Part 2: Practical strategies for dealing with school refusal
When it comes to supporting students who are refusing to go to school, the key is to recognise and understand the underlying causes early on. Strategies can then be put in place to support them before their behaviour develops into something more serious.
If you’re concerned about a student’s attendance, there are practical things you can do to help. What works will vary from student to student, and will depend on the kind of policy, processes and support structures your school has in place.
To understand more about the signs, causes and impacts of school refusal, read Part 1 of our school refusal series here.
Take a curious approach
Working closely with the family and taking a curious approach from the start can be helpful in gaining a deeper understanding of what might be happening with the student. This can inform how you respond and help in identifying the kinds of supports and interventions that will work best for them.
Of course, having those initial conversations about school refusal with a student and/or their family can be difficult. If you’re the person doing this, being well prepared can help you to feel more confident about handling the situation
The NSW Government resource School Refusal: Every school day counts includes handy tips on communicating with parents and carers about school refusal (p. 10). ReachOut Schools also has some practical conversation resources that can help:
- Having quality conversations with students
- How to facilitate difficult conversations
- Talking to students about mental health
Get to know your school’s policy
If your school has a policy and defined processes for addressing school absences and refusal, familiarise yourself with them. They will help you to understand your role and the expectations placed on you as an educator, and to identify how and when to respond if you’re concerned about a student’s attendance.
Seek advice from both internal and external sources
Depending on your school’s available resources, you could work with your wellbeing team, learning support team or pastoral care team, to get advice on the type of support and strategies the student and their family might need.
Another good initial step is to seek guidance from your school’s support services or local community. This might involve consulting with your supervisor or school counsellor, or seeking information about professionals in the wider community who may be able to offer support and guidance.
Collaborate on a school return plan
Each student’s experience with school refusal is unique, so it’s important to develop a plan together with the student and their family, and any other professionals who might need to be involved.
The plan might involve gradual re-entry, such as returning to school for half a day initially before increasing the amount of time they spend there. It could also mean creating a flexible learning program – reflecting a modified curriculum, reduced homework, or extra academic support. Here are some other helpful strategies:
- Assist the family to set up a morning routine that provides a sense of predictability. You could share this template to see if this helps.
- Organise for the student to meet up with a friend or specific staff member upon arriving at school.
- Help the student to settle into school in a quiet and safe space before the day starts.
- Recognise and give the student positive acknowledgement when they make progress in attending school.
- Link families with relevant support services such as Lifeline and Kids Helpline so that they are aware their teen has around-the-clock support if needed.
Keep up the contact
When a plan is in place, it’s important to schedule in regular communication with the student and their family so that you can keep them up to date on their progress at school and make any necessary adjustments to the plan.
Take care of yourself
Whether it’s tough conversations, or setbacks along the way, dealing with school refusal can be a difficult and emotional experience for everyone, including educators. By prioritising your self-care, you can better support your students and their families during this challenging time.
Self-care practices could be as simple as meeting up with a friend, journaling, spending time in nature, or setting up clear boundaries between work and home. Essentially, it’s anything that you like to do that helps to improve your own wellbeing. If you’re looking for somewhere to start, try one of our teacher self-care quizzes.
If you need extra support, it’s important to seek support early. Chatting to your GP or local health service can be a good first step. If your school has an employee assistance program (EAP), you can also make use of the external and internal mental health supports that are available.
ReachOut resources to help with school refusal
For educators and schools
The classroom is an ideal setting to support the mental health and wellbeing of young people – giving students the chance to learn and practise real-life skills to manage difficult emotions and situations, and to build their resilience across a range of areas. This can help reduce the likelihood of school refusal. Find out more about ReachOut Schools’ range of classroom resources:
- Mental health: Increase your students’ knowledge of mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, and their awareness of the support services and help-seeking strategies available to them.
- Resilience: Build your students’ resilience with activities designed to explore and build a growth mindset, cope with challenges, bounce back from adversity and increase positive self-talk.
- Transition to secondary: Help develop your students’ sense of belonging and wellbeing at this crucial time in their lives, with activities around relationship building, self-efficacy and positive goal-setting.
Our mental health information and student wellbeing resources have been designed to help educators learn more about mental health issues, identify how students are feeling, support them in seeking help, create safe learning environments, and feel more confident in starting conversations about mental health and wellbeing.
Share with parents and carers
- Teenagers and school refusal: A guide for parents and carers on school refusal, including signs, causes and implications, strategies and tips for managing it, and what they can do to get support.
- Conversation guide: how to talk to your teen about school refusal: A guide to help parents and carers communicate effectively with their teen, so they can support their child and help them form a better relationship with school.
- What can happen if my child refuses to attend school?: A helpful resource that brings together all the relevant legal information about school refusal for the different states and territories.
- Practical strategies to help you manage your teen's school refusal: A guide for parents and carers about a variety of practical strategies they can try to manage their teen's school refusal.
- Personal story: How Georgia and her mum coped with school refusal
- ReachOut Parents One-on-one Coaching: Free and personalised coaching sessions to help parents and carers understand their teen’s school refusal, and assist them in creating an action plan to help.
- ReachOut Parents Online Community: A safe and anonymous space where parents and carers can discuss what’s happening with their teen with others who can understand.
Share with students
Empowering young people with knowledge and strategies for enhancing their mental health and wellbeing can help them to manage their feelings and experiences of anxiety and distress. Here are some school refusal resources from ReachOut you can share with students:
- How to cope if you're feeling anxious about going to school
- Georgia's story: What happens when you're too anxious to go to school
You can also share our general resource collection pages on topics such as:
- Setting goals
- Positive mindsets
- Back to school
- Problem solving
Recommended resources to help with school refusal
- Be You has information and modules on understanding school refusal and promoting school attendance (at both a whole-school and individual level).
- The NSW Government resource School Refusal: Every school day counts has been designed to help education staff and the families they work with to identify and support young people who are refusing to go to school.
- School Refusal Australia offers peer support for Australian families with children and teens experiencing school refusal. They also have a private Facebook group and support meetings across Australia.
- If students and/or parents and carers need immediate support, they can contact Lifeline’s 24/7 Crisis Chat or call 13 11 44. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who need support, 13Yarn (13 92 76) has counsellors available 24/7.
- You can direct parents and carers to ParentLine, a free telephone counselling and support service. They can find the direct phone number for their state or territory here.
What can I do now?
- If you’re concerned about a student’s attendance and wellbeing, try starting with a curious approach as a way to better understand any underlying causes and what might be happening in their life.
- Working with the relevant school staff, monitor and observe attendance to identify any students who might need support.
- If you’re having a hard time dealing with school refusal, know that you’re not alone. You could start by chatting with a colleague, GP or local health service. Or, if your school has an EAP, make use of the range of supports it offers.