"I don't want to go to school" How to navigate school refusal

Not every child skips happily off to school. But also, not every child that grumbles about going is experiencing something concerning.

So how can a parent tell when it’s something more serious, and what should we do?

What is school refusal?

School refusal (also known as school anxiety or phobia) is a challenging but common issue. It goes beyond simple reluctance to attend school and often results in significant distress for both the child and their family.

It can present in a variety of ways. You might see behaviours like,

  • Battles getting ready for school.
  • Trouble with entering in the gates.
  • Feeling the need to leave before the school day ends.
  • Or not attending school at all.

Some physical symptoms might be headaches, fatigue and stomach aches. These symptoms can make it hard to get off to school in the morning or make it feel necessary to leave early.

 The research indicates that more than ¼ of all young people will engage in some degree of school refusal during their schooling years, ranging from complaints and threats to avoid school, to missing school for months or even years at a time.

Certain points of development seem to represent ‘peaks’ in school refusal. For example between ages 7-9, and then again when changing to intermediate or high school. A child can have had no issues attending school, and then it comes on seemingly out of the blue.

It can affect any gender, and can lead to academic underachievement, social isolation, and an increased risk of mental health issues.

Why does it happen?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to why a child might refuse to go to school. School refusal can be triggered by a variety of factors, which can include:

1. Anxiety:

Children might experience separation anxiety, social anxiety, or generalised anxiety related to school. Fears of academic failure, bullying, or social interactions can all contribute to this anxiety, particularly as pressure to perform increases. 

2. Bullying:

Experiencing bullying at school can be a traumatic experience. If a child feels unsafe or threatened, it’s natural for them to resist going to the location where they are most vulnerable. Equally – bullying online/after school plays a part here too. 

3. Academic

Struggles: Some children may refuse school due to difficulties in keeping up with the curriculum, or learning differences. Fear of failure, embarrassment, or feeling overwhelmed academically can be reasons for their refusal.

4. Health Issues:

Physical or mental health problems, such as chronic illnesses, depression, or other medical conditions, can result in school avoidance. A child might be genuinely unwell, or they may use health complaints as an excuse to avoid school.

5. Family Issues:

Problems at home, such as family conflict, divorce, or a recent loss, can impact a child’s willingness to attend school. Research shows a new sibling at home can heighten a child’s awareness that their parent is at home caring for their brother/sister, and increase their desire to stay home too.

What Can Parents Do?

       Be mindful of your own mental health

As a parent, it’s crucial to approach school refusal with empathy, understanding, and patience, which can be difficult to do in practice. Our children might display huge emotions, throw out accusations at parents, or be very difficult to be around at home.

This can be very emotionally taxing, not to mention make us late for work, anxious about the morning routine, and possibly concerned for our other children. The first key step is to remember that they are having a hard time, and not deliberately trying to make our lives hard.

As a parent, it is vital to access support if you feel you need it – from friends, a professional, the school – perhaps other parents who have been through this.

Don’t keep your child home

The second thing that’s crucial to be aware of is that keeping your child home, while counterintuitive, can actually do more harm than good. Many parents are tempted to give children a ‘break’ from school, but while this provides immediate short-term relief, if a child continues to miss school, returning can feel harder and harder as they fall behind with their learning and begin to feel socially isolated from their friends and teachers.

A cycle of avoidance can set in, which ends up removing the opportunity for the child learning their own coping strategies – and learning that they would have been ok had they attended.

(Note: Of course, if you have reason to suspect your child is refusing school due to a medical condition, pain, bullying etc, do check into this first).

Don’t try to do it all yourself

If possible, involve the school. Most schools have seen this before and should be willing to work with parents to work together in finding solutions. They can provide insights into what’s happening at school and offer support.

Open Communication

Talk to your child to understand their feelings and concerns about school. Create a safe space for them to express their fears, worries, and anxieties without judgment. Ideally, the younger you can do this from the better. Try to establish a non judgemental culture of sharing – including about mistakes made. Even better if you can model this, and talk about your own fears and failings too.

See if routine helps

Maintain a consistent daily routine to provide stability and predictability. This can help reduce anxiety for your child.

Break down the return-to-school process into smaller steps. Gradual exposure to the school environment can make it less daunting for your child.

Provide positive reinforcement

Praise your child’s efforts, no matter how small they may seem. Reward and celebrate their successes along the way. Do this in collaboration wherever you can – ask your child how they would like to celebrate!

Model coping strategies

Teach your child healthy coping mechanisms for managing anxiety and stress, such as deep breathing, mindfulness, or facing small fears a step at a time.

Seek Professional Help

If school refusal persists, consider consulting a mental health professional, such as a child psychologist or counsellor, who can work with your child to address their specific issues.

School refusal is a complex issue, but it is common, and there are resources and support available. There can be a silver lining, in that they are able to practice facing difficult situations and emotions – and learn coping skills for the future.


About the Author

Nadine Isler

Nadine Isler is a Registered Psychologist who specialises in treating anxiety and related conditions. She finds the human brain fascinating and loves working with people from all walks of life. She was born in Switzerland and is now based in Auckland and has two children.