The current levels of absences suggest that school is a challenging environment for many children; rather than focusing on attendance for its own sake, the question we should be asking ourselves is why.
You might know a child who won’t get out of bed on a Monday morning, or who feels ill on the journey to school. They might go very quiet or have meltdowns when you tell them it’s time to get ready. The term ‘school refusal’ is no longer used because, for many children, it’s not that they ‘won’t’ go to school, but that they feel they ‘can’t’.
1 in 5 children are having difficulties going to school regularly, according to Department for Education figures – almost twice pre-pandemic levels. There’s no one reason for this, but it’s thought that many absences are related to increasing levels of chronic anxiety. This isn’t surprising when considering everything children have had to process in the last few years; the climate crisis, a global pandemic, a cost of living crisis, and multiple international conflicts.
Young children might not always be able to explain why they don’t want to go to school, but if a child is regularly anxious, this probably tells you that something else is going on. This could be undiagnosed neurodiversity creating hidden social and sensory challenges, bullying, trauma, or undisclosed problems at home or school which need attention. If a child won’t or can’t go to school, it’s really important to investigate this, and not force them into the classroom without addressing the reasons why.
Anxiety & school avoidance
Anxiety can be a warning from our bodies telling us that something’s not right. Being anxious creates uncomfortable thoughts and sensations which can be very difficult to sit with, including a fast heartbeat, needing the toilet a lot, fight or flight sensations, or catastrophic racing thoughts. Avoidance is a completely understandable, human response to preventing distressing or traumatic experiences.
Avoidance might even feel like a good solution in the short-term; if a child takes the day off school, then their anxiety might improve straight away. However, it’s possible that in the long run, feelings of anxiety can become generalised to other areas of a child’s life outside of school. Avoidance also isn’t always possible – there might not be someone home to take care of a child every day – and it can make things worse if a child is missing out on important experiences.
The school environment itself can be the cause of anxiety for many children; they are put under so many demands to fit in, to regulate their emotions, and to behave in a controlled way for long periods of time – as well as trying to learn new information every day. Schools don’t always have the flexibility, training or resources to accommodate every child’s needs, and the intensity of such a structured, social and highly pressurised environment simply isn’t sustainable for some children without adjustments or additional support.
Working together with the school
Schools and Local Authorities have a responsibility to make sure children are receiving an education, and poor attendance can potentially be a safeguarding issue. That’s why it’s important for parents to be transparent with a child’s school about the reasons for their absences. However, if parents feel they are being blamed for their child’s difficulties attending school, this can break down trust and make it harder to work together.
If there are concerns about a child, parents and teachers can begin by simply talking to each other. It might be that there are clues at home or school which help to understand what’s going on. In our film, Life as a SENCo, Rachel explains that the most successful children she sees as a SENCo “is when we’ve had a really good relationship with the parents, and we’ve worked together through their school life.”
If it seems like a child is going to need ongoing support, it might mean applying for an Education Health & Care Plan. An EHCP will identify a child’s education, health and social needs, alongside the steps their school needs to take to ensure these needs are met. If a child has had an extended break from school, it might also be possible to arrange a phased or flexible return to mainstream education.
The EHCP application process can be lengthy. Our Early Intervention film series goes through the first steps, and you can also read about your Local Authority’s statutory obligations on the UK Government’s website. For some children it might eventually be decided that home-schooling is a better option – but this shouldn’t be because the school can’t accommodate their needs.
How should we respond to emotionally-based school avoidance?
The pandemic opened up new possibilities for online learning and spending more time at home, and for some children this was a welcome break from the daily challenges of school. However, not every child has a safe home life or the resources to learn from home, and it protects all children when parents and schools engage with each other about the reasons for a child’s absence.
Poor school attendance is usually a symptom of a wider problem and, until the reasons for school avoidance are understood, coercive measures to get children back into school are unlikely to be effective and may even cause additional trauma. The current levels of absences suggest that school is a challenging environment for many children; rather than focusing on attendance for its own sake, the question we should be asking ourselves is why.
Square Peg: Not Fine in School is a parent & carer-led organisation set up in response to the growing number of children and young people who struggle with school attendance.
Anna Freud: Resources on how schools can work with parent carers to support children with emotionally based school avoidance.