What to do if your child hates going to school

Whether your preschooler is having trouble separating from you or your teen simply will not attend class, school refusal a complex issue.

Psychologist Jaimie Bloch from Mind Movers Psychology sees students of all ages with varying degrees of school refusal.

“Worst case, it might be a child who’s not been attending school for a few weeks or months. Best case, it’s separation with kids upset or anxious before school,” she says.

Complete school refusal can be very stressful for the entire family.

“Families don’t cope well. It’s horrible to see a child in that space as they can often start to really isolate. It can really disrupt the household,” she says.

Here’s what to know about school refusal.

It can happen at any time

Jaimie says kids don’t always start avoiding school at the start of the year, but it’s important to get on top of the issue as soon as possible.

School refusal can often be traced back to a stressful incident in the child’s life, she says.

Academic worries are more common causes than social or emotional factors, says Jaimie.

“They might not keeping up, and don’t feel good enough. It can also be friendship issues and some are just anxious to leave parents.”

It’s not a battle of wills

Jaimie says it’s crucial for parents to keep their anger in check and understand that the child often can’t – rather than won’t – go to school.

“(School refusal) is a physiological response and the brain telling the child there is danger. The child might know logically there’s no danger, they can’t override the body’s response,” she says.

Raising Children Network principal specialist Derek McCormack says school refusal should not be viewed in the same way as truancy or wagging.

The most important thing is to get the child back to school.

“Avoiding school can make anxiety worse. The longer children are away from school, the harder it is for them to go back,” Derek says.

Parents and teachers are in it together

Jaimie says parents and schools should present a united front.

“Schools can reduce demands and pressure on kids. Kids need to know school is a place of learning and growth rather than something they should be afraid of and avoid,” Jaimie says.

She says most children settle quickly after initial separation from their parent before school or kinder, though some still struggle through the day.

It can help to slow things down

For parents, keeping calm throughout times of school refusal is key.

“Anxiety is disempowering. When anxiety pricks up we become quite controlling. If you’re calm, the child knows the feeling will pass,” Jaimie says.

That extends to busy mornings, when parents may be trying to rush out of the house to get to work or other commitments, she says.

“Most don’t have time to emotion-coach their child in the morning and may overlook things and rush,” she says.

Be mindful of your words and actions: “Small things can make a big impact in a negative way.”

Calm mornings and evenings before and after school are important, says Jaimie, and “give them something to look forward to at pick up”.

Derek’s top tips for dealing with school refusal

  • Empathise, praise, build confidence: Show your child you’re there to help
  • Be clear: Say “when you go to school” rather than “if”
  • Set routines: Organise things the night before and promote good sleep
  • Work together to brainstorm solutions
  • Make home “boring” and prioritise homework
  • Devise a return-to-school plan with teachers
  • Get a friend to do the drop-off
  • Seek advice of a GP for more help and referrals
  • Stay calm

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Written by Sally Heppleston.