the challenge of school refusal


School refusal is a complex and challenging issue faced by many adolescents.  It can take a terrible toll on the young person, as well as their families. Often seen as a reluctance or a down-right refusal  to attend school, its most common drivers are emotional distress or anxiety.

While it’s natural for teenagers to experience occasional reluctance to attend school, persistent school refusal can hinder their academic, social, and emotional growth. It has impacts on families who need to alter their schedules to accommodate the student, and deal with the emotional, social and physical impacts this has on the whole family unit.

The impact of COVID

School refusal has dramatically increased as a problem since the severe lockdowns throughout the pandemic.  Students developed a range of new skills and coping mechanisms about receiving education at home.  The shift back to the classroom created a range of novel feelings, thoughts and experiences that challenged many adolescents.  Some were able to cope with this, many others were not.

What lies behind school refusal?

Mental Health Challenges: Conditions such as generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety, depression, or past trauma can make the school environment overwhelming. These often sit behind avoidance.

Anxiety and Fear: School-related anxiety, social pressures, academic stress (and perfectionism), bullying and fear of failure can all contribute to an adolescent’s reluctance to attend school.

Separation Anxiety: Especially common in younger adolescents, separation anxiety can make it difficult for them to be away from their primary caregivers. This has been exacerbated by COVID.

Bullying and Peer Issues: Negative experiences with peers, such as bullying or exclusion, can create a hostile school environment.  If bullying exists, a constructive conversation with the school  so it can be delt with in an appropriate manner should be a priority.

Learning Difficulties: If the adolescent is struggling academically, they often want to avoid school as they find it a ‘worthless exercise’.  Understanding their personal goals in attending school (and helping them see its value) can be critical if this is the case.

Strategies for Treating School Refusal

In clinic, I have worked with many adolescent clients who were refusing school.  There are a number of important factors to always keep in mind with relation to these young people:

  • The adolescent is not broken, they are just facing an issue they are currently stuck on.
  • Each student has their own ‘reasons’ for school avoidance, there is no size-fits-all approach.
  • The student likely has a number of already-developed skills and resources they are likely not aware that they have that can help them.
  • Understanding what is going on requires patience and compassion – the adolescent may not have the language to fully describe their issues to you or their parents.
  • Regardless of what the parents want, the student must have the motivation, skills and capacity to return to school.  It is all about the student.
  • Understanding the strategic elements that keep the adolescent stuck allows a gentle but powerful individualised approach to help them.
  • Adolescents respond very well to hypnotic learning and can gain great benefit by working through where they are stuck using such an approach.

Beyond the student:

There may be physical or practical issues which may need to be attended to as well as the adolescent’s ‘internal’ processes and strategies.  Dangers, bullying, transportation and many other issues may need to change to allow the child to comfortably return to school.  These may need direct action by parents to help solve.

Although it is not ‘about’ them, parents have a big role to play in assisting the adolescent to return to school.  I will often see parental pressure to attend school, to perform and to fit the parent’s view of what is ‘socially acceptable’.  This impacts the young person’s view of themselves, the situation and what they have control over. Getting the parents to understand their role and participate in the process differently may be critical to the success of the adolescent returning to school.

Getting back to school

Once the inner work has been done, there are many things the family can do to help the student be a regular attendee at school again:

  • Work with the school on gradual reintroductions and in-school support.  Deal with any physical or safety issues that exist.
  • Allow experimentation by the adolescent in term of what can ‘work’ for them.  The sense of control can be critical in the whole process.
  • Reinforce and reward small victories and efforts made toward attending school. This can help boost their confidence and motivation to overcome their challenges.
  • Engage the family in the treatment process. Parents and caregivers can learn how to provide effective support while also addressing any family dynamics which may be influencing the refusal.

Addressing school refusal in adolescents requires a holistic and empathetic approach. By understanding the underlying causes, seeking professional help, and implementing targeted strategies, it’s possible to support students to overcome their anxieties and develop a healthy relationship with school. With patience, persistence, and a strong support network, adolescents can be helped back onto their educational journey.

If you or someone you know has issues with school refusal, please contact me for a confidential discussion regarding their situation.