7 Steps for Helping School Refusal

With all of the changes that young people have faced in recent times, it is no wonder that returning to school can be stressful. Just consider, in this pandemic, how difficult it has been for adults to work from home, and then go back to work. We find a way to do it, but we need support during the stress. Young people are the same.  

Here’s how to help fast

School refusal is a worry for parents and their kids, and the research shows there are important steps to take. This research also shows that the longer it takes to act, and the more time away, the harder it is to get the young person back to school. If a student refuses, act fast, do not wait for school absenteeism to be week or months-long, take action within days.

With DNA-V, the youth model of ACT, you can work quickly to get the young person back to school.

Here are seven steps to take:

1. Act fast. With school refusal, each day away from school makes it harder to go back, so fast help can be one of the best things you can do. Prevention before refusal habits set in is very powerful. Count school refusal as an urgent appointment.

2. Normalise their anxiety and worry. About 50% of kids refusing school will have early warning signs of anxiety or depression, or both. After the pandemic, it is common for many students to find returning difficult. Some students will be anxious due to uncertainty, increasing study demands, or changes in school dynamics. Let them know that about 1 in 5 young people in their class will be struggling with ‘something.’ Most students hide their distress. (To help with friendship skills, see our free chapter from Your Life Your Way). Check to see if they are connected with friends or if there is bullying or social isolation.

3. Connect with the school support person asap.  Most schools understand how school refusal works and know that fast action is needed. While I’m in this first session working on some DNA-v skills with the young person, my preferred option is to privately ask the parents to telephone the school and arrange to go up to the school straight after our session. It doesn’t always work out, but I attempt to strike while the iron is hot. After the session, quickly call/email the school and ask them to make a plan to support the returning student.

4. Begin your intervention in your first session. For example, show the young person the DNA-V “I hate school” video. I use this as a way of teasing out what is happening. Pause at each relevant point and allow them to personalise it with their issues. As you watch, help them share what their own DNA-v for school refusal has been. Maybe their advisor is telling them some self-critical things? Perhaps they notice intense somatic symptoms each morning. As you go, write a step-by-step plan for what they can do tomorrow.

5. Check for school bullying, isolation, and loneliness. Many schools are big places with over 1000 kids. For a young person with anxiety, it can be frightening to wander around the school ground at lunchtime friendless. If you detect any concerns with friendships or isolation, work with the school to create a plan. Sometimes it can be as simple as a meeting point at lunchtime or the opportunity to head to a safe zone (library).

6. Help parents.  Let parents know that the longer their young person is away from school; the more likely school refusal will become an ongoing battle. Coach parents in how to listen to their young person’s feelings without trying to fix or problem-solve; i.e. ask the young person, “Do you want me to offer suggestions or just listen?” This handy e-book can help parents.

7. Once the immediate return to school crisis has passed. Use DNA-v to help the young person build resilience and learn how to manage anxiety, depression, loneliness and friendship skills.

(Note: the above steps are helpful for young people that have sudden onset school refusal and are supported by parents. For young people without this, you will need to modify).