A mother comforts her sad looking daughter outdoors

A guide for parents School anxiety and refusal

If your child is anxious about school, or their mental health means they are unable to go to school, we have advice on supporting them and tips on working with school and other services.

What is school anxiety or refusal?

A student wearing uniform sits on a desk lost in a thought with their hand over their mouth, they sit next to another student who is focused on the lesson.

School can be a source of support and community as well as learning. It can provide responsibilities that boost self-esteem, exposure to different opinions, new experiences, a sense of achievement, friendships and relationships with trusted adults.

It is however completely normal for children to feel worried about  aspects of school life occasionally. This is usually short-lived, but for some children school can feel challenging, stressful or distressing for a longer period.

In some cases this builds up so that the child is reluctant to go in, or becomes so severe that they are unable to attend. This is usually called ‘school refusal’, though many object to the implication that it’s a choice. It is also known as emotionally-based school avoidance (EBSA) or anxiety-related absence.

If your child is struggling with school-related anxiety or refusal, it’s important to recognise the problem and work with them, the school and, if appropriate, other professionals to provide the right support as soon as possible.

What causes school anxiety or refusal?

Young people can feel anxious about school for many reasons.

They may be worried about things like settling into a new school, friendship difficulties, exam or academic pressure, or bullying. Or there may be difficulties outside school, such as bereavement, divorce, parental illness, being a young carer, or anxiety about separation from family or the comfort of home (this can be heightened after a school holiday or absence).

School problems can also result from physical illness or mental health conditions such as depression, or neurodevelopmental conditions including things like ADHD or ASD, which may be undiagnosed or not well-supported.

  • We’re under high pressure and stress over our grades.
  • It feels like we have to be the same as our peers.

Young people tell us their worries about school can include:

  • finding the work difficult, or problems with concentration
  • finding school exhausting, especially if dealing with mental or physical health issues
  • feeling pressure to get good results
  • friendship difficulties
  • experiencing or witnessing bullying
  • feeling like they don’t ‘fit in’, aren’t accepted, supported or seen
  • not getting on with teachers
  • feeling pressured to learn in a particular way
  • additional needs such as dyslexia or ADHD not being recognised
  • feeling average or no good among high-achieving peers

Young people may show they're feeling anxious about school by:

  • not wanting to get up and get ready
  • being reluctant or refusing to go to school
  • worrying excessively about small issues, such as having the right equipment for a lesson
  • feeling sick or having stomach or headaches
  • not doing schoolwork, or grades dropping
  • being angry or upset, or acting out – at school or home
  • withdrawing – seeming low, quiet or depressed
  • reluctance to return after a period of illness
  • not going to school without you knowing

Helping your child with school anxiety

Focus on listening and providing emotional support. Reassure them that you can work together to make things better. If you're not sure how to ask your child about school, take a look at our tips on how you can start a conversation with your child.

Starting a conversation with your child

These could be things at school or home that would help them to feel less worried. We include some strategies in the section below. Visit the GP if there may be an underlying physical or mental health issue that needs support.

This can help stop problems building up. Speak to the class teacher, tutor, pastoral team or Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO).

Identify activities that help them express and manage their anxiety. This could be spending time with particular friends, listening to music, reading, playing sport, drawing, cooking or watching a favourite film.

Planning everything from getting up and dressed, having breakfast and leaving the house to arriving at school can help create a sense of security and reduce stress. Prepare the night before, for instance checking timetable, packing bags and laying out clothes.

Your child can use a notebook to jot down worries, which can stop them from becoming overwhelming. Carrying something from home – such as a key ring or photo – may also reduce anxiety.

Younger children might find it helpful to feel that their worries are being held somewhere, making them more manageable. We have step-by-step instructions on how to build a worry box with your child.

Or you can encourage your teenager to fill a box with things that calm them when they’re feeling worried. They can use our guide on how to make a self-soothe box.

How to make a worry box: a guide for parents

The school may have a counsellor who can provide emotional support and help your child express and understand their feelings. If your school doesn’t have a counsellor, or your child would rather see someone outside school, our counselling and therapy guide lists other options.

Counselling and therapy

For more techniques, advice and information on how to help your child with anxiety, take a look at our guide.

