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Help if your child refuses to go to school

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Most kids will at some point dig their heels in and say they don’t want to go to school – it’s a perfectly normal part of growing up, as they start pushing boundaries and want to develop their own independence and decision making. And it’s also natural for children to be anxious about school at certain points, like when they start a new year or have exams. But if they’re constantly upset and/or worried about going to school and this affects their overall wellbeing, this is different.

Here we look at what 'school avoidance' or 'school refusal' is and how you can help your child if they’re fearful or anxious about going to school.

What is 'school avoidance'?

All children worry about school sometimes, particularly if they’re starting a new school or a new year, or have tests or exams. Our pages on helping your child with worries about primary school and starting secondary school have tips to help you calm their nerves.

School avoidance is when your child feels very fearful or anxious about school over a long period of time and may not be able to go in as a result. It’s also referred to as school refusal, school phobia, school-related anxiety, emotionally-based school avoidance (EBSA) and anxiety-related absence.

It can happen at any age, and it can be more common among children with additional support needs, mental health needs, or those who have been bullied or experienced trauma. It can be stressful for your whole family, and difficult to cope with from a practical point of view as well, if you need to take time off work to look after them at home.

Why is my child refusing to go to school?

There can be many reasons why your child may feel they can't go into school, including:

  • feeling anxious about school work
  • problems fitting in or making friends
  • problems relating to teachers and other staff
  • issues at home affecting how they feel about school
  • feeling unsafe
  • not having their support needs met
  • finding the environment overwhelming, frustrating or exhausting, particularly if they are neurodivergent.

It may be that a combination of different reasons are making your child feel overwhelmed, afraid or anxious.

How do I know if my child is feeling anxious about school?

It may not be as simple as a point blank refusal to go to school. Other signs that your child may be feeling scared or anxious about school include physical, behavioural or emotional symptoms.

Physical signs (when there is no obvious cause):

  • sore tummy, headaches or feeling sick or shaky
  • tightness in the chest and throat
  • changes in heart rate.

Behavioural signs:

  • being unusually clingy
  • having trouble sleeping or getting to sleep especially on week day nights
  • a change in behaviour, either by becoming more withdrawn or acting out more
  • changes in appetite
  • not wanting to get up, get ready or go to school
  • seeking lots of reassurance
  • seeming restless and on edge
  • not doing schoolwork or not managing to keep up with work at school.

Emotional signs:

  • getting upset or stressed or crying when they’re getting ready to leave for school
  • feeling fearful and scared
  • being irritable
  • feeling worried and sad.

Tips for helping your child if they’re refusing to go to school

This can feel like a really stressful time for your whole family, but there are things you can do to make it better, and people you can talk to who can help. Here are some tips.

What are my rights if my child can’t attend school?

Sad teenage boy wearing a grey hoodie

Sad teenage boy wearing a grey hoodie

Whether your child is off school because of mental or physical ill health, it’s important to know that they have the right to an education and to the support they need. This means that the school must put measures in place to support your child’s mental health. It also means they should provide your child with a way to keep learning while they’re off. This will vary from school to school, but could include online learning.

The Enquire website has more information on what to do if your child is missing school due to anxiety or other mental health needs. They also have lots of information on attendance and exclusion you may find useful.

However, remember that you do need to let the school know when and why your child is off school. You can find out more about school attendance on the website.

Getting help and support

As well as your child’s school and GP, there are lots of other organisations that can offer help and support.

Last updated: 15 Aug, 2023