School avoidance and anxiety

6min read

When a child struggles to go to school it can feel really upsetting for everyone involved, including the child themselves, their parents/carers and siblings. From concerns about your child’s wellbeing, to pressures from the school and Local Authority to maintain attendance, it’s understandable why this can become a stressful time for families.

Key Points:

  • It can help to keep a record of all correspondence with your child’s school, as well as details of any GP visits, requests for help or assessments made
  • Ensure your child’s absence is being reported as an illness if they are struggling with their mental or physical health
  • If you feel that your child’s additional needs or disability could be causing them difficulty in attending school, it is important to share this information with their teacher or school SENCO

Why is my child struggling to go to school?

Some children may find it difficult to talk about why they do not want to go to school, whereas others may be open about their reasons. They may be struggling with: 
  • Bullying or friendship issues
  • Exam pressures and schoolwork
  • Special Educational Needs & Disabilities (SEND) and/or neurodiversity 
  • Mental and emotional health issues 
  • Health and wellbeing
  • Issues at home

Bullying or friendship issues

If your child is being bullied it is important to inform the school as soon as possible. Unfortunately, bullying alone cannot be recorded as an authorised reason for absence, so meeting with the school to make a plan, and keeping them informed, is important. 

It can be useful to obtain a copy of the school’s anti-bullying policy before the meeting, this way you will be aware of the procedure the school states they will follow when they receive reports of bullying. This is also a good opportunity to involve the safeguarding lead at the school to ensure they keep your child safe at school. If you feel that bullying has caused your child severe anxiety, speak to your GP for support.

It can be difficult if they are having friendship issues as a sense of belonging amongst peers is very powerful for young people as they have a need to fit in. If your child is struggling, they may feel reluctant to go to school to face their peers. It is important to talk to them about how they are feeling, make a simple plan and ask them if they would like to inform the teachers so they are aware of the issue.

Exam pressures and schoolwork

Exams and schoolwork can cause a lot of stress to children of any age. It’s important to let the school know if your child is unable to attend due to stress and worry about schoolwork or exams. The school may be able to organise some extra support for your child or make appropriate assessments if you feel your child needs additional support with their learning. It may help to talk to your child about their concerns and work out some ways to manage their stress including keeping active, breaks from studying and social time.

Special educational needs and disabilities and neurodiversity

If you feel that your child’s additional needs or disability could be causing them difficulty in attending school, it is important to share this information with their teacher or school SENCO.

You can request the school SENCO or GP refer your child for further assessment if you feel they need additional support at school. If you haven’t already done so, you can request an EHCP (Education and Health Care Plan) assessment to ensure they are getting the support they need. You can ask the school to start the process too.

Neurodiverse conditions such as ADHD, Autism, Dyspraxia and Dyslexia can often contribute towards the reasons behind your child’s school refusal. They can also be difficult to identify, especially if your child has become well-rehearsed in masking their behaviour at school. This can be very draining for the child and may result in challenging behaviour once they get home and feel safe to express themselves.

It is important to ensure the school is aware and able to respond to your child’s needs, and to discuss the best learning environment for your child moving forwards. If your child is absent due to a neurodiverse condition you may want to ask your GP to write a letter to the school. 

Mental and emotional health

If you are concerned your child may be struggling with their mental health, it’s important to get help from your GP and to report this to the school as the reason for their non-attendance. Children of any age can struggle with mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, which can make attending school incredibly hard. Your GP or the school may be able to make a necessary referral to the Emotional Wellbeing and Mental Health Service (EWMHS). The school might also be able to provide reduced timetables or phased returns.  Our advice on wellbeing strategies might be helpful if your child is struggling.

Health and wellbeing

If your child is refusing to go to school because they are too tired it may help to rethink their current routine. For example, are they staying up late at night on screens and devices? Are they eating too late at night or perhaps it’s too noisy or bright for them to get to sleep. It could help to take a look at their current habits to see if anything could be affecting the quality of their sleep. Read about establishing positive family routines.

Issues at home

Some children struggle to attend school if they are young carers or have lots of responsibility at home. If your child is struggling with school due to the demands of homelife, it may be a good idea to share this with their teacher. 

You may have had some recent changes at home that your child is finding hard to cope with such as bereavement or relationship breakdowns. You can help your child cope with this by talking to them about how they are feeling and what they feel would help them feel better. Our advice on helping your child cope with traumatic events may be helpful.  

How you can help your child

It is important to ensure the school is kept up to date and informed of any absences. You may be reported to your Local Authority (Local Council) if you do not inform the school of your child’s whereabouts and reasons for being off school. 

  • Try to stay calm and support your child through this stressful time
  • Seek help from professionals, you don’t have to manage this on your own
  • Ask if the school can consider staggered start times or a reduced timetable to help your child to build their confidence back up
  • Request work for your child to complete at home
  • It can help to keep a record of all correspondence with your child’s school, as well as details of any GP visits, requests for help or assessments made. 
  • Ensure your child’s absence is being reported as an illness if they are struggling with their mental or physical health
  • If you are working, speak to your employer about the issues you are facing so they can give you some flexibility

Working with the school and the Local Authority

It is important to keep the communication lines open with the school and try to work with them the best you can. If you are unable to improve your child’s attendance by working with the school, they may refer you to the EWO (Educational Welfare officer) or your Local Authority Attendance Officer for further support. Your Local Authority may suggest a meeting to discuss attendance, and to create a parenting plan with you to tackle your child’s absence. You could request an EHAP (Early Help and Assessment Plan), which brings together a team of professionals with the family to look at ways in which your child’s attendance can be supported.  If you are concerned about being fined or prosecuted due to your child’s poor attendance, it’s important to ask for help. Child Law Advice has some helpful information about fines.

Further resources

If you would like further support and advice, call our helpline on 0808 800 2222 or email us at askus@familylives.org.uk. You can talk to us online via our live chat service, which is open, Monday to Friday between 10.30am and 9pm. You may find it helps to find out how other parents and carers have coped with this on our online forums. We also have a range of free online parenting courses that can help through the ages and stages of parenting. 

Other organisations that can help

Not Fine in School provide support for parents through practical advice and private Facebook groups

Young Minds provide a guide to school refusal and anxiety for parents

School and homework tips

Safety