Siobhan burst into her son’s school crying, “I need help, can someone please help me. I have a kid in the car, I can’t get him out”.
The Mount Martha mother – who declined to give her last name – had watched other kids walk through the school gate, and couldn’t understand why Leo, her otherwise compliant, academically high-achieving son, wouldn’t do the same.
David Scott School’s principal Michael Scicluna with Siobhan, whose son Leo began refusing to go to school at 12. He is now going to David Scott School which is working.Credit:Joe Armao
His whole body would tense up, his anxiety rising. He’d be hitting his face with his palm. He’d say, “I want to be at school, but I just can’t”.
Siobhan is among a growing number of Victorian parents who has experienced their child’s school refusal, also known as “school can’t, not won’t”. A Facebook support group of the same name has grown to 7700 members, with 1000 more waiting to be admitted.
Victoria’s school refusal rate grew 50 per cent in the three years to 2021, with 11,825 students in government schools officially absent in the second year of the pandemic. The figures come from a government submission to a Senate inquiry on the national trend, although experts say targeted data is woefully lacking, as is research.
It’s an issue that can cause enormous stress on a family, sometimes leading to marriage break-ups, or forcing parents to quit their jobs or take extended leave.
Early warning signs a child might become a school refuser
- Showing signs of distress and anxiety about going to school.
- Teariness the night before school or complaints about physical illness like headaches, tiredness and sore tummies.
- Refusing to get out of bed or leave the house.
- Complaining about problems with friends or teachers.
- Avoids challenging days at schools, such as tests, exams, camps or sports events.
- Has trouble returning to school after significant breaks.
- Challenged by transitions, for example from prep to grade 1 or grade six to year 7.
School Can’t Australia Facebook co-ordinator Tiffany Westphal said the most common misunderstanding about school refusal was that the child’s parents were at fault or that the child had a mental illness. A survey of 411 members showed there were 57 different stressors that led to children being unable to attend school, including emotional, social, sensory and structural issues.
Westphal said if those stressors weren’t reduced or addressed they could lead to mental illness and to students being unable to attend school.
“Of the cohort who completed our survey, 73 per cent had children with a [disability] diagnosis and another 10 per cent thought their child might have a diagnosis,” she said.
Leo was in primary school when Siobhan first noticed his reluctance to go to school. He complained of stomach aches and headaches. They did blood tests and a full-body scan. When she asked why he couldn’t go to school, he didn’t know. She tried desperately every day to get him there.
He is now 17 and has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. He has just started at David Scott School, which offers a VCE Vocational Major and a tailored approach for students who became disengaged from mainstreaming. So far, it’s working.
Principal Michael Scicluna said every student who enrolled at his school could be classified as a school refuser on a broad level. He said COVID-19 had exacerbated the issue.
Bayside School Refusal Clinic director John Chellew has also seen a new cohort of students post lockdown. Many had lost contact with their friends, fell behind academically or lost daily routines.
Chellew uses “walk and talk therapy” to get kids out of the clinical setting. They walk with his therapy dog Max at the park, sometimes fly a drone at the beach and gradually, he gives the kids the tools to reflect on what’s troubling them, hopefully leading towards conversations about re-engaging in school.
Ben started refusing school in Year 3, he’s now going to an alternative school. Credit:Joe Armao
Ben Welsh was in grade 3 when he first showed signs of school refusal. After taking an extended break to travel with his family, he found it difficult to return.
He liked school, but developed a fear of teachers yelling. “Even if it was just yelling at other people I’d get terrified,” he said.
To avoid those concerns, he started skipping some classes, but soon found he was missing whole school days. The thought of going to school made his breathing gather speed, and caused him to shake and his sinuses to hurt.
Ben’s mother, Adina, said it was important for parents to look beyond their child’s surface behaviour, without judgment.
“It looks like them not wanting to go to school. (But) if we make the mistake of not digging deeper and not looking past those behaviours, we aren’t going to do them any service and won’t get to what the underlying stuff is,” she said.
What to do if your child is showing signs of school reluctance or refusal
- Talk to them when they are calm, there is privacy and no distractions, and try to understand the reasons for their behaviour.
- Use active listening and open questions (that don’t require a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer) where possible.
- If they do open up, acknowledge their feelings. Express empathy, even if you disagree with them, and don’t dismiss or minimise their feelings.
- Address underlying causes, work collaboratively with your child, their school or other professionals.
- Let your child know that attending school regularly is expected of them and is important for their mental health and wellbeing. If needed, support your child to strengthen their relationships with friends and teachers at school.
- Praise and reward your child’s effort. Be careful not to make them feel guilty, as this can worsen anxiety or depression.
- Seek professional support early.
Source: Parenting Strategies
Adina advised parents to listen to their child, have open honest conversations and ask difficult questions.
“Ask without having preconceived ideas already in your mind. Also, be prepared to fight for your child; for what’s in their best interest,” she said.
“Take your focus off outcomes, off the grades, off the subjects. Kids need to feel safe. When I talk about safe I don’t mean they are ‘in danger’ at school, but it’s their nervous system that needs to feel safe.”
Chellew said the transition from one year to the next, particularly if a change of school was required, could be difficult for some children and result in school refusal.
“Children will usually either shut down or act out. This leads to oppositional behaviours which makes them difficult to talk to, difficult to reason with and difficult to understand,” he said.
Early intervention was critical, and parents should speak and seek support from their school as early as possible, Chellew advised.
He said parents should also go to their GP and get help from a mental health clinician, which due to waiting lists and lack of specialists, could be difficult.
“Secondary school children can be more assertive, strong-willed, physically stronger and independent of their parents as they grow up,” he said. But it depends on the child, the school culture and the parent-child relationship.
Scicluna said punitive strategies can become less effective as teenagers begin to challenge authority, with parents or carers more likely to counter threats of verbal or physical violence.
Both Scicluna and Chellew said it was vital to keep school refusers engaged in their education, and to find ways for them to return to their classroom.
Lisa McKay Brown, assistant dean of diversity and inclusion at Melbourne Graduate School of Education, said it was important to act upon early signs of school refusal, but conceded early warning signs were different for each child.
In extreme cases where students disengaged from school completely, a six or 12-month program of daily support might be required, she said.
She said mainstream educators needed to understand the complexity of refusal and should have clear protocols, with non-judgmental support services and referral pathways, so they could step in to support parents.
The Department of Education and Training’s Navigator program supports disengaged students, aged 12 to 17. Other programs include ‘Tuning into teens’, the Royal Children’s Hospital runs In2School alongside Melbourne Graduate School of Education and Travancore School, and there are a number of flexible learning options available in every sector.
“We need to listen to parents, we need to listen to what they’ve tried and not convince them to do the same thing over and over again when it’s not worked,” McKay Brown said.
She said families of children refusing to go to school were often exhausted and felt powerless, and it was important they weren’t blamed for what has become a growing societal issue.
After six months at home, Ben has now been at Alia College in Hawthorn East for more than a year. The small independent school tried to alleviate pressure on students, and now that there’s no pressure to go to class, Ben is finally going, and recently returned from a camp.
Adina said the key for her family was finding a school where Ben felt seen, heard and respected.
“Now I really am interested in becoming a therapist, going into that field. I want to be able to help other people like how my therapist, my mum, my doctor and teacher have helped me,” she said.
For support, visit Parenting strategies, Beyondblue, Headspace, Kids helpline.
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