Part 1: Understanding school refusal

It’s not unusual for students sometimes to feel nervous, worried or anxious about going to school. But for some, these feelings can be overwhelming and may build up until they result in school refusal.

School refusal is a complex issue that impacts a growing number of students and their families, and it can be a challenging experience for everyone involved, including educators.

By understanding the different signs and underlying causes of school refusal, educators are better placed to partner with students and their families in an informed and supportive way.

To find out about practical strategies for dealing with school refusal, read Part 2 of our school refusal series here.

What is school refusal?

School refusal is when a student becomes very emotionally distressed or anxious about going to school, to the point that they refuse to attend.

The signs of school refusal can range from frequent absenteeism and lateness, to health complaints and repeated requests to go home. The causes are just as varied and complex, and include mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, academic difficulties, peer issues and major life events.

School refusal is different from regular truancy. When a student is ‘wagging’, they will hide their absence from their family. School refusal isn’t concealed and comes from the student’s belief that they can’t actually cope with attending.

What are the signs?

There are many signs related to school refusal. For educators, the most common ones to look out for include:

  • high levels of absenteeism

  • frequent lateness to school

  • absence or lateness to school after weekends, holidays, school camps or sports days

  • extended or periodic absences from school, without explanation or justification

  • frequent health complaints, such as stomach aches, headaches, dizziness or fatigue

  • repeated requests to go to the sick bay

  • repeated requests to go home from school or to call home

  • absences on significant days (e.g. days with tests, speeches, sports events, or when a certain class is timetabled).

Keep in mind that these signs might also be caused by health issues. If you’re noticing any signs in a student, it’s important to work closely with their family, and to connect with other professionals who might be involved, to understand any underlying causes. Depending on your role, a member of your wellbeing team or a head of department may be better suited to raise your concerns with the family.

What are the causes?

The reasons for school refusal are complex and vary from one student to the next. There are often a number of contributing factors, and it can start gradually or happen suddenly. It might be hard to identify at first, so it’s important that educators and parents are aware of its development as soon as possible.

School refusal can be related to:

  • mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, OCD or PTSD

  • major life events, such as parental separation or divorce, illness, moving, being away from family, exposure to family violence, or grief over the death of a loved one

  • peer issues, such as bullying, social isolation or friendship conflicts

  • conflicts or difficulties with educators

  • academic problems or learning difficulties

  • anxiety around performance or assessment, such as tests, speeches or sports days

  • life-stage transitions, such as starting secondary school or moving to a new school.

Not surprisingly, the challenges associated with COVID-19 have also contributed to a rise in school refusal, with students struggling with re-establishing routines following an increase in online learning during the pandemic and lockdowns.

The Youth Survey 2022 report by Mission Australia found that young people wanted more support when transitioning back to face-to-face learning, and more help in recovering from the impact of remote learning and lockdowns.

What happens if a student refuses to go to school?

If a student is refusing to go to school, it can have major impacts on their social development, mental health and wellbeing, and academic progress.

Parents and carers may also experience stigma, as school refusal isn’t often recognised as a real issue. They might also have to take time off work, reduce their hours or even leave their jobs, which can have a significant impact on their finances, wellbeing and family relationships.

In Australia, school attendance is a legal requirement for all school-aged children. The rules differ for each state or territory, but there can be legal or financial implications for parents.

It’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with your school’s attendance policy and procedures so that you can keep families informed, and help them to avoid any legal or financial penalties, while the relevant school staff try to address the problem together.

What can I do now?

  • If you’re concerned about a student’s attendance and wellbeing, try these practical strategies for dealing with school refusal.

  • Flesh out your knowledge of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

  • Increase your students’ knowledge of mental health issues with our mental health classroom resources.