Attempting to understand school refusal is no mean feat. Many people still consider it in a similar vein to “wagging” or parent-condoned absenteeism. However, school refusal is an often misunderstood and serious difficulty for many students.
School refusal is a psychological problem, not truancy
School refusal can be classified under the category of Separation Anxiety, which is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-V). However, school refusal is not specifically mentioned in this book. School refusal was previously known as School Phobia, which demonstrates its consideration as more a psychological issue rather than one of simple truancy. It is still poorly researched and not properly understood within education.
The consideration of school refusal as a psychological issue is highlighted in an article in The Journal of School Nursing. This explains some of the commonly described symptoms of school refusal, including physical complaints such as stomachache and headache.
These usually mask the psychological issue of an anxiety which may or may not be related to school. For example, if there has been domestic abuse, then a child may not want to leave his or her parent out of fear that the parent could be hurt if the child is not with them. This anxiety may or may not be related to a specific event nor is it to do with recency.
The Monash team put prevalence of school refusal at about 1-2% of the school population; however, it is not clear if this is an Australian figure or not. Another source suggests that the figures could be as high as 28% but highlights the lack of a clear understanding of what school refusal constitutes.
What is clear is that there have not been proper studies as to the actual figures for students affected by school refusal. The attendance figures in all states and territories are widely available but these do not break down numbers due to school refusal. Therefore it is impossible to estimate.
What parents need to do
School leaders and teachers are acutely aware of the importance of students attending school regularly, and of the impact of non-attendance on students’ academic and social progress. In fact, most Australian states and territories have policies to promote increased and consistent school attendance.
Victoria and Queensland have both developed initiatives centred on the “Every Day Counts” slogan, with information available for schools and families about the need for students to attend school every day.
Families must begin conversations with the school as soon as they notice a pattern of school refusal behaviour. The longer the problem persists, the more difficult it can be to re-engage the student in school.
It is important the school has this information for two reasons. Firstly, schools are required to keep rigorous data records on student attendance, and this information will assist in an accurate representation of what is occurring.
Secondly, research shows that for any students who experience additional support needs, the best approach for both schools and families is to work together. It is no different in the case of supporting students who are refusing to attend school.
The school and family need to work together to identify the problem of the school refusal, seek advice and/or support from other professionals (such as psychologists, school counsellors), and collaboratively develop and implement a plan.
The plan may include actions such as home visits, gradual re-entry into school, and flexible learning programs. It should be negotiated between the student, the school and the family.
This also means schools can put plans in place to ensure that students who have experienced issues with school refusal in the past will be well supported during times of high risk, such as transitioning between primary and secondary school, and moving between schools.
The most important aspect that the parent can do is to remember that the child could be experiencing severe anxiety. Parents know their child the best, more than anyone in school or other professional. It is key that the parent is able to spot school refusal as early as possible.
Recognising it as psychological difficulty and not just “wagging” will help bring a quicker and hopefully successful conclusion. Seeking help from an educational and developmental psychologist with expertise in the area is a very important step.
School refusal often ignored in attempt to increase attendance rates
Two aspects have to be dealt with when a child is refusing to go to school: school attendance policies and the wellbeing of the student. Stand-alone policies addressing school refusal are rare. As a result it is the policies governing student attendance that are most likely to influence the way schools approach these situations.
The message, delivered through a range of government advertising campaigns in different states, is that Every Day Counts. The flip side of this message is that for schools every day is counted. This is where the policy environment and school refusal behaviours are most likely to come into conflict and cause problems for the family and the administration of the school.
Schools, particularly government schools, are required to report student attendance rates and often use this data as a performance measure for individual schools and districts or regions.
In December 2014, federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne announced that from 2015 the MySchool website would include average school attendance rates for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.
This increased accountability brings additional pressure for schools to quickly address student absence issues. These measures range from controversially punitive tactics through to more supportive, wrap-around services.
School refusal is a serious issue in the education sector. However, it is often forgotten in the striving for higher attendance rates. The people who are most affected by the lack of knowledge are students who have difficulty attending school due to psychological issues rather than choosing not to attend.