The hidden issue of school refusal

Posted on 27 August 2019 in All news

Ah, the school run. No matter how early the alarm is set or how much we prepare the night before, it usually culminates in a mad dash out the front door.

For some parents, however, encouraging children out of bed and into school uniform serves as an impossible task. A rising number of children and parents are dealing with what is now known as school refusal, otherwise known as ‘school phobia’.

While many children may dislike classes, teachers or early mornings, most still (begrudgingly) make it through the school gates and into class. For children struggling with school phobia, however, getting stuck into the school day simply isn’t that easy.

What is school refusal?

Psychologists recognise school refusal as a disorder in which a child refuses to attend school in order to avoid the physical and mental symptoms of extreme anxiety. The cause of anxiety could be anything, both in or outside of school; stress around schoolwork, bullying, relationships with friends or teachers, moving house or a family separation, for example.

For many children, sharing feelings around school refusal can be difficult. Talking to a parent or teacher about their fears can, in itself, cause stress. As a result, school refusal is often accompanied by tantrums and health complaints, claims of headaches or sudden bouts of sickness when it comes to leaving the house. Some children may simply refuse to go or plead and beg to stay home.

The impact

Clinical psychologist Dr Fiona Wilson argues that school refusal is different to truancy in that truancy is often done in secret. She states, “These children are saying ‘I want to be there but I can’t’. The majority of children actually like school. They are bright and intelligent.”

Dr Wilson goes on to explain that school refusal is not a widely discussed or understood problem; “We, as mental health professionals, know it is a big issue but I don’t think out there in the public it is really spoken about. A lot of parents feel quite isolated by this.”

Parents are under fire for their child’s attendance and, in extreme circumstances, can be subjected to fines and prosecution. No parent wants to see their child in distress. However, when the issue isn’t understood and tackled early, school refusal can quickly escalate from an occasional day at home to extended periods of time away from school.

In reality

Mother to nine year old son, Emma O’Connor, recently spoke to the BBC about her experiences of school refusal. It was at the start of year 5 when Emma’s son began to feign illness and make excuses to avoid going to school. She stated, “He couldn’t tell me what was wrong” and described how it became progressively worse, with months of daily battling: “I was a bit shocked and reeling from it all and did not know what to do. Eventually we decided not to force him to go anymore and give him a bit of time off. In the end we were unofficially home educating without preparation or knowing what we were doing.”

Fortunately, a new school helped to reintroduce Emma’s son to education. The deputy head teacher and Emma worked together on strategies for dealing with his anxiety issues and, while he has never been able to articulate what made him so anxious in the first place, he grew in confidence. 

Hard work and communication between the school and family enabled Emma’s son to return to class. Today, the time invested in helping him to deal with his anxiety shows. In Emma’s words, he is now a “normal 13-year-old guy who hates schools exactly the same amount as other kids.”

Facing the issue

Today, Emma feels school refusal is a ‘hidden problem’, one for which her son’s old school was unprepared to support her with. Home/school engagement is vital in supporting a student to deal with the anxiety and fear at the root of the problem. With the issue becoming more prominent, recognising early and acting on signs of a family struggling with school attendance is key, enabling staff to provide the appropriate support and care needed before the issue escalates.

The subject of absence and attendance can be tricky to approach. School refusal can cause tensions to run high at home, with parents unsure how best to support their child. Reaching out to their school for advice can feel risky, for fear of judgement or criticism. With hard-to-reach parents, poor communication between home and school is likely to have an adverse effect on a child struggling with their own relationship with the school environment. 

Making early contact with home could be the all-important move to open up channels of communication. Encouraging families to talk openly and honestly about what is going on at home benefits everyone, including teachers, parents and, most importantly, the child in question. But, with rising workloads, tight budgets and increased pressure in the office, many schools may struggle to balance resources when it comes to picking up the telephone. 

Tech to the rescue

Fortunately, technology is bridging the gap between home and school whilst relieving pressure on staff without breaking the school budget. For identifying trends and managing parental engagement on unauthorised and persistent absence, Truancy Call is the ideal solution for busy schools.

With data drawn dynamically from the school’s MIS, Truancy Call identifies students who are absent or late and performs first-day contact on behalf of the school. The parent receives a phone call, text or email (freeing up staff time with automated communications) and the parent can respond, for free, in the same manner.

Truancy Call receives over a third of parent responses out of school hours, allowing hard-to-reach and busy parents to engage with their school at a time convenient for them. This level of flexibility encourages a much improved response and ensures stronger parental engagement in the long term. If a parent fails to respond to their school, Truancy Call continues to contact home until a response is received, ensuring no missed or forgotten messages.

If tackling attendance and absence is on your to-do list from September, get in touch now to find out how Truancy Call can support your school. Call 03333 13 14 14 or email