The impact of school refusal

Last year the Senate released a report into the national trend of school refusal and related matters. The report found that school refusal has a significant impact on young people, their parents, and careers. The report provides that school refusal impacts young people’s health and wellbeing, social connections and educational outcomes.

 Anna Smout, Psychologist and PhD candidate (clinical psychology) with Monash University’s Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health said, “Families and school systems across the world are struggling with school refusal, a problem that can strain family relationships and is associated with significant mental distress in young people. Australia is not immune. School refusal is not new but the COVID-19 pandemic and its significant impact on schooling through lockdowns has thrown a spotlight on the issue. As the Senate report into school refusal released last August made clear, the problem is complicated.”

“School reluctance and refusal are deceptively complex issues that are often misunderstood. A child is experiencing school reluctance if they are unwilling to attend school, but they are still attending. A child is experiencing school refusal if they have difficulties attending and/or remaining at school due to emotional distress about attending school.”

“School refusal is usually driven by a child’s attempt to manage overwhelming difficulties related to school attendance, rather than by disobedience or defiance. School refusal is equally common between genders. While it can show up any time, it’s often during transition points into primary or secondary school,” said Ms Smout.

 According to Professor Marie Yap, Parenting and Youth Mental Health research group lead, Monash University School of Psychological Sciences and Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health, the term ‘school refusal’ is not universally accepted.

 “Although it is widely used, the term ‘school refusal’ is not universally accepted. The word ‘refusal’ can imply a child-motivated defiance, but there are numerous individual (child), family, school, community and other circumstances that can contribute to a child’s difficulty attending school.

“Many young people may desperately want to go to school, but feel they can’t. For these reasons, some families and professionals prefer alternative terms such as ‘school can’t’, or ‘school avoidance’.”

Ms Yap says it is important to address the school refusal with your child as school plays an important role in social and emotional development.  “It is important to address school reluctance or refusal. The school environment plays a crucial role in fostering social and emotional development.”

“Attending school can build resilience and confidence, and keeps your child connected with their peers and learning. School absences arising from school refusal can lead to a range of consequences including missing out on education, exiting school early, difficulties with friendships/peer relationships, and later problems with working life (eg, unemployment).”

“Missing school can also contribute to mental health problems, conflict and strained relationships within the family, and decreased income in the family (e.g. if family members stay home from work to care for the child),” said Ms Yap.