As well as starting school, some children may have problems with returning to school.

One serious issue families may have to deal with is school refusal, which occurs when a child refuses to go to school and involves a fear of attending school or anxiety about leaving home.

What is school refusal?

Most children are occasionally reluctant to go to school or have some anxiety about school activities like camp.

School refusal is when a child experiences significant difficulty attending school, and it can result in prolonged absence from school.

When faced with the prospect of having to attend school, the child can become quite distressed about going to school. They may cry, scream, or display tantrum-like behaviour.

School refusal is different from truancy in that the child is staying at home with the knowledge of the family and despite their best efforts to enforce attendance.

It is also different from school withdrawal – which refers to a situation where the family keeps the child at home for various reasons (eg to support a family member who is ill).

Watch our video 'Understanding School Refusal':

What are the signs of school refusal?

Some of the signs of school refusal can include:

  • tantrums, clinginess, dawdling or running away before school
  • tearfulness before school or repeated pleas to stay at home
  • frequent complaints of illness before or during school, such as stomach aches, headaches, dizziness or fatigue
  • difficulty attending school after weekends, holidays, school camps or sports days
  • long, unexplained absences from school
  • periodic absences or missed classes for which no explanation is given.

What causes school refusal?

Working out the exact cause of school refusal is difficult because there are often a lot of reasons why a child might refuse school.

It is important to understand and address underlying issues when supporting children to return to school or attend consistently.

The following factors might be involved in school refusal:

What are the consequences of school refusal? 
School refusal is a serious issue and it’s important to act early because, if unmanaged over time, it may affect a child’s mental health and wellbeing.

Long absences mean that children miss out on important parts of the curriculum, which is detrimental to their learning and development.

A week can be a long time in the playground, so frequent absences might jeopardise children’s social relationships.

School refusal can also create conflict and strained relationships within families as a result of disruptions to their routines, and might even affect income as parents or carers forgo work to stay home with the child.

How can families help manage school refusal?
Families can reduce or manage school refusal with the support of their school, and in some cases, mental health professionals.

Some strategies include:

  • working with schools to understand why the child might be refusing school
  • working with the school’s wellbeing team as well as professionals within the broader community to support the child using a united approach
  • maintaining close contact with schools, even during extended periods of non-attendance
  • working with schools to implement a morning routine that conveys expectations of school attendance
  • working with schools to consider a flexible timetable to support a graduated return to school - that is, allow the child to attend for a short time as a first step, and then gradually build up to a full school day.

For more information

Absenteeism, truancy and school refusal: what are they?