Supporting your child with anxiety
close up of a boy wearing grey hoodie listening to an advice of his teacher in front of him

Strategies that can help reduce anxiety in school

  • linking your child with a pastoral staff member they trust and can talk to
  • having that person start each day with a short chat or game with your child
  • linking your child with a peer buddy or mentor
  • providing a safe space, such as mentor’s office or wellbeing room for break or other difficult times
  • finding ways for them to feel more involved, for example through a club or a responsibility such as library monitor
  • breaking the day down and asking your child what might help with each stage, for instance having a friend meet them at the gate
  • flexible start-time or timetable, or support for transition between lessons
  • having an ‘exit card’ so your child can leave a lesson if too anxious
  • It’s okay for us to do stuff that isn’t school work – other interests are important.
  • I need you to trust me, and to not assume you know what school is like.

If your child is worried about starting a new school

We teamed up with our friends over at Beano studios to make a series of fun videos to help younger children worried about starting a new school, going back after a holiday, making friends or fitting in.

Helping your child with school refusal

If your child is unable to go to school you will need to provide extra support both practically and emotionally, but there is a lot you can do to help them.

Ask what it is about school that makes them feel unable to go in. Listen, tell them you understand how hard this must be for them, and take their worries seriously.

Don't shout, tell them off or physically force them to go to school as this is likely to increase their anxiety. Try to stay calm and positive.

Let your child get used to the strategies you try and allow time to see if they help before moving on.

Praise small successes such as getting out of bed at the right time, or collecting work from school. Understand that some days your child may not manage schoolwork. Progress isn’t always linear, try again the next day.

Encourage your child to get up, dress, do some study and stop for lunch at the same times they would in school. Restrict recreational activities to outside school hours. All this will make adapting back to school easier.

Education is a legal requirement. Explain to your child that if they cannot go to school, they will need to study at home. Work with school to facilitate learning and set tasks, and use online resources such as BBC Bitesize for curriculum-linked work. Look at the relevant exam board websites if your child is sitting public exams. 

Seeing friends, doing activities, daily walks and responsibilities such as helping with siblings can all help keep your child connected to the outside world, build confidence and lift low mood.

Keep oversight of online activities so your child gets enough sleep and is not gaming in school hours. But remember that safe contact with peers online is important if they are otherwise isolated. See our parent guide to managing and talking about gaming.

Gaming

If your child is struggling with their mental health, it is important they are given the care they need. Tell the GP your child’s education is also being affected. Discuss a CAMHS referral if this isn’t underway.

If you think your child may have a special educational need or disability, speak to the school’s SENCO about referral for assessment and possibly for an education, health and care plan (EHC plan). These identify a child’s needs and outline necessary support.

The school or CAMHS may suggest a Team Around the Child (TAC) meeting, bringing together the different professionals working with your child, to work out the best plan. Our parents' guide has more advice and information on finding help.

Getting help for your child

Your local authority’s website should have details of the Local Offer (information and services for parents of children with SEND).

Dealing with school refusal can be very isolating and stressful, especially if you are also juggling work and other family commitments. Try to find some support and time for yourself. Your resilience and wellbeing is important for your child too. We have advice and tips in our parents' guide to looking after yourself that can help you.

Parents' guide to looking after yourself
Seeing your child unable to drag themselves out of bed for the education you know they need can be heartbreaking, but remember they don’t want to fail at school either.
a parent

Tips for working with your child's school

Whether your child is in school or unable to attend, it is important that you, the school and your child work together to help them.

Prepare a list of concerns, relevant history and dates before meeting with your child’s class teacher, head of year or SENCO. Agree strategies you will try and arrange a follow-up meeting after a few weeks. If you are not happy with the response, escalate to a senior staff member, school governors, academy trust or the Local Education Authority (find your LEA here).

Your child’s needs should be at the centre of any plans so ask them if there are times they find particularly hard – for example lesson changeovers, break-times, certain subjects, the journey to school – and what they think might help. Ask teachers the same and note down difficult days or times to help pinpoint possible changes.

You, the teachers and your child can use this to record and share updates. This helps maintain regular communication – giving you at home a better sense of what things are like at school, and vice versa.

