What every parent needs to know about school refusal

Did that title get your attention? I hope so*. Because the thing about school refusal is that most people don't see it coming. It's diagnosed in retrospect, after a pattern of not going to school has been established. No-one seems to realise that it's affecting your child until it's become a habit.

A habit that can be very very hard to break.

School refusal is also very misunderstood. It's usually lumped in with truancy and often blamed on feckless parenting by "other people" -- see the UK's latest plans to dock benefits from those whose children are not in school -- when in fact it has nothing to do with class, income or parenting style. These assumptions drive the problem underground. It's taboo. No-one talks about it, and if it lands at your door, you may feel like you're entering an alien world where all your ideas about school and education have to be tossed aside. You don't know what's going on, what could happen to your child, or to you.

After it's been identified, every parent wishes they'd had a crystal ball when they first heard the words school refusal. Wishes they'd realised what it really means. Wishes that someone had told them. But they didn't and they don't. I'm not even sure how much training teachers get in this area.

Naming the problem doesn't solve it either: every child is different, there are different causes and different solutions, and it progresses in different ways. Everyone can be lulled into a false sense of security when your child decides to give school another try and attends for days or weeks at a time. Then something happens and they are out again.

When school refusal is caused by anxiety, the anxiety may just latch onto something else. Solve one school problem and your child may simply find another one.

It doesn't just affect anxious children or those with special needs. It can affect any child. One day it might be your child. So please watch out for these warning signs and be aware and push for help if you have any concerns at all.

  • Your child wakes complaining of headaches or tummy aches that may get better with a day off school. Often it is an ailment that has no symptoms, but seems to be real to the child.
  • Your child often feels unwell in school and asks to go home.
  • Crying or meltdowns on school mornings, even physical resistance to going to school.
  • Getting up late for school, and doing less and less in the mornings. Stopping breakfast, teeth cleaning, washing, packing books, anything so that the parent will give up and let them stay home.
  • Taking the day off on sports days, exam days and avoiding other school-related events.
  • Not wanting to go back after holidays and weekends.
  • Leaving homework at school then refusing to go in for fear of getting into trouble.

Of course most children do these things occasionally and that's why the onset of school refusal is so hard to see.

So how do you know when a tummy ache is school refusal and not just an illness?

I'm thinking that part of the answer relates to what happens when you try to sort it out. Obviously if your GP can find nothing wrong, and it gets better with a spoonful of Calpol and some boiled 7UP**  then you probably don't need to worry.

But if one or more of these signs become regular and more frequent over time, then it is worth asking for help from the school, any services that work with your child, and if necessary the local education welfare officer or truancy service. You won't regret it.

Some causes of school refusal need to be tackled immediately, i.e. bullying or other inappropriate behaviour from pupils or staff. But that's a separate issue.

* This post was written by me, based on what I think I know, and is not a substitute for professional advice.

**An Irish cure for most childish ailments that I was advised to use. Recommended to me by other parents and medical professionals.

Further information

How to Tackle School Refusalhttp://www.lookingforbluesky.com/2015/01/how-to-tackle-school-refusal.html

My daughter refused to go to school for five years :  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/children/11078624/My-daughter-refused-to-go-to-school-for-five-years.html#disqus_thread

Emotionally based school refusal : https://www.westsussex.gov.uk/learning/west_sussex_grid_for_learning/management_info__services/inclusion_and_sen/inclusion/inclusion_of_learners_with_soc/emotionally_based_school_refus.aspx#

The roots of school refusal : https://senmagazine.co.uk/articles/articles/senarticles/the-roots-of-school-refusal

Facebook group for School Phobia / School Refusal and Separation Anxiety : https://www.facebook.com/groups/schoolphobiarefusal/

This is Part 2 in a series about school refusal, click on the links below to read the other posts:

Part 1: How to Tackle School Refusal

Part 3: Alternatives to School for Teenagers


  1. Thanks for all the advice, thankfully I don't have to face those issues (yet), but I'm aware that it can happen to any child, so we should try to recognise the signs and act before it's too late (and I thought flat 7up cured everything, not boiled, unless that's the same?!!)

