You can’t fix school refusal with ‘tough love’ but these steps might help


School attendance levels in Australia are a massive issue according to Education Minister Jason Clare.

As he told reporters last week, he hopes to talk to state colleagues about the issue at a meeting later this month.
There’s evidence that school attendance rates have been dropping now for ten years, and we see it amongst boys and girls, we see it in every year from kindergarten right through to the end of school./em>
Clare’s comments come on the top of a growing concern about school refusal. A Senate inquiry is due to report on the issue next month. Submissions from teachers and parent groups describe an alarming trend that has been exacerbated by COVID.

Victorian shadow minister for education Matthew Bach – a former teacher – suggests it is up to parents, not governments, to fix this:
What the growing number of children who refuse to attend school need most is tough love. Going to school must simply be non-negotiable./em>
But will tough love help, let alone work? How can we support children who are struggling to attend school?

How many students are refusing to attend school?

School refusal is not truancy. It happens when children or adolescents regularly refuse to attend school or experience significant distress when faced with the prospect of going to school.

The rates of school refusal vary widely depending on factors such as age, cultural background, socioeconomic status, and mental health.

Estimates of school refusal vary, with higher rates observed in certain groups, such as those with anxiety disorders. In Victoria, the rate of school refusal grew by 50% between 2018 and 2021 to about 2% of those in state schools. Our previous research has shown some young people’s resilience decreased during COVID. This may have contributed to disengagement with going to school.

The consequences of school refusal can be serious. As well as impacting their academic progress and education, it can negatively impact the development of some social skills or place strain on their mental health and family relationships.

Why do some kids refuse to go to school?

The reasons why children and young people may refuse to go to school are complex. And may be related to:

  • learning difficulties: some children struggle with the academic side of school, which may lead to feelings of frustration or a lack of motivation
  • social anxiety: some children may be fearful of social situations, which can cause them to avoid school
  • mental health issues: children who are dealing with depression, anxiety, or other mental health problems may have trouble getting to school
  • family problems: issues at home such as divorce, financial problems, or trauma can affect a child’s emotional wellbeing and willingness to go to school
  • negative school experiences: children who have had negative experiences such as bullying, may be less likely to attend school.

Why tough love does not work

It seems simple: just force your child to go to school. However, research shows an authoritarian approach can have negative impacts on children who are refusing school.

If children are forced or punished because of school refusal, they can develop low self-esteem, a lack of independence and difficulty forming healthy relationships. They are at increased risk of anxiety and depression, and can experience challenges expressing emotions and communicating effectively.

Often children can feel a sense of hopelessness. They may feel ashamed or embarrassed about missing school. So, they are in a vulnerable and challenging situation, and need to feel like they are being listened to and supported.

When they are extremely fearful and stressed, forcing children to attend school is not helpful. Arguably it is also not possible for older children who can be a lot more independent.

What can parents do?

If a child is refusing to go to school, it’s important for parents and educators to address it in a supportive way that does not punish the child.

They need to work together to find a solution that works for the child. For example, sometimes home schooling or online schooling can help for a period of time.

Each child and family will be different but it is important, in the first instance to identify the reason why a child is not going to school. This can involve talking to the child, observing the triggers of their behaviour, and talking to teachers or other professionals like a GP or psychologist.

Then, some other steps may include:

  • develop a plan together: once the reason for the refusal is understood, parents can work with the child and school to develop a plan. This may involve working on academic skills, seeking counselling, or making changes to the school environment and routine.
  • be responsive and supportive: children who are experiencing school refusal may be feeling anxious, stressed, or overwhelmed. Parents can provide emotional support and encouragement to help the child feel more confident and comfortable with attending school.
  • encourage positive relationships: helping your child to form positive relationships with peers and teachers can help them feel more connected to the school community and more motivated to attend.
  • seek further professional help: if a child’s refusal to attend school is severe and persistent, mental health professionals can help.

It’s important to approach refusal in a collaborative and responsive way, with the child’s wellbeing as the priority. Clear communication and common goals between the school, parents and the child are essential.

Does it matter how old a child is?

Responses to school refusal can differ between younger children and adolescents.

For those in primary school, the focus may be more on identifying the cause and addressing any early learning difficulties or behavioural issues that may be present. Parents can work with teachers to create a positive and supportive school environment, and can provide additional support at home.

For those in high school, the approach could focus on addressing any underlying mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression or look for any learning challenges that may have been missed in the early years. They may be more resistant to parental or teacher intervention, so it may be helpful to involve them in the process and encourage them to suggest solutions that could work for them.

Regardless of the child’s age, it’s important to approach the situation with empathy and understanding, and to work together with the child, school, and other professionals.

Author Bios: Christine Grové is a Fulbright Scholar and Adjunct Senior Lecturer and Alexandra Marinucci is a PhD Candidate, School of Educational Psychology and Counselling both at Monash University