Understanding School Avoidance | Advice for Parents | Jigsaw.ie

School avoidance

School avoidance

Thursday, 01 October 2020

The majority of young people face challenges at some point throughout their schooling.

Common difficulties can occur in the following areas: learning and curriculum, social and peer related and/or the physical environment.

For the most part, young people overcome these challenges and school provides positive, enjoyable experiences. However, for a number of young people, school can cause a significant amount of distress. This leads to difficulty attending school.

If your young person is currently experiencing difficulty attending school, this article covers the following:

A packed school bag open with contents visible
Young people refusing to go to school because of anxiety often show signs of fear and panic. They also may experience physical symptoms such as nausea, headaches, crying and increased heart rate.

What is school avoidance?

There are various terms used when describing difficulties in attending school. School avoidance, school refusal, school phobia, persistent absenteeism, excessive absenteeism, extended non-attendance and truancy are a few of the common terms found in research concerning school non-attendance.

Some young people may have difficulty attending school due to stress, anxiety and/or fear. They can experience emotional distress and anxiety at the thought of going to school.

Young people refusing to go to school because of anxiety often show signs of fear and panic. They also may experience physical symptoms such as nausea, headaches, crying and increased heart rate.

The term truancy, on the other hand, tends to be associated with an intentional decision not to attend school. In this case it usually doesn’t include anxious thoughts or fear.

The culture and climate of a school can impact young people’s level of connectedness and sense of belonging to their school.

How does school avoidance come about?

There may be many factors that lead to a young person avoiding school. These include:

School related factors

The culture and climate of a school can impact young people’s level of connectedness and sense of belonging to their school. A positive school climate includes good relations between staff, students and parents. It allows opportunities for young people to experience success in school. When this is missing, young people may pull away.

Issues that can impact a young person’s experience of school:
academic or learning difficulties;
social challenges such as bullying, isolation;
negative relationships with teachers or fear of a particular teachers.

Things going on at home

When young people are experiencing stress in their home environment, it can be difficult for them to cope with the various demands of school.

Concentrating in classes, completing homework, studying for exams and keeping up with social expectations are just a few of the demands that the school context can involve. It can be difficult to face these challenges if there are other stressors going on in a young person’s life.

Individual factors

Understandably, a young person’s temperament, their perception of their own academic abilities, experience of low mood or anxiety, learning difficulties, low self-esteem and coping skills can all impact their experience of school.

Transitions

Starting secondary school and moving to a new school are times when the risk of school avoidance is increased.

Many young people have particular difficulty making the transition from primary to secondary school, while at the same time making the transition from childhood to adolescence. Secondary school is often a larger and more complex school environment. This can sometimes lead to young people feeling unsafe due to the unpredictability in the new environment.

Early signs to look out for

The earlier we can identify and put strategies in place to address school avoidance the better.

Keep an eye out for:

  • Frequent tearfulness/distress/protesting about going to school
  • Reporting stomach pains or headaches when going to school, but not on weekends or on school holidays
  • A pattern of frequently asking teachers to ring home reporting that they feel sick
  • Reporting frequent worry or fear related to school
  • Change of mood involving negativity towards school, subjects or teacher
  • Lack of engagement with school activities, outings or trips.
side profile of a young girl
Encourage your young person to open up about how they are feeling about school

Tips on dealing with school avoidance

To help address school avoidance, we need to understand what’s going on for the young person. This will help in identifying the right support.

Determining the function of the avoidance

This is not always easy. School avoidance may serve a variety of functions for a young person and have many contributing issues.

Sometimes young people find it difficult to articulate what exactly it is about school they are struggling with. They will need your support to identify where the problem lies and when it began.

Common functions that have been associated with school avoidance are:

  • Avoidance of school based situations that provoke anxiety and/or other uncomfortable feelings
  • Avoidance of social situations that provoke anxiety or other uncomfortable feelings
  • To gain attention from significant others, for example, parents
  • To gain positive reinforcement outside of school e.g. internet access, PlayStation, hanging out with friends.

Encourage your young person to open up about how they are feeling about school. Try to get a sense of what is going on for them. When did these feelings begin? Are they stressed about any other area of their life right now?

Talk to the young person’s teachers to try to get to the route of the problem.

Collaborative approach

Communication and working collaboratively with everyone involved is important to support the young person effectively. This includes having a shared understanding across all who are involved. This might include both parents, carers, year head, different teachers, principal and guidance counsellor.

Goal setting

Work collaboratively with your young person. What do they want? Identify the difficult parts of the school day and work together to make these parts a little easier. Work with them to set realistic goals regarding school. If you both come up with a goal, see how you can break this down into very small steps and create a step-by-step plan.

Offer support and understanding at each stage of the plan. Try to validate your young person’s concerns. Let them know that you know how difficult this is for them.

Ask your young person to visualise walking into school. What is the most difficult part? Is there any way we could make this part a little easier? For example:

  • If walking into school alone is difficult, can you think of a friend, sibling or teacher that could walk in with the young person until they get to their locker?
  • If the difficult part is organising what room to go to or what books to get, could someone help with this?
  • If socialising is hard, come up with a plan to find ways to support the young person through this. This may involve working on the young person’s social skills.
  • If there are bullying concerns, parents can work with teachers to address this.
  • If your young person is feeling anxious, practice relaxation techniques such as slow deep breathing with them. Find out more about anxiety and young people here.

Eliminate positive reinforcement at home

At times, often inadvertently, a young person can receive signals that missing school is OK. Make sure to remove any fun reinforcing activities during the school day. Set boundaries such as not allowing gaming or the phone during school hours when at home.

Establish good routines

The value of good sleep and routine cannot be underestimated. Establish and maintain good routines for bedtime. This means regulating getting up, breakfast and going to bed times. Organisation of uniform, school bag and equipment should be done the night before.

Listen and empathise with distress about going to school, without reinforcing it. Statements such as “I know this is difficult… but we can work on it together, we will support you” can be helpful.

Ongoing support

Encouragement

Encourage your young person. Provide them with positive self-statements such as “I can do this”, “I went to school yesterday and it was OK”, “I am strong”.

Empathy

Listen and empathise with distress about going to school, without reinforcing it. Statements such as “I know this is difficult… but we can work on it together, we will support you” can be helpful.

Consistency

Once you have reassured your young person and helped them to relax, bring them to school. Be consistent and present a united front with teachers and others involved.

Praise

Acknowledge when your young person goes to school or achieves a step from their overall goal. Praise their efforts.

Prioritising positive interactions

Constantly talking about school can be stressful, leading to tension in the household. Try to create a positive space for you and your young person to do nice things together that do not involve school. This may also help in opening up communication channels between you and your young person.

School based supports

Making teachers aware of the difficulties and including them in support plans is helpful. If school refusal has been a longstanding problem, there are a number of actions that can be put in place such as:

  • Having a “link teacher” or staff member to look out for your young person and have regular “check-ins” with them
  • Identifying a “safe space” to go to if feeling stressed or overwhelmed. This could be the library or the guidance counsellor’s office
  • Modifications to school timetable
  • Support with organisational skills and following the timetable
  • Having learning supports in place for learning difficulties
  • Modifications to homework
  • Peer mentoring systems
  • Monitoring and addressing any bullying related issues. Schools can implement whole school approaches to bullying and implementation of anti-bullying policies.

Other supports available

If you feel your young person is not attending school due to their mental health and would benefit from support with this, there are a range of options here. 

Find out more about the legal requirements of school attendance: Tusla Child and Family Agency: School Attendance, What Every Parent Needs to Know 

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