Having a child experiencing school attendance difficulties is a very stressful and emotional situation. Parents automatically turn to professionals, assuming that they will know what to do and offer advice and support. In reality there is little in depth understanding of this negative reaction to school, or guidance for helping children and supporting their families.
The problem is largely ignored or hidden within the education system. Reactions to school refusing children tend to centre around blame, anger, punishment, hostility, or a general dismissal of family concerns – leading to the all too common ‘they are fine in school’ observations. A small number of schools and practitioners do recognise that children can experience school-related anxiety but they face a battle within a SEND system that is inflexible, underfunded, and data-driven.
Parents and professionals need to gather a lot of information to help them determine the best ways to help children. They need to develop an understanding of influences and triggers for anxiety and non-attendance. Families also need to navigate the SEND system and learn about legal, medical, and educational guidance and provision. We aim to share information that empowers people to make decisions, find solutions, and take positive steps to fight for the support they need.
Some Top Tips:
- Find support groups online and ask for advice from other people who have experienced the issues you need help with.
- Trust your instincts – you are an expert too and know your child better than anyone else.
- Ask for help but keep in mind that professionals do not always have the answers, and can get things wrong.
- Be aware that professionals may have to follow agendas and policies – they may be influenced by funding or political priorities which do not always reflect the best interests of the child.
- Talk to friends and family – you might be surprised how common school attendance difficulties are, but often they are not openly discussed. There will be people in your area going through the same experiences, if you can contact them, you can share recommendations for contacts, services and resources.
School Refusal (also referred to as School Anxiety; School Phobia; Emotionally Based School Non-Attendance; or Anxiety Based School Avoidance) is a term used to describe the reaction of children and young people who experience extreme anxiety and distress in relation to attending school. This reaction can have various triggers including:
- Academic pressures
- Testing & assessment
- Bullying (by child or adult)
- Friendship issues or Social anxiety
- Learning difficulties
- Ineffective SEND support
- Ineffective support for physical ill health (chronic and/or acute medical conditions)
- Undiagnosed SEND or Physical Illness
- Home related worries
- Sensorial difficulties
- Mobility difficulties
- Navigating around school
- Unstructured break times
- Separation anxiety
- Emotional development delay
- Not feeling difficulties are understood or believed
- Adolescent brain or hormone development
- Classroom disruption
- Changes to routines or staffing
A child may also experience other mental health difficulties such as depression, panic attacks, self-harm and suicidal intention. School refusal is a symptom of severe anxiety that, if not addressed appropriately, can have an adverse effect on a child’s health and wellbeing and also affect academic progress, overall engagement with school, and lead to a gradual or sudden decline in attendance.
It is suggested that:
School refusal occurs when stress exceeds support, when risks are greater than resilience and when ‘pull’ factors that promote school non-attendance overcome the ‘push’ factors that encourage attendance.
– If we accept this explanation it is clear that simply labelling a child ‘naughty’, ‘disrespectful’ or ‘lazy’ is inaccurate and unfair.
Political scrutiny and policy development has focused on school attendance in recent years due to the drive to raise educational standards and academic achievement. This has created greater pressure on schools to monitor and improve their attendance levels, along with higher levels of anxiety in pupils.
To parents of school refusing children it quickly becomes apparent that the protection of school attendance figures, and related fear of Ofsted scrutiny of attendance records and procedures, has become a main priority in schools.
If a child can be marked as attending it does not seem to matter whether they are gaining any benefit from being in the school environment or not. Support for individual needs and protection of children’s mental health has become a lesser concern in comparison.
When a child is suffering with high levels of anxiety their school attendance reduces to a level that is deemed unacceptable by their school and local authority. This triggers the involvement of educational welfare officers or attendance officers and subsequent threats of fines, prosecution and school attendance orders. This suggests that absence due to mental health difficulties is being treated as truancy, we think this is cruel, unhelpful and unfair.
Shockingly, a new tactic is being reported when a parent explains a child’s absence is due to overwhelming anxiety; where head teachers are referring families to social services with accusations that parents are fabricating illness because schools refuse to accept anxiety as a reason for absence or as a SEND requiring school support.
This harsh approach is frustrating when you consider that there is no published evidence that parental legal sanctions are effective in getting young people into school, or that if they attended in an anxious state they would actually be able to achieve anything academically. Evidence also shows that more frequently prosecuting authorities have no have better attendance than those that use prosecution less often.
When a child’s school attendance is affected by a medical or health issue existing government guidance states that local authorities should make educational provision for children who are absent for more than 15 days where the absence is expected to continue.
In practice however, the majority of families find that this guidance is ignored.
Anxiety is a common and normal emotion but it can affect each of us in very different ways. If severe, it can be extremely debilitating and affect day-to-day functioning. When experiencing an anxiety attack it can feel as if you are going to pass out or have a heart attack. If a child experiences severe anxiety, they can get exactly the same feelings and symptoms as adults. They may look pale, clammy, cry, shake, and say they are going to be sick or pass out.
