School Refusal

Going to school can be exciting and fun for many young people, and the experience of going to school can be affected by a variety of factors including the home environment, friendships at school, and learning ability. Some days, it is not uncommon for adolescents to express some reluctance to go to school. However, there are some adolescents who may find going to school so difficult that they refuse to go. When this occurs on a regular basis due to anxiety or other emotional disturbances, this is known as school refusal.

School refusal has been shown to occur more commonly in high school and during periods of transitions, such as changing schools or moving from primary to high school. Of the variety of factors that contribute to school refusal, anxiety and bullying appear to be the most significant factors impacting a young person’s willingness to go to school. School refusal differs from truancy, in that truancy is not a result of anxiety and often parents are unaware of truancy occurring.

Symptoms of school refusal tend to begin gradually, typically after a holiday or illness. Some adolescents may also experience difficulties returning to school following vacations or weekends. Often, teenagers will report experiencing physical ailments including headaches, stomach aches, nausea, dizziness, chest pains, or muscle aches.

School refusal is a serious issue and needs to be addressed early, as it can have lasting impacts on an adolescent. Some short-term consequences of school refusal include: poor academic performance, difficulties establishing and maintaining peer relationships, and family discord. Examples of long-term consequences include academic underachievement, occupational and employment difficulties, and an increased risk for mental health difficulties later in life.

Symptom Checklist

A pattern of school refusal may be evident if you notice your child missing school more than twice over a two-week period in the absence of any physical health illness, and especially if they engage in the following behaviours:

  • Frequently complaining of illness (e.g., stomach aches, headaches, fatigue, dizziness) before or during school
  • Irritability when discussing school attendance
  • Difficulty attending school following weekends, vacations, school camps, or sports day
  • Spending frequent and/long periods in the sick bay or principal’s office
  • Frequent requests or attempts to call or text to go home during the day
  • Dawdling, clinginess, tantrums or running away before school or at drop off
  • Reluctance or refusal to get dressed for school
  • Tearfulness and repeated pleas to stay home from school resulting in frequent absences or lateness
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