Recognise steps the school is making to help your child. Being honest with school about why your child is absent and sharing relevant home issues is important to help get the right support.

The school’s anti-bullying policy should set out how they need to respond and support your child. If it is not on the school’s website, ask to see it. Our advice for parents on bullying has more information.

Bullying

School SEN and attendance policies should be on the website. Take notes from all correspondence and meetings. Follow meetings up with an email outlining concerns and agreed actions, and asking for a response on progress to keep things moving.

Make clear that your child is not mentally well enough to attend, and obtain evidence of this from the GP, CAMHS or other health professional as early as you can.

  • Building a relationship with the attendance team at my son’s school was hugely helpful, we were talking with them each day.
  • My son wasn’t questioned about his absence when he did feel able to pop in for favourite lessons, helping to ease him back into full days of education.

Helping your child return after school absence

Getting back to school after weeks or months can feel extremely difficult for a young person, but you and the school can help make it more manageable. Here are some things you can do to help:

  • set small, achievable targets, such as visiting the building outside school hours or attending one lesson
  • request a home visit from a school staff member, so your child can check in while feeling safe, see that the school cares and discuss strategies
  • ask for a reduced timetable, with regular reviews to discuss building back up at a manageable rate
  • discuss changing classes or sets if your child thinks this would help
  • focus on qualifications needed for your child’s preferred next steps, perhaps dropping a less relevant GCSE to reduce stress.

If there is no other obvious reason for your child’s inability to attend, there may be an undiagnosed SEN. Ensure potential underlying conditions, such as autism or ADHD, are investigated and supported.

What happens if my child doesn't go to school?

Parents often tell us they are worried about fines and prosecution, but schools generally consider this only if they feel there is no valid reason for the absence or that parents aren’t engaging with the problem.

If the absence is prolonged, the case may be referred to a local council Education Welfare Officer (EWO). They will arrange a home visit to find out more and discuss strategies. The school may also refer to other support, including from CAMHS.

Children who can’t attend mainstream school are entitled to alternative provision of education in a different setting. This could be a separate unit within or outside the school, an independent provider, home tuition or online tuition. Each local authority website should link to a Parent Partnership, setting out local alternative provision options and information.

“A loving response from us can make a difference in how they feel about themselves, improving their likelihood of good outcomes.”
a parent

Where to get further support

If your child is struggling with school anxiety and refusal, here are some services that can help.

  • ACE Education

    Provides independent advice and information for parents on education issues in England.

    You can also find information about exclusions, special educational needs, bullying and other issues on their website.

    Opening times:
    10am - 1pm, Monday - Wednesday (term time only)
  • Child Law Advice

    Provides free legal advice about education and family issues to parents, carers and young people.

    You can contact them by email about education law here, or about family and child law here.

    Opening times:
    8am - 6pm, Monday – Friday
  • Independent Parental Special Education Advice (IPSEA)

    Provides legally based advice to help families get the right education for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

    You can book an appointment with their Advice Line or Tribunal Helpline.

  • Enquire

    Provides advice and information to parents and carers in Scotland if their child needs additional support for learning.

    You can also use their webchat service or contact them via an online form

    Opening times:
    1pm - 4.30pm, Monday - Friday
  • National Autistic Society

    Information and resources about educational rights and entitlements, assessments and education plans, as well as advice if your child won't go to school. Contact their Educational Rights Helpline using this online form or leave a message on the answerphone service.

    For information about school exclusions, contact their School Exclusion helpline using this online form

  • Contact

    Provides support, information and advice for families with children with disabilities or other conditions including ADHD. Also runs family workshops and activities.

    Free online chat service available. 

    Opening times:
    9:30am - 5pm, Monday - Friday
  • British Dyslexia Association

    Provides information, support and advice for people with dyslexia, and for those who support them.

    Opening times:
    10am - 1pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 1pm - 3pm on Thursdays
  • Dyspraxia Foundation

    Provides information and advice for people with dyspraxia, and for their parents, carers and families.

    You can also contact them by email using this form.

    Opening times:
    9am - 1pm, Monday - Friday
  • Not Fine in School

    Parent and carer led organisation offering information and practical resources for families of children struggling with school.

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We have more tips and advice on supporting your child with school and information about how you can get in touch with our Parents Helpline.