An important point to keep in mind is that not all anxious children and young people will display obvious characteristics of anxiety. Some will hide or ‘mask’ their anxiety for fear of being told off or laughed at in class – containing their feelings of anxiety inside, while others will appear angry, aggressive or controlling.
Anxious adults are regularly referred for counselling or given medication and/or advised to take up exercise, meditation and sometimes given breathing or muscle relaxation techniques. Many adults have usually encountered a fair amount of stress and anxiety in their lifetime and will usually, without realising it, have developed some coping strategies, talking to friends or family, having a glass of wine (maybe 2!), etc. When these don’t work, they head to a doctor.
Now imagine you are a child. You have no idea why you are experiencing these symptoms, you have no idea how to cope with them. It can be frightening and overwhelming enough for an adult who can take control by talking to someone to articulate what they’re feeling; make a doctor’s appointment; search for information online, etc. A child has no control in this situation.
There can be many different reasons why a child may start to resist going to school. It can happen gradually, or it can happen overnight. The reason can be obvious, or it can baffle both parents and school staff, but when a child is frightened adults must pay attention, as their reactions can help or can make things a whole lot worse.
SPECIAL EDUCATIONAL NEEDS
The Schools Guide to the SEND Code of Practice 2015 states:
For some children, SEN can be identified at an early age. However, for other children and young people difficulties become evident only as they develop. All those who work with children and young people should be alert to emerging difficulties and respond early. In particular, parents know their children best and it is important that all professionals listen and understand when parents express concerns about their child’s development. They should also listen to and address any concerns raised by children and young people themselves.
Persistent disruptive or withdrawn behaviours do not necessarily mean that a child or young person has SEN. Where there are concerns, there should be an assessment to determine whether there are any causal factors such as undiagnosed learning difficulties, difficulties with communication or mental health issues. If it is thought housing, family or other domestic circumstances may be contributing to the presenting behaviour a multi- agency approach, supported by the use of approaches such as the Early Help Assessment, may be appropriate. In all cases, early identification and intervention can significantly reduce the use of more costly intervention at a later stage.
Professionals should also be alert to other events that can lead to learning difficulties or wider mental health difficulties, such as bullying or bereavement. Such events will not always lead to children having SEN but it can have an impact on well-being and sometimes this can be severe. Schools should ensure they make appropriate provision for a child’s short-term needs in order to prevent problems escalating. Where there are long-lasting difficulties schools should consider whether the child might have SEN.
When reviewing and managing special educational provision there are four broad areas of need and support which give an overview of the range of needs that should be planned for, and schools should review how well equipped they are to provide support across these areas. They are:
- Communication and interaction
- Cognition and learning
- Social, emotion and mental health difficulties
- Sensory and/or physical needs
Some children suffering with mental health problems can be considered disabled under the Equality Act 2010. All schools are under an obligation not to discriminate against pupils on the grounds of disability.
Under the Act disability includes a mental impairment. The mental impairment must have a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.
Long term means that the symptoms have lasted or are expected to last for 12 months but this need not be consecutive.
The following are examples of mental health symptoms that can be regarded as a mental impairment under the Act:
Anxiety; Low mood; Panic attacks; Phobias; Eating disorders; Bipolar affective disorders; Obsessive compulsive disorders; Personality disorders; Post-traumatic stress disorder; Some self-harming behavior; Depression; Schizophrenia; Autistic spectrum disorders; Dyslexia and dyspraxia; Learning disabilities.
If you believe your child has been discriminated against because they have a disability that is not being supported, or reasonable adjustments are not being made, Citizen’s Advice provide guidance for taking action.
SEN SUPPORT in SCHOOLS
Schools should identify and support children with SEN and/or a disability. Children may be supported from within the school’s own resources under SEN Support or they may have an EHC plan. Schools should record what SEN they have identified a child as having, what outcomes they expect the child to achieve with special educational provision, and what provision is being put in place to reach those outcomes in an SEN Support record. They should trigger an EHC needs assessment where they cannot meet a child’s needs.
- A parent can submit a parental request for an EHC needs assessment and if school attendance is so low that you are being threatened with prosecution – That is good evidence in itself that the mainstream setting is not able to meet the needs of the child.
- Parents can make a parental request under section 36.1 of the Children and Families Act 2010 and write it to meet the threshold for assessment to be carried out.
- If you want to maintain a school-based education and your child is displaying extreme anxiety it is likely they have unmet educational needs. An EHCP will involve assessments that should identify what these needs or difficulties are and then appropriate support can be organised.
- Evidence that a parent is trying to obtain help via an EHC plan is also evidence for a court that the parent is not neglectful of their child’s education.
- Gather as much evidence as possible and keep a log of everything- If there is proof in a court that as a parent you are trying to actively engage in getting help then you cannot be accused of neglect – it’s the school and the services that are neglectful.
All schools have a duty to support children with medical needs and must publish a policy. If a child has an ongoing medical condition, the school should draw up an individual healthcare plan for them with the involvement of health professionals, including the school nurse. This will set out who will give medication, what to do in an emergency and any other special arrangements that need to be made. It is important that the plan is shared with all staff.
