15 Sep 2022

When your child refuses to go to school

From Nine To Noon, 11:25 am on 15 September 2022

School avoidance that stems from anxiety is very different to truancy and requires careful management, says psychologist Dr Emma Woodward.

Child hiding in pillows

Photo: Pixabay/BeFunky

Not wanting to go to school is common for children and can be a response to many different things, Woodward tells Kathryn Ryan.

Often it's the transition from home to school that's tricky for them, rather than school itself.

"Home is their safe space and sometimes they just don't feel like they've got the ability to get themselves out into a space where they feel slightly challenged."

Emotionally based school avoidance can start as reticence and become a reflexive pushback, she says.

The earlier parents recognise something's going wrong, the quicker they can start supporting their child, Woodward says.

When a child is anxious about going to school, the first and most important thing to do is validate their feelings.

Parents can easily get overwhelmed by their own anxiety when faced with refusal, which just make the situation worse.

Every child avoids school for different reasons so you'll have to figure out your child's specific worries, Woodward says.

Determine early on if school is not a safe space for your child because of bullying or a challenge with learning. 

Bullying is one of the biggest reasons kids avoid school and needs to be addressed directly as your child may be having a "legitimate threat response" rather than anxiety, she says.

If they are seriously anxious and depressed forcing them to school isn't going to help their well-being.

If not, she says, one of the worst things we can do is give in.

Avoidance gives temporary relief from anxiety, but allowing it won't encourage a child to manage their own feelings and they can become "de-schooled".

"Anxiety gets worse if you avoid things that make you feel anxious so our job is to encourage children and remind them how resilient they are," 

Woodward recommends parents listen closely to what's going on for the child, remind them how capable and resilient they are and help them remember positive things about school, such as friends and their teacher.

"Their brain needs to be ins school to learn school is safe and okay and they can cope with it."

She encourages people to reach out to their child's school for support, too.

"Don't try and do it alone and remember that you're not isolated in it."

Watch Dr Emma Woodward speaking about school avoidance here.