    1. I've heard of flat Sprite or 7 up as a cure for stomach upsets too. Not heard of boiled before.

    2. Yep it is the same: I used to boil it to make it go flat!

  2. School refusal is incredibly tricky and I have deep sympathy for families in this situation. I really don't know how I would approach this problem if it happened in our house. xx

  3. Or you could just make your child go to school. A kid who has been indulged figures out right quick that can get away with doing absolutely nothing.

    My de facto third child is an Aspie (Nephew is my sister's son and the BFF of my youngest), who has pretty much lived with my husband and I for the past three years.

    He goes to school every.single.day.

    He can find something to eat at pretty much any restaurant (it may be French fries or waffles, but he'll eat them anywhere).

    He no longer melts down at the "wrong" kind of waffles or the "right" waffles in the dreaded "wrong" (updated graphics) packaging.

    The world no longer ends if there's a schedule change or if the universe doesn't do his bidding (i.e. Long-promised weekend in Hilton head's off due to the flood of the century).

    Nephew is a sweetheart of a kid, who gets away with NOTHING at my house. He's got a couple friends (in addition to my girl), is in a mainstreamed 3rd grade class, he goes on field trips and to birthday parties... my sister was hostage to his whims, school refusal, moods + hunger strikes. So much if nephew's supposedly intractable "autistic" behaviors were the result of 5 years of having his bad behavior reinforced. He's a million times happier now too -- the hour-long morning meltdown that was getting dressed replaced by "no! Itchy! Blue shirt please", etc.

    I get that autism can lead to isolation + difficult behaviors but it doesn't have to. The tough behaviors are in part how the Aspie kid is raised -- kids have a habit of living up (or down) to expectations.

    Letting your son do what he's doing does him a HUGE disservice. I can't imagine he's happy staying home doing nothing and having no friends.

    (Transitioning Nephew back home hasn't gone so well... my sister is a pushover and he knows it. He reverts back to school refusal + meltdown city after about two weeks home. And is "himself" the second he steps into my home).

    1. I am glad that your nephew has been doing well and great that you were able to find the parenting style that suited him. Here, all my children are happier than they have been for years, and that is what is important to me.

    2. Tough love does not work for everyone. What could be just what a choleric aspie needs might make a melancholic aspie's meltdowns and sensory issues worse due to anxiety. No two people respond exactly the same way to exactly the same circumstances, at least not internally. I am melancholic-choleric; my needs would differ vastly from a sanguine-phlegmatic aspie even though we have the same disorder. For some school refusers, telling them to go to school is like telling a phlegmatic to have intrinsic motivation. Just because it works for you doesn't mean it will work for someone else.

    3. But we need to remember that children with autism or aspergers are not the same albeit they share same triad of impairments. Throw in the comorbities (learning difficulties, ADHD, PDA, mental health issues etc) and age, gender etc and you have a child or young person that will respond differently to different situations. I'm glad your nephew has responded to your approach and managed to return to school but your approach will not necessarily work for all autistic school refusers.

      My autistic son didn't choose to drop out of school. He became so traumatised as a result of a hostile, uncaring environment that he became too ill to attend. If I had made him attend I doubt he would be with us now. There followed a period of rehabilitation which gradually saw him recover enough to attend college and pick up his studies again. He is now in his second year and the happiest I've ever seen him. I now know that my approach of slowly slowly building my son up again was the right one.

      As others have said, school refusal or phobia needs to be treated much more seriously as it can develop into serious mental health difficulties that can threaten life!

      Great post.


    4. @FlutistPride - thank you for your insights.

      @Deb - thanks for sharing your son's story, and I'm so pleased that second year in College is going so well for him :)

  4. Well said Candi. Every child is different. Just because yours isn't miraculously 'cured' doesn't mean you are doing ANYTHING wrong. You are doing a great job!

  5. It always surprises me that more children don't refuse to go to school. having to do the same as 29 other children all day every day, and getting in trouble if you don't is a situation that most people will never encounter again once they leave school unless they choose to join the armed forces.........it can be a very difficult environment for lots of children

    1. So it would seem: but I don't think most people realise that until their family is affected. Thanks so much for your comment.

