A mother comforts her sad looking daughter outdoors

A guide for parents and carers School anxiety and refusal

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

If your child is being affected by bullying, please have a look at our information and advice for parents.

It’s normal for children and young people to feel worried about something that’s happening at school – for example, when starting a new school or during exams. Sometimes, however, school can become challenging, stressful or distressing over a much longer period of time.

If your child is feeling anxious about school, or not able to go, it can be exhausting for both of you. Mornings in particular can become really stressful for the whole family, as you try to juggle your child’s feelings alongside the need to get them to school and get on with your other responsibilities such as work. Even if you manage to get your child to the school gate, you might know how difficult they’re going to find the day – or know that you’ll be facing the same problem tomorrow morning.

If you’re in this situation, we’ve got advice to help you explore what’s going on with your child, make changes at school that can help, and find the support you need if your child can’t go to school.

About the term 'school refusal'

When anxiety builds up to the point that a young person cannot go to school, this is often called ‘school refusal’ – and you might hear the school or other professionals using this term. However, many young people and parents do not like this term because it implies that ‘refusing’ school is a choice, and you may prefer to use terms such as emotionally-based school avoidance (ESBA) or anxiety-related absence.

What makes young people feel anxious about school?

Young people can feel anxious about school for lots of different reasons. They might be worried about making friends or fitting in, find schoolwork or lessons confusing, feel pressured to learn in a certain way or find their relationships with teachers difficult.

Sometimes, going through difficult experiences outside of school – such as bereavement, an illness in the family or being a young carer – can also make it harder for a child to feel settled at school.

For some young people, the school environment isn’t right for them, and trying to fit into it can create a huge amount of stress. This might be the case if they are struggling with their mental health, or have a neurodiverse condition or Special Educational Need (SEN) such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia or dyspraxia. This can make the school environment anxiety-provoking and exhausting, especially if their condition or need is undiagnosed or not being well supported.

  • We’re under high pressure and stress over our grades.
  • It feels like we have to be the same as our peers.
  • School is exhausting, especially when you’re dealing with other stuff.

Young people might show they’re feeling anxious about school by:

  • not wanting to get up and get ready
  • saying they can’t go
  • worrying a lot about small issues, such as having the right equipment for a lesson
  • feeling sick, or having stomach aches or headaches
  • not sleeping well
  • not doing schoolwork, or their grades dropping
  • being angry or upset, or acting out – at school or at home
  • withdrawing – seeming low, quiet or depressed
A mother and daughter cuddling
It’s often difficult for your child to articulate the problem. They may be in a heightened state of stress and not know why or feel able to explain. Your child probably wants to feel able to be in school, just as much as you want them to be there. In many cases it just doesn’t feel possible.

Finding out what's going on for your child

Sometimes it can be difficult to work out what’s making your child feel anxious, and the first step is often helping them to identify exactly what’s worrying them. Once you understand the problem, you’ll be in a much better position to make changes that can help.

Young people can find it hard to explain what’s causing their feelings, and might not be able to answer direct questions like ‘what’s going on?’ Using an anxiety iceberg can help to open up the conversation – giving you a more relaxed way of exploring together what’s causing their anxiety.

Watch our video to find out how to make an anxiety iceberg with your child.

Play Video: How to support your child with anxiety How to support your child with anxiety
Mother and daughters using mobile devices together

If you’re making an anxiety iceberg with younger children, you might want to draw images on the iceberg, or encourage them to write simple words. With older children and teenagers, you can ask them to write key words and phrases on the iceberg, or do this as a mind map, with ‘school’ in the middle and all the things they’re finding difficult around the outside.

Through this exercise, you might identify worries such as arriving at school, finding the environment noisy or overwhelming, finding lessons confusing, feeling lonely through the day, or feeling uncomfortable during specific subjects.

Making changes at school

Once you understand what’s going on for your child, you can use their anxiety iceberg or mind map to communicate with the school and ask for specific changes.

