School refusal

I don't want to go!

It takes a team effort to get a reluctant child back to school, writes Will Brodie.

A scooter, a cute dog, and a drone. These are just some of the tools of trade used at Bayside School Refusal Clinic in Melbourne by family therapist John Chellew as he battles the rising incidence of school refusal.

His ‘walk and talk’ outdoor sessions aim to engage kids in activities they enjoy so they feel more comfortable discussing why they’re anxious about attending school.

Up to 30 percent of students experience school refusal at some time in their education, but Chellew says the incidence of refusal has tripled since pandemic lockdowns. In 2021, Monash Health’s Associate Professor Michael Gordon reported a 40 percent increase in referrals.

School refusal is not ‘wagging’ or truancy. Rather, it’s non-attendance related to worry or anxiety about going to school.

“Students who refuse to go to school don’t typically engage in the antisocial behaviours usually linked with truancy (such as lying, stealing or destruction of property),” Dr Gordon says. “Unlike truancy, the absence isn’t usually hidden from family. In fact, families may have attempted many strategies to reduce the child or young person’s anxiety to help them attend school.”

School refusal is not a formal psychiatric diagnosis, it’s a title for an emotional and/or behaviour problem. However, there can be serious mental conditions underlying refusal, which must be assessed when return to school planning is considered.

Refusal can jeopardise a student’s relationships, create conflict within families, and even affect income if parents or carers are forced to stay home with a child. They have been associated with mental health problems, relationship issues, and unemployment later in life.

Most advice on the topic understandably focuses on parents, but schools and teachers are a crucial part of dealing with school refusal. It takes a team effort to get a reluctant student back to the classroom.

Signs of school refusal

If a student has missed school two or three times over a two-week period, they could be developing a pattern of school refusal. Dr Gordon suggests if a child misses class six times, it should automatically trigger a follow-up from school.

Dr Kathleen Tait, Associate Professor at Macquarie School of Education, says changes in non-verbal behaviours of students can denote possible issues. Increased fidgeting, avoidance of eye contact, wriggling restlessly, and asking to go to the toilet more often than usual are all potential pointers to a child struggling with anxiety and at risk of school refusal.

She suggests teachers have a quiet one-on-one chatwith students who sit by themselves during break times.They can also install a ‘Friday Fun Day’ where students can bring their favourite toy if they are ‘brave’ and attend throughout the week.

Parents or teachers who notice the following behaviours need to meet to discuss the child’s issues:

  • tearfulness before school or repeated pleas to stay at home resulting in frequent lateness or absences
  • tantrums, clinginess, dawdling or running away before school or during drop off
  • frequent complaints of illness before or during school such as stomach aches, headaches, dizziness, or fatigue
  • difficulty attending school after weekends, holidays, school camps or sports days
  • long periods spent in sick bay or in the principal’s office.
At home, such children might:
  • cry, throw tantrums, yell, or scream
  • hide or lock themselves in their room
  • refuse to move
  • beg or plead not to go
  • complain of aches, pains, and illness before school, which generally get better if you let your child stay at home
  • show high levels of anxiety
  • have trouble sleeping
  • threaten to hurt themselves.
Students don’t typically engage in the antisocial behaviours usually linked with truancy.

School refusal is most prevalent when a child faces transition or disruption such as:

  • family and peer conflict
  • starting or changing schools
  • moving home
  • bullying or teasing
  • problems with a teacher
  • poor school results.

Chellew says refusal happens most among intelligent students who are “sensitive, creative, shy, introverted, and risk-averse”. The difficulty for parents and teachers is that many kids who can’t adequately express or understand their anxieties act out – their behaviour does their talking for them.

What can teachers do?

If mental health issues have been ruled out, parents, school and teachers should convene to organise a return-to-school plan. It is suggested that the adults meet first, then the student should be involved and consulted throughout subsequent meetings.

Educational and Developmental Psychologist Kelly-Ann Allen says if the student has missed a lot of school days, the process might be gradual, with the student returning to class for small increments of time then lengthening their time spent in the classroom.

“The plan should include strategies that outline what will happen if the young person starts to feel stressed at school to help them feel secure and safe, like taking brain breaks or meeting with the wellbeing team,” Allen says.

She says “consistent collaboration between parents or primary caregivers, the school, and external professionals” is effective in addressing school refusal.

Once you have a clear idea of the return-to-school timeline, the family can begin to ‘mirror’ old school day routines by establishing standard school wake-up times, mealtimes and sleep schedules. Younger children can benefit from refamiliarising walks around the school perimeter and along their former route to school.

Advice for parents

According to, the best way to get your child back to school is by working as a team with your child’s school. It’s a good idea to start by talking with your child’s classroom teacher, home-room teacher, or year coordinator.

Here are some things you could cover:

  • Explain what’s going on for your child and why your child is refusing to go to school – for example, bullying, learning difficulties and mental health problems.
  • If your child is experiencing bullying, talk about how this is affecting your child. You could ask the school about their strategies to manage and prevent bullying.
  • Ask whether other support staff, like the student welfare coordinator, school psychologist or counsellor, can help your child. Ask whether you can have regular updates on your child’s progress and support needs.
  • If your child has a learning difficulty that makes it hard for them to enjoy learning, ask what support the school can offer.
  • If your child needs ongoing support to stay engaged in school, ask the school about forming an attendance support group.
  • Talk with the school about a gradual start back at school for your child. For example, your child might be able to start with a shorter school day or with their favourite subjects and build up from there.

Chellew says parents and teachers dealing with school refusal need to be ‘detectives’, because it’s tough for kids to understand and communicate their issues and there’s a different solution for every child. He suggests making the child feel they are the “captain of their team”, and parents, teachers, psychologists, and counsellors are fellow team members there to support them.

And it doesn’t hurt to have some toys and a cute therapy dog on that team.