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Understanding and Addressing School Refusal: A Parent’s Guide

As a parent, you’ve probably encountered the challenge of school refusal during your child’s academic journey. It’s a complex issue that can be emotionally taxing for you and your child. In this article, we’ll delve into the reasons behind school refusal, how to spot the signs when your child is struggling, and strategies for responding when your child says, “I don’t want to go to school.”

Understanding the Underlying Causes

Anxiety is a common cause of school refusal. This can be in the form of test anxiety, social anxiety or separation anxiety. It makes the idea of going to school overwhelming for the child.

Bullying at school: If your child has been bullied in school, this is a significant factor that could lead to school refusal. Your child may be reluctant to attend school because of the fear they will face their tormentors.

Academic Challenges: Feeling unprepared for school or having difficulty meeting academic expectations may also lead to refusal.

Physical Health Issues: Children who cannot attend school due to chronic health issues, illnesses, or physical discomfort may find it challenging to do so.

School refusal can be caused by emotional factors such as grief, trauma or family issues. When your child is dealing with emotional turmoil, it may be difficult for them to concentrate on school. 

How to Identify School Struggles

Recognising the signs of your child’s struggles at school and if they are experiencing school refusal is essential.

Watch out for these signs:

  • Especially on school mornings, there are frequent complaints about physical ailments such as stomachaches or headaches.
  • Sleep patterns that are altered; including difficulty falling asleep or frequent nightmares.
  • When the school subject is brought up, there may be emotional outbursts or mood swings.
  • Sudden decline in academic performance or a sudden lack of interest in school-related activities.
  • Social withdrawal, loss or change in peer relationships.
  • Avoiding conversations with friends or talking about school can be a sign of resistance.
  • Demands for excessive reassurance, such as asking for parental approval constantly or requesting “sick leave” to stay at home. 

What to do when your child refuses school

It’s essential to show patience, empathy and support when your child refuses to go to school.

Open communication: Provide a space where your child can express their feelings without being judged. Asking open-ended questions will help you understand your child’s concerns and feelings.

Validate their feelings: Let them know it is okay to be anxious or worried. Empathise with their struggles.

Collaboration with the School: Maintain close communication with school staff and teachers to identify any academic or social issues contributing to your child refusing to attend school.

Consult a Professional: If the school refusal continues or there are underlying mental health issues, you may want to consult a therapist or counsellor.

Gradual exposure: Create a plan that will gradually ease your child into school. Start by reducing the number of school days, or limiting attendance. Gradually increase time spent in school.

Positive reinforcement: Praise and encourage your child for his or her efforts to attend school, no matter how small. Consider using a rewards system to motivate your child.

Report bullying: If bullying is at the root of the problem, you should report it to your child’s school and work with the educators to ensure their safety.

What to Say to Your Child

You hear: I don’t want to go.

You think: Your child is not taking school seriously.

Reality: Children usually have a reason for their actions. You may have noticed that your child is struggling in school. This can be a recent problem or a long-standing one.

Response: “I’m wondering if you would like to stay home because school isn’t going well.” Let’s discuss what is most difficult when you arrive home. We can then figure out ways to improve it.


You hear: I’m too tired.

You think: Your child sleeps enough, so it’s not an excuse.

Reality: School is mentally and emotionally draining, particularly if your child faces academic or social challenges. Stress can cause fatigue.

Response: I’m surprised you are tired, as you have slept enough. What’s draining you of energy?


You hear: “I hate school.”

you think: Your child is acting out of proportion.

Reality: Negative school experiences and difficulties can hurt the whole experience.

Response: “I understand there are some aspects of school that you don’t enjoy, but is there anything in particular that makes you so unhappy that you want to stay home?”


You hear: “The children are cruel.”

You think: If your child has friends, then it’s not that bad.

Reality: Children can be bullied without their parents knowing.

Response: “I’m sorry that children are unkind. What is the situation? Can I talk with your teacher about a possible plan?


You hear: School’s too hard.

You think: Your child is avoiding work.

Reality: School is challenging for many reasons. Some children feel overwhelmed by the demands of school or cannot achieve their goals.

Response: You are having some difficulties with school right now. What has been the most challenging aspect of school recently?


You hear: “I forgot to do my homework again.”

You think: Your child has irresponsible behaviour.

Reality: Even if children do their best, time management and organisation may be challenging.

Response: Staying on top of work is a difficult task. Would you like some help? “Let’s look at strategies together.”


Parents can find it challenging to deal with their child’s school refusal. By understanding the reasons for school refusal, recognising signs of difficulty, and responding to your child with empathy and appropriate intervention, you can help them overcome it and foster a healthy relationship with education. It is essential to seek professional help to ensure your child’s academic success and well-being.

If you’re looking for a tool to support your child and help them conquer anxiety and overcome fear, the Unleash journal may be just what you need. Designed with science-based strategies, Unleash provides practical tools to manage anxiety and create a personalised plan for success.

Learn more about Unleash here.


Want to see what is inside Unleash?

Download a FREE chapter here.

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