Follow these steps to start a conversation with the school:

  • 1. Ask for a meeting with the class teacher or tutor group lead, the pastoral lead or the school’s SENCO.
  • 2. Make notes of what you want to say beforehand, and during the meeting go through the specific things your child is finding difficult. You can also ask the teacher whether they have noticed any situations that seem particularly challenging for your child.
  • 3. If you and your child have already identified some things that might help, ask for specific changes. If you’re not sure where to start, you can ask them what changes the school can offer – or have a look at our ideas below.
  • 4. Take notes during the meeting, agree any changes you’re going to try, and follow up with them afterwards by email. You could also ask for the changes to be formalised in an Individual Education Plan. This is a plan schools can use to make sure your child is given consistent adjustments across all of their lessons.
  • 5. Arrange a time when you will check-in again to see if things have improved, allowing some time for your child to try out the new change or routine.
  • 6. If the person you’re speaking to isn’t helping, find someone else who will - such as their head of year or the deputy head. If you need to, you can also escalate the problem to the head teacher, governors, academy trust or the Local Education Authority.

Here are some examples of things you can ask the school for:

  • Younger children might find it helpful to arrive ten minutes early and have a job to do like tidying the classroom or setting the first lesson up. This gives them a calm start to the day with a clear purpose.
  • Teenagers might like to have a safe space where they can sit at the beginning of the day with a staff mentor, such as someone from the pastoral team. They can then return to this space if they need to at particularly difficult moments through the day.
  • Having a flexible start time can help to take the pressure off.
  • Having a friend meet them at the gate can reduce anxiety around walking into school and getting to the classroom.

  • Being given a visual timetable, with pictures to represent registration, different subjects and breaktimes can help give them a clear structure.
  • Having a ‘now, next, then’ card, which your child can edit through the day to keep track of what’s coming next, can break the day down into smaller steps.
  • Being given written instructions when they’re asked to complete a task can help if they’re finding it difficult to hold spoken instructions in their head.
  • Providing support when moving between lessons, and being given a warning before the next transition, can reduce how overwhelming it might feel.

  • Linking your child with a peer buddy or mentor, or a staff mentor, can give them a safe person to talk to and make sure someone is regularly checking in with them at school.
  • Being given a safe space, such as a wellbeing room or the pastoral team’s office, which they can drop into when needed, can help them to manage difficult moments.
  • Having an ‘exit card’ that lets them leave a lesson if they’re too anxious, and a safe space or person to go to, can help them know they have an ‘out’ when things get too much.
  • Having a flexible or reduced timetable can take the pressure off.

  • Having activities and clubs they can do at break and lunchtimes can provide some structure and reduce feelings of anxiety about what they’ll do.
  • Being part of a club, or being given a responsibility such as library monitor, can make them feel more involved.
  • Linking your child with a peer buddy or mentor can help them to feel there’s someone at school who cares about them.
  • Some schools may run groups about things like making friends, which can help your child to meet peers in a smaller group and think about these issues in a safe space.

Remember that even though this situation can be really tough for you and your child, it’s a good idea to maintain a positive relationship with the school. Recognise the support they’re offering and any changes they’re making. This will help you work together to make things better for your child.

Building a relationship with the attendance team at my son’s school was hugely helpful, we were talking with them each day.
A parent

Strategies you can try at home

  • Create a morning routine or timetable.

    Having a routine for getting up, getting dressed, having breakfast and leaving the house can create a sense of security and reduce stress for you too. Try to prepare things like checking their timetable, packing bags and laying out clothes the night before. In the morning, focus on the one thing they need to do next as you work your way through the timetable, rather than thinking about a big goal like ‘getting to school’.

  • Think together about how your child can manage their anxiety.

    Younger children might like to take something from home, like a favourite toy, into school with them – or use a worry box at home to help contain their anxieties. Teenagers might like to fill a box with things that help them feel calm using our guide to making a self-soothe box.