  6. Brilliant post. Parenting is different for all. I think it's wonderful Kate that your nephew has successfully tackled any school refusal and change issues. But not all children can successfully deal with these things . While on one hand I do agree that we must not let the child away with things and we must push them as far as we can in to attending school etc., I also think that there comes a time to figure out and acknowledge what it is that is causing the school refusal in the first place. If it's caused by anxiety then how does pushing them into an anxious situation work? Is that not akin to telling a person suffering with depression to pull up their socks and get on with it? Or making a person with any kind of phobia face their fears without any understanding or assistance?

    I don't know the answers, I just pose these questions as I think they are worth considering.

    As for the proposed new UK law? Sounds ill thought out to me. There is a big difference between truancy and school refusal. Even with truancy the question would have to be 'why'? What is going on for the child to cause this? One size in this proposed law will NOT fit all and each 'case' should at the very least be considered on their own merits with allowances made for certain situations/conditions. I do hope that it's not brought into law for whatever they do in the UK it's bound to be considered for here too.

    And my last point: This post could also be titled: What Every TEACHER (or Government Minister!) Needs to Know About School Refusal'! xx

    1. Some brilliant points Jazzy, especially comparing school refusal with depression and yes, teachers need to know more about this too xx

  7. So a child refuses to go to school and you can't make them after a certain age (not that you necessarily want to make them), the parent possibly loses thier job if the child cannot be left all day alone. Add a hefty fine on to this and you are paving the way for more poverty and stress rather than finding a solution. Who's job is it in government to think things through and add a dose of intelligence? Those that think all school refusal is just truancy for a lark or lazyness should not be in a position of power over the welfare of our children.

    1. Thanks so much for this comment - I nearly added in something similar, but I thought it would dilute the main message too much.

  8. That's really interesting, thank you.

    Both my kids hate/hated school and as you say those symptoms were often present but - fingers crossed - it hasn't grown. But I have seen it in other children and I wish people would take it more seriously. I was incensed when I heard the news this week about docking child benefit for parents of truanting children. The government have no idea how some children suffer from hating school or, on the other hand, how chaotic some children's lives are - I could rant for hours!!!

    1. Exactly and you should! I can't see how cutting benefits will help the children at all!

  9. I've been through this with my older daughter when she was 12yrs, I worked with the school and tried everything but she was becoming really ill and refusing to eat. Eventually I gave up and she was given two tutors to work with her at home. It's a really difficult situation, and a difficult decision to take them out of school. My daughter, now 25, says I should have made her go to school but seems to have blocked out everything bad that happened. I have every sympathy with any parent that has to deal with this. x
    p.s. when I was ill my mum would give me boiled lemonade...I don't think 7UP was around then ;)

    1. I think that children do sometimes say that you should have "made" me do it - and they don't realise what that truly means, and won't unless they have children of their own and find themselves in a similar situation. I really hope that your daughter is doing well now x

  10. It is a little understood problem and one those who don't understand believe they have solutions for, based on no knowledge just the fact they believe they know.
    I'm really hopeful all in your world can find peace and you can all move forward.
    What an important post this is well done you for sharing and helping to educate those of us with little knowledge of such things. Who knows when this will knock on our door.

    1. Hopefully never, but it's always good to have an idea of these things - I didn't!

  11. What an interesting post. I think this affects far more people that any of us are aware of. One of our friend's sons, who is 13, has starting refusing school. It's very hard to make an older and bigger child go to school. Impossible in fact. A very useful post.

  12. Such an interesting post, which makes me want to delve into your back catalogue and read more but can't right now as have two little monkeys running riot! We are seriously thinking about pulling our 6yo out of school and home educating, at least for the foreseeable future, because school is sucking the life out of her. She copes fine when she is there, but is a nightmare before and after, and quite frankly I can't cope with the impact it has on her younger siblings any longer. She loves learning, and although I know home ed would present challenges, I think the fall out of school has a much bigger and negative impact. Thanks so much for sharing.

    PS - I really admire your reply to Kate Fowler's comment xx

    1. Thank you! And the very best of luck if you do decide to go for home schooling. Knowing what I know now, it's a choice I might have made too x