School refusal has students struggling to return to the classroom in term three

Jarrod Brown
Jarrod Brown

Mental health experts are warning school refusal may leave many Australian students struggling to return to the classroom at the start of the new term. 

According to the Australian Parliament House, school refusal currently impacts between one and five per cent of all students across all education levels, with cases radically higher among students with autism spectrum disorders and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. 

Unlike other forms of school attendance problems, children affected by school refusal suffer from severe emotional distress when confronted with entering the classroom.

CEO of youth mental health service ReachOut, Ashley de Silva, warns school refusal can have a serious impact on student success, especially in their formative education years. 

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“School refusal is an issue affecting young people and their parents and carers across the country,” she told EducationDaily. “For some families, the start of a new term can be a particularly stressful time as young people may struggle to return to the classroom.

“School refusal has been one of the most talked about concerns within ReachOut’s parents and carers forums this year and is one of the most common themes raised in ReachOut’s one-on-one parent coaching service. 

“The number of parents searching for information about school refusal via ReachOut has been increasing since early 2020 and has remained high since then.”

Across the world, there have been reports of growing rates of school refusal following the COVID-19 pandemic. Australia seems to be no different, with school staff, parents and support services also reporting a similar increase in school refusal following COVID-19 school disruptions.

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The main causes of school refusal

School refusal can take a number of forms that vary wildly from student to student. Causes can range from worries about their school work to anxiety about interacting with other students or dealing with teachers. 

Ms De Silva told EducationDaily that the reasons behind school refusal are deeply personal to every student, says it’s important families recognise the individual reason why young people are unable to attend school. 

“School refusal can also be driven by things like an event or a mental health issue – which can be related, or unrelated to things which are happening at school,” she says. 

“For example, we have heard from many young people that the experience of arriving at school in the morning can cause them to have a panic attack.

“It is generally useful for families and educators to focus on the underlying cause or causes of school refusal for their young person rather than focusing solely on school attendance.

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“This will help to uncover approaches and strategies that will help the young person feel comfortable attending school once again.”

Ms De Silva also encourages young people to seek out education on school refusal, saying most students struggle to understand and conceptualise the issue.

“They (students) commonly seek support for the issues which are causing them to be unable to attend school such as bullying and friendships, external pressure, mental health and discrimination instead,” she told EducationDaily.

The impact on mental health

If left unaddressed, Ms De Silva says school refusal can have a far-reaching impact that could follow students and their families into their later schooling years – and beyond.

“We hear from many young people and their families that school refusal is often a complex issue and it can be a very isolating experience,” she says.

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“There can also be mental health impacts on parents, carers and families as they navigate the issue of school refusal, which can, in some cases, be a long process.

“Importantly, we want to remind young people and families who are experiencing school refusal that they are not alone and that support is available. We know that seeking support when it comes to mental health isn’t always easy but that it can be a vital step in feeling better and navigating tough times.”

What you can do to help

School refusal is a largely invisible and deeply personal issue – and one that leaves both educators and families scrambling to provide understanding and support for struggling students. 

However, Ms De Silva says, there are crucial steps that can be taken to provide students with a vital support network.

“Talk to your teen about what’s going on for them to learn and better understand what might be causing them to be unable to attend school,” she says.

“Families should work on addressing the causes of school refusal for the teen, rather than placing the focus solely on attending school.

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“Seek the support that’s right for the teen and their family. That could be professional mental health support, working closely with their teachers and school communities and it could also incorporate other elements of the teen’s life including their hobbies and their siblings.”

The ReachOut CEO also encourages parents and educators to make time for their own self-care and seek support when dealing with complex issues like school refusal.

Do you need support?

Services like ReachOut, ReachOut Parents and Kids Helpline offer extensive resources and counselling available 24/7 for both parents and students struggling with mental health issues. You can also find an extensive list of digital services and resources on the Australian Government’s Head to Health website.

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Jarrod Brown combines his background in journalism, copywriting and digital marketing with a lifelong passion for storytelling. Jarrod established his journalism career working on the education news and information site The Bursar. He lives on the Sunshine Coast - usually found glued to the deck of a surfboard.