  • Encourage them to do things that help them relax.

    Having time to unwind after school can be important. This could be spending time with friends and family, listening to music, going for a walk or run, playing sport, baking, drawing or watching a favourite film.

  • Recognise small achievements.

    Notice small successes such as getting out of bed at the right time or handing work in at school – and tell your child you’re really impressed with them.

  • Try to take the pressure off.

    On some days your child may not be able to manage schoolwork or homework. Remember their mood will go up and down and you can always try again the next day.

For more information and advice, read our parent guide to managing anxiety. You can also find tips and advice in our blog.

What to do if your child is anxious about going back to school
  • I’d like it if you made time to chat to me and ask me how my day was when I get home.
    A young person
  • We need space to breathe and unwind after school.
    A young person

If your child isn’t able to go to school at the moment

A mother and her young son look at each other near a window

If your child isn’t going to school at the moment, this can be incredibly stressful and exhausting for you – and really tough for your child. You might be worried about whether they will be able to get back to school or the impact on their education. Or, you might feel overwhelmed because you’re juggling this alongside work and other family commitments.

If your child's anxiety about school has built up to the point where they can't go, it's a good idea to get them some professional mental health or SEN support - see our advice on this below.

Alongside requesting professional help, try to:

Remember to recognise the impact this situation is having on you, and reach out to trusted family and friends for support. Say ‘yes’ to offers of help, including other people spending time with your child so you can have some time off or get to an important work event. If you need to, speak to your employer about support they can provide, including flexible working. You could also think about parental leave. Find out more about your leave entitlements.

Even though this situation can be really stressful for you, remember to show your child that you understand why school is difficult for them and why they don’t want to go at the moment.

Try not to shout, tell them off or force them into school. Making them go in without changing anything is likely to make their anxiety worse in the long-term. Even though they might physically get to school, they probably won’t be in a position to learn either.

Be honest with the school about what’s going on. For example, say ‘my child cannot come to school because they are too anxious’, rather than saying they are unwell or don’t want to. Get a note from the GP, CAMHS or another mental health professional as early as you can.

The school’s SEN and attendance policies should be on their website. Knowing what these are can support you during meetings with the school.

This can help if your child is unable to go to school for a longer period of time and you need to ask for more support, including provision of alternative full-time education.

Encourage your child to get up, do some studying and stop for lunch at the same times they would if they were in school. This will make adapting back to school easier. Explain to your child that if they cannot go to school, they will need to study at home – at least until alternative arrangements are put in place. Ask the school to help you facilitate tasks and activities your child can do and use online resources such as BBC Bitesize.

Not going to school could leave your child feeling really isolated. Make sure they stay connected to the outside world by seeing friends and family, doing activities they enjoy and getting outside for walks and exercise.

Speaking to friends online can be really important if your child is feeling isolated at home. Sometimes, however, you might notice that your child is spending lots of time gaming or on their phone, and that this is getting in the way of important daily activities like spending quality time with family, learning, or sleeping and eating well. If this is becoming a problem, have a look at our guide to gaming or guide to social media for more information and advice.

Local authorities must provide alternative education if a child of compulsory school age is unable to attend school over a longer period of time. If your child cannot attend school because of a mental or physical health issue, the local authority should provide an alternative as soon as it is clear that they will be away from school for more than 15 days (either consecutively or over time). Find out how to request alternative education.

What will happen 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.

