How to recognise school refusal

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

School refusal impacts classrooms and families across Australia, with many parents struggling to cope – and not knowing the next steps to take to help their child. For teachers, helping to recognise patterns of school refusal behaviour could be an important first step towards greater support for families.

What is school refusal?

School refusal is when a student displays distress or anxiety about going to school and, ultimately, refuses to attend.

School refusal warning signs

A track record of skipping classes, late arrivals, early departures, or repeated absenteeism – often driven by complaints about minor health issues (upset tummies, headaches, etc) are all warning signs of school refusal issues.

In more serious cases, students can present with more dramatic physical symptoms, including refusal to eat, vomiting, or panic attacks. 

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School refusal is different from truancy, which is usually hidden. School refusal is an adamant refusal to attend school – no matter how parents coax or threaten.

School refusal presents, in many cases, as a kind of school phobia, that is often an expression of mental health issues and emotional challenges that should be addressed with professional support.

The following information is a helpful resource from Reach Out Australia, to guide teachers and families dealing with school refusal issues.

Common signs of school refusal include:

  • Being upset at the thought of attending school
  • frequent health complaints, such as stomach aches, headaches, dizziness or fatigue
  • repeated requests to go home from school early
  • high levels of absenteeism or regular lateness to school
  • difficulty falling asleep the night before school.

What causes school refusal?

The reasons for school refusal are complex, and it can start gradually or happen suddenly.

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School refusal can be related to mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, OCD or PTSD, or to experiences such as difficulties at school, bullying, or major life events (such as separation, divorce, moving, being away from family, or the death of a family member). It can also be caused by worrying about slipping grades or about keeping up with schoolwork. 

While school refusal isn’t related directly to the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns, these challenges do appear to have had an impact on the frequency of school refusal. The Youth Survey 2022 report by Mission Australia found that young people wanted more support for transitioning back to face-to-face learning and further help in recovering from the impacts of lockdowns and remote learning. 

Common feelings for parents and carers

Being the parent or carer of a teen who refuses to go to school can be emotionally challenging, bringing feelings of:

  • shock and disbelief that this is happening to your teen and family
  • fear and worry about your teen’s future
  • sadness for your teen
  • loneliness and isolation
  • guilt that you’re not doing ‘enough’
  • fear of being judged by others
  • confusion about what to do.

It’s crucial to acknowledge these feelings and to seek support if needed. 

What happens if my teen refuses to go to school?

For adults worried about teenagers refusing to go to school, you might worry that their interrupted education could prevent them from reaching their potential or living the life they want in the future. There can also be significant impacts on their social development as well as on their academic progress. 

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Parents and carers are often faced with a dilemma: should they be more forceful in making their teen attend school, or more empathetic and allow them to stay at home? Parents and carers may also experience stigma, with school refusal often not being recognised as a real issue.

Your teen’s refusal to go to school may also require you to take time off work, reduce your hours or leave your job, which can have a significant impact on your and your family’s finances and wellbeing. 

Can parents get into legal trouble if their child refuses to go to school?

School attendance is a legal requirement for all Australian school-aged children. The rules are different depending on the state or territory you live in, but there can be legal or financial implications for parents. 

To can learn more about laws and regulations around absenteeism and school refusal, head here.

Strategies for dealing with school refusal

There are many strategies for managing school refusal, and what works is different for everyone. 

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Some strategies to help parents manage school refusal include:

  • Take each day as it comes. Dealing with school refusal can be unpredictable: your teen may be willing to attend school one day and then the next day refuse to go. Try to take each day as it comes and to manage the issues as they arise.
  • Establish a morning and evening routine. Having a routine in place can help give your teen a sense of stability. Sit down with them and work out everything that needs to be done and schedule it into a planner. Consider including relaxation techniques into your routine to help reduce stress or anxiety, such as breathing exercises or meditation. You could also try out this template to see if it helps you and your teen to create a routine.
  • Focus on mental health, rather than enforcing school attendance. This can create an opportunity for you to problem solve together with your teen around their mental health and to address the issues that underlie their school refusal. 
  • Encourage open conversation. You can learn more about how to have open and effective communication with your teen here.
  • Acknowledge what is and is not in your control. It can be helpful to help you focus on the things that are within your control and begin to let go of those that aren’t. A mental health professional can be helpful to help you manage this.
  • Research alternative pathways of learning. Your teen may be better suited to other types of learning. These could include an apprenticeship or an option such as educational support classes. It may relieve their stress just to know that there are different options and pathways available to them.
  • Work with your teen’s school on management plans. Inform your teen’s school about what’s happening and work together with them to find solutions. Management plans could include: 
    • regular meetings with your main contact at the school
    • regular meetings for your teens with a school counsellor
    • lesson plans being shared with you and your teen to help them keep up
    • your teen being excused from activities that make them feel overwhelmed (e.g. public speaking)
    • advance notice of changes happening that may affect your teens anxiety (e.g. if there will be a substitute teacher one day)
    • creating a school return plan, such as returning to school for half a day initially, and then gradually increasing the amount of time they spend there
    • offering modified curriculums, reduced homework or extra tuition. 

You can find tips and practical strategies for managing your teen’s school refusal here.

Self-care tips for parents and carers

Dealing with school refusal can put a lot of pressure on parents, carers and other family members. It’s important to remember to take care of yourself as well, which will help you to support your teen through this challenging time. It will also model to your teen how important it is to practise self-care and to stay healthy and well.

The best kind of self-care is the kind that you enjoy and practise regularly. Make self-care a habit, even if it’s only for five to ten minutes a day. Self-care could be exercise, listening to music or a podcast, watching your favourite movie or TV show, going for a walk, meditation or mindfulness, or catching up with a friend.  

If you feel unsure of where to start, this quiz will help you find out which type of self-care is right for you

Finding support with school refusal

Support for teenagers

If the above strategies haven’t worked, or you feel like you need support, it may be time to look into flexible learning options or to seek professional help.

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  • Make an appointment with a GP, who can suggest treatment and support options, and can refer your child to a counsellor or psychologist if appropriate. 
  • Make sure your teen has a reliable personal support network of family and friends around them.
  • Let your teen know about mental health hotlines and crisis chat services such as Lifeline and Kids Helpline so that they’re aware they have support available to them around the clock. You could also encourage or help them to make an appointment with ReachOut PeerChat, so they could chat online with a peer worker who understands.

Support for parents and carers

It’s also important to get other forms of support for yourself if you’re struggling with your teen’s school refusal. Here are some options:

  • Sign up for ReachOut Parents One-on-one Coaching for free, personalised support. The coaching sessions will help you to understand your teen’s school refusal and assist you to create an action plan to help them.
  • See a GP and ask for a referral to a mental health professional such as a counsellor or psychologist, who will be able to support you during this challenging time. 
  • The ReachOut Parents Online Community is a safe and anonymous space to discuss what’s going on for you and your teen with other parents who understand.  

Resources on school refusal

Some school refusal resources include:

ParentLine is a free telephone counselling and support service for parents and carers. Head here to find the direct phone number for your state or territory.

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]