School refusal is when children experience significant distress at the reality of attending school. They usually miss whole days or feel they cannot stay at school for the whole day. School refusal can have a variety of causes such as school bullying, learning difficulties or disliking a certain teacher. It can also be associated with issues such as anxiety and depression. It’s important to remember that school refusal itself is not a diagnosable disorder but rather a symptom of a child’s distress and can manifest in both primary and secondary school. It can happen gradually or suddenly depending on the circumstances in a child’s life.
The signs of school refusal often reflect an all-out war in the mornings. Children can be observed:
• Hiding or locking themselves in their room.
• Yelling, screaming, and crying
• Refusing to get into or out of the car or school bus
• Difficulty sleeping or nightmares about school the night before
• Tummy aches and pains, that dissipate when allowed to stay home
When dealing with school refusal, it’s always helpful to try and gauge the situation from the child’s perspective. Be willing to drop any assumptions about the situation and listen wholeheartedly to the child. In his book the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey (2004) said that “we have such a tendency to rush in, to fix things up with good advice. But we often fail to take time to diagnose, to really, deeply understand the problem first” (p.249). This is such an important point because we often listen to reply instead of listening to understand. Once we understand the problem not only do children feel better, but it also helps open the door to possible solutions.
When children do stay home it’s important to make your home as boring as possible, so school refusal isn’t being positively reinforced. Activities such as watching tv, playing games or using mobile phones should be limited or banned during school hours. Instead, a list of chores could be assigned to them to complete, and schoolwork could be obtained by their teacher to complete whilst at home as well. The aim is to make home the most boring place to be during school hours so that it does not contribute to school refusal.
Whatever the cause of the school refusal is, having the understanding and support of family members is critical in the process of your child returning to school consistently. It is well known that school refusal can be incredibly stressful and taxing for parents to manage. Communicating with the school regularly helps to work together as a team. It may also be beneficial to consider counselling support either at school or externally. If you’re noticing a pattern of behaviour that you’re concerned could develop into school refusal, I’d encourage you to speak to us sooner rather than later.