School Refusal: Supporting Kids Who Avoid School

from Family Care Centre and Children’s Mental Health Ontario

We understand how challenging it can be for families when a child refuses to go to school.

As parents and caregivers, we know that, in most cases, our children need to be in school. It’s not only academics that are important, but school is where they learn so much about socializing and building relationships beyond their family.

When our children are struggling, it can impact the entire family. For example, many parents and caregivers from our PCMH peer support groups have shared that they end up being frequently late for work or they have had to miss work entirely, which can be really stressful.

We know how hard this can be. That’s why we checked in with our child and youth mental health experts for their top tips to help families whose children and youth are struggling with refusing to go or avoiding school.

Tips to support children and teens struggling to go to school every day

1. Focus on your relationship with your child

It’s really important for children to have at least one adult who they trust and can communicate openly with. When you have open communication with your child that means you are open to hear things that you might not agree with or like. It can be helpful to prioritize your relationship with your child over any specific action. For example, if your child says, ‘I don’t want to go to school’, that could be a time for you to say ‘ok, let’s explore this.’

Find out what they need or what they feel might make the school experience different. If we focus too much on our child’s refusal, it can create tension and could become a power dynamic. Having the parent be the one who gets to decide what the child does, in this case, may not be helpful to a child with mental health issues.

“During online learning many of the youth I work with get creative. They find that if they argue with the parents, then it’s going to be messy. So, a lot of them just turned the class on, turned the camera off, and then went back to bed. Later they said, ‘I didn’t know I had a class’ or and a lot of them dropped their courses. That’s why I say it’s really important for parents to focus more on the relationship. For the youth that feel more validated by their parents, even though they didn’t feel good about school, they were able to do their courses. They were able to tell their parents/caregivers when something at school wasn’t working for them or ask for help when they needed it. They were able to be more open to talk about their concerns.” – Sofia Pelaez, Youth and Family Counsellor, EveryMind

PCMH Parent Tip

Families need to listen to their gut – you know your child best! Mental health is more important than going to school.

2. Take time to understand the issue

Try to find out what’s causing your child’s fears and worries about school. The more information parents and caregivers have on why your child does not want to go to school, the easier it will be to offer support.

Try to think of any possible situation or circumstance that might have led to your child not wanting to be in school. For example, we know that most children and youth need predictability, but the bus ride and recess both which lack structure. Could this be the cause of your child not wanting to go to school? If this is the case, you can ask the school to build in structure for your child during these times.

Offering different possibilities might help them realize that you are concerned and are spending time thinking about this and that you understand what they are going through.

3. Be committed to the idea that staying home is not an option.

It can be really important to make it clear to your child that not going to school is not an option. For most kids, the more absences they have, the harder it is to get them back into class. Getting them to school is one of the most important strategies, even if they do not stay for the entire day. If your child choses to do school online, help them to make sure they have a plan in place when it comes to their routine, attendance and work.

Try to validate your child’s feeling before moving on to working on identifying solutions. But It might be helpful to acknowledge their distress and offer your child reassurance that they can cope in challenging situations. It may be helpful to offer coping strategies that you have seen work for them or may have worked for you in the past.

4. Try a scaffolding approach to get your child back to school.

We are all trying to do our best and that can be true when it comes to your child’s feelings about school. If your child/teen has already missed many days, it might be unrealistic to expect them to go back to attending full-time all at once. Instead, try a scaffolding approach and slowly work your child up to going back to school for the full day. For example, the first step might be to start driving by the school with your child. Then, have them agree to attend their most favorite two classes. These will likely not be academic courses, but that’s ok! The goal is to reengage your child into the routine of going to school.

Read more about scaffolding in our Q-A below…

PCMH Parent Tip

Supporting a child who is returning after an extended absence

  • Increased monitoring of daily attendance – students may still be missing a lot of days, but not enough to be flagged, this is important, so they don’t slip through the cracks
  • Have the school require documentation for legitimate absences such as a doctor’s note when several days are missed in a row
  • Use a school support plan to help students feel supported about their reintegration back into the school, rewards and penalties for attendance and nonattendance.
  • Look at increasing extracurricular activities
  • Consider what your child was once interested in and foster that

5. Connect with the school

We know how hard it can be to share with others when your child has a mental health issue. Too many families continue to report feeling stigmatized and judged when their child is suffering. However, it can be very helpful to share with school officials that your child has a mental health challenge. That way, teachers and administration will better understand the need for some of the accommodations your child might need to reengage with the school routine.

The relationship between your child and their teacher is really important. Look for ways to encourage that relationship. For example, let the teacher know it’s ok to send your child a message that they are missed in class. This might help your child feel supported when they return. You might also let your teacher know when they have coping techniques, for example, taking a walk outside or in the hallway to decompress and work through their anxiety in a quieter environment.