe Ganim 2022

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