  • Seeing your child unable to drag themselves out of bed to get the education you know they need can be heart-breaking, but remember they don’t want to fail at school either.
    A parent
  • A warm response from parents can make a difference in how they feel about themselves, improving their likelihood of good outcomes.
    A parent

Helping your child return to school after an absence

A father and son sitting at a table smiling with hot drinks

Getting back to school after weeks or months may feel extremely difficult for your child, 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 any strategies that might help them.
  • 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 what your child wants to do next, perhaps dropping a less relevant GCSE to reduce stress.
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.
A parent

Getting mental health and SEN support

If your child is struggling with anxiety and it’s affecting their day-to-day life, learning or relationships, it’s a good idea to find some professional support. Speaking to the GP and finding them a counsellor or therapist are two good places to start. You can find more information about GPs, counsellors and other mental health services in our guide to getting support from mental health services.

If there is no other obvious reason for your child’s inability to attend school, they may have an undiagnosed Special Educational Need (SEN) such as dyslexia, autism or ADHD.

If you think this is the case:

  • Speak to the school’s SENCO or your GP to ask for a referral for an assessment.
  • While you are waiting for an assessment, you can also ask the SENCO to refer your child for support from other professionals, such as an Educational Psychologist or Speech and Language Therapist. These professionals can identify specific needs and make recommendations for additional support the school can put in place – even if your child hasn’t had a formal diagnosis yet.
close-up-of-a-young-girl-with-curly-hair-and-a-boy-in-blue-jacket-looking-serious-at-another-girl-cropped-in-the-photo-while-sitting-on-a-bench-with-table-in-the-park

SEN support at school

If your child is diagnosed with SEN, extra support and adjustments should be put in place at school to help them attend and learn. This is called SEN support, and should be available within the school's existing resources. Speak to the school's SENCO in the first instance about how the school will support your child.

Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans

If you do not think your child's needs can be met by the school's existing resources, you can ask the local authority to carry out an Education, Health and Care needs assessment (EHC needs assessment). If the local authority decides your child needs additional support, they will then make an Education, Health and Care plan (EHC plan). This outlines how the extra support they need will be provided.  Find out more about EHC plans.

Your Local Offer

Your Local Offer is the information, support and services available for young people with SEN, and for their parents and families. You can find out what support is available in your area by going to your local authority's website and searching for their Local Offer. 

IPSEA

  • If you need more information and advice about getting the right education for your child when they have been diagnosed with a Special Educational Need (SEN), IPSEA can help.

    If you need to talk through a problem, their Advice Line can provide support with any educational issue resulting from your child's SEN. You can also find lots of information, including information on assessments and diagnosis, as well as getting support from the school and local authority, on their website.

Finding more information and advice

Useful helplines and websites

While we take care to ensure that the organisations we signpost to provide high quality information and advice, we cannot take responsibility for any specific pieces of advice they may offer. We encourage parents and carers to always explore the website of a linked service or organisation to understand who they are and what support they offer before engaging with them.

  • YoungMinds Parents Helpline

    We support parents and carers who are concerned about their child or young person's mental health. Our Parents Helpline provides detailed advice and information, emotional support and signposting.

    You can speak to us over the phone or chat to us online.

    You can speak to us over webchat between 9.30am and 4pm from Monday-Friday. When we’re closed, you can still leave us a message in the chat. We’ll reply to you by email in 3-5 working days.

    Opening times:
    9.30am-4pm, 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
  • Not Fine in School

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

  • National Autistic Society

    Online information and resources about education for autistic children and young people. This includes advice around the different types of provision, finding extra help at school, and issues around exclusion and school anxiety.

    They also have a network of local branches. These can provide things like parent courses and family support, social meet-ups and support groups for autistic young people.

  • 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 or about family and child law. You can also speak to them over webchat (open 8am - 5.30pm, Monday - Friday).

    Opening times:
    10am - 4pm, Monday – Friday
  • 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

You might also find this helpful

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.

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This page was reviewed in December 2022.

It was created with parents and carers with lived experience of supporting their child or young person with school anxiety.

We will next review the page in 2025.

YoungMinds is a proud member of PIF TICK – the UK's quality mark for trusted health information.

Whether you love the page or think something is missing, we appreciate your feedback. It all helps us to support more young people with their mental health.

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