Schools do not have to wait for a formal diagnosis by a medical practitioner before providing support to pupils. If the condition is unclear then the head teacher has to make a judgement about what support to provide to the pupil based on the medical evidence available at the time they are made aware of an issue. In exercising this judgement, the head teacher must not ignore the views of the child or their parents or ignore medical evidence or opinion; however, the head teacher can challenge the evidence if appropriate.
Some school staff tell parents that they do not agree with a medical diagnosis and they refuse to acknowledge it. In these instances, we would ask that school staff consider whether they have the appropriate and relevant training to make this decision. This difference of opinion can occur because the staff member thinks that the child ‘appears to be fine once they are in school’ and they don’t see the anxious behaviour that is displayed before and after school.
If the school decide they do not agree with a medical diagnosis we suggest that parents ask them the following questions in writing:
- Who is responsible for the decision?
- What type of relevant training or experience do they have to support this opinion/decision?
- What policy are they following when deciding to ignore expert advice?
- Are they willing to complete a risk assessment to back up the decision?
- Who is accountable for any harm that occurs as a result of them ignoring medical advice?
- Are they willing to contact the expert who carried out the assessment (or a representative of the team that carried it out) so that they can talk through their observations, assessments and conclusions?
The Government have produced statutory guidance documents:
- Supporting pupils at school with medical conditions
- Education for children with health needs who cannot attend school
Fabricating & Inducing Illness (FII) – this has become a shocking tactic used to deter or stop parents from pushing for additional support and provision for children with mental or physical illness.
Free legal advice if you experience issues with exclusion.
GUIDANCE on Bullying (for Schools)
BULLIES OUT – Talking to your school
Facing bullying? Help for children and families
Bullying is one of the main reasons that children refuse to attend school. Department for Education data shows that severely bullied children are the most likely to truant from school and it is estimated that over 16,000 children are out of school at any one time because of bullying.
Kidscape is the UK’s longest running anti-bullying charity. We are here to help children and families impacted by bullying; we deliver face to face workshops that build confidence and teach assertiveness skills, as well as equipping parents with the skills and knowledge they need to communicate their concerns to schools and escalate concerns. After attending one of our free one-day ZAP workshops, 76% experience less bullying some months after bullying, 90% of children experience improvements to their mental health, and almost 100% of parents feel more able to handle the situation. 87% of children who come to a workshop see improvements in their school life.
Our services for families are available in England and Wales and include:
Parent Advice Line: Guidance and support for parents and carers of children facing a bullying situation. Open Monday-Thursday 9am-1pm, call 020 7823 5430 or email at kidscape.org.uk/pal
Kidscape ZAP: Interactive day workshops for children aged 9-16 years and their families, sharing a range of confidence and assertiveness tools to support children facing a bullying situation. Visit kidscape.org.uk/zap
We also deliver training in anti-bullying, peer mentoring and safeguarding for schools and other organisations, and have a wealth of information on our website.
For more details visit www.kidscape.org.uk.
ALTERNATIVE EDUCATIONAL PROVISION
Government guidance states that:
Where full-time education would not be in the best interests of a particular child because of reasons relating to their physical or mental health, Local Authorities should provide part-time education on a basis they consider to be in the child’s best interests.
Your Local Authority will have a policy and details of local provision, you can find out more through this link:
Contact the Local Authority and make enquiries, (schools should refer a child after 15 days of medically related absence but often they do not do so, especially if the absence is related to mental health needs).
Explore the options in your local area for alternative schools and learning environments. You may be able to change schools if you can find one that is more suitable or willing to support your child and work with their anxiety. SENDIASS may be able to help you identify a local setting or help you to access it through an EHCP. Some people manage to arrange funding for EOTAS (Education Other Than At School) which includes hospital school, online schooling or home tuition.
See the resources list (to the right) for Online Alternatives to Mainstream School
Many families reach the conclusion that it might be better if they deregister their child from mainstream school and put an end to the daily battles and distress of trying to maintain any sort of attendance. This is sometimes a last resort decision, or it can be a decision that is taken in the best interests of the child and tends to be a gut instinct reaction. Many families who take this decision say they wish they had done it sooner, once they see the difference it makes to the child and their family life, however, it is a solution that is not practical or financially viable for some families.
Home education can involve the use of a variety of learning styles, approaches and tools – you can try out different things and see which works best for your child. The important thing to realise is that you do NOT have to replicate school at home – you can follow your child’s interests and incorporate day-to-day life in their learning. You can use workbooks, projects, online resources, visit museums and other venues that often offer learning activities. Join local home education groups and find out about local schemes for home educated children or children with SEN if that is appropriate.
Explore the possibility of home education for a period of time – you may reach the point where your child feels ready to try mainstream school again in the future, or you may find that it is better to continue with home education in the longer term. Depending upon circumstances and the child’s age, some people deregister from mainstream school and then they do courses at college, or parents pay for their child to continue their education via Internet School.
Some Home Education links:
EO – Education Otherwise
Scotland – Schoolhouse
SUPPORT for YOUNG PEOPLE
HUB of HOPE – find your local services and settings
Links and documents are included on the Families and Professionals pages.
The Research page contains relevant reports.
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