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Supporting your child with school anxiety and refusal

If your child is refusing to go to school, or is feeling anxious, here's our information and advice to help you support your child and work with the school.

School can be a source of support, belonging, learning and community for young people. However, every young person will worry about things that happen at school from time to time. For some, school can become challenging or distressing over a longer period of time.

If your child is struggling at school, the important thing is to recognise that there’s a problem to be solved, and to work with your child and the school to find the right support as soon as you can.

How can I help my child with school anxiety?

  1. Ask your child what’s worrying them. Focus on listening and providing emotional support, and reassure them that you can work together to make things better. You can find our tips on starting a conversation with your child here.
  2. Think with them about changes that could be made at school, at home or in their daily routine to help them feel less worried. You can use some of the ideas we’ve listed later in this guide.
  3. Reach out to their school as early as you can to avoid things building up. Work with their class teacher or form tutor, the pastoral team and other key staff to improve the situation.
  4. Talk with your child about strategies that help them to express and manage their anxiety. This could be spending time with particular friends, listening to music, reading, playing sport, drawing, cooking or watching a favourite film.
  5. Plan a regular morning routine that can be followed each day – from getting up to having breakfast, getting dressed, leaving the house and arriving at school. This will help to create a sense of security.
  6. Consider using a worry journal if your child feels particularly anxious while they’re at school. They can carry this with them and write down a worry when it comes into their head, helping to keep anxious thoughts from becoming overwhelming.
  7. Younger children might find it helpful to make a ‘worry box’. Decorate any kind of box such as a cereal or shoe box together, and designate a ‘worry time’ when your child will write down what they’re anxious about. Then post it into the box, close the lid and agree not to give it anymore worry time that day. If your child would find it helpful, you can also choose a time to talk through worries together.
  8. Teenagers might find it helpful to make their own self soothe box, which they can fill with all the things that help them when they’re feeling worried. You can find a young person’s guide to making one here.

What young people want parents to know about school

  • We’re under high pressure and stress over our grades.
  • It feels like we have to be the same as our peers.
  • It’s okay for us to do stuff that isn’t school work – other interests are important.
  • We need space to breathe and unwind after school.
  • I’d like it if you made time to chat to me and ask me how my day was when I get home.
  • I need you to be on my side, and listen to me as well as my teachers.
  • You can support me better if you really get to know me and what I need.
  • I need you to trust me, and to not assume you know what school is like.

If you have a younger child who's feeling worried about starting at a new school, making friends or fitting in, we teamed up with our friends over at Beano studios to make a series of fun videos to help them.

How can I help my child with school refusal?

  1. Ask them what it is about school that makes them not want to go, and validate their experience of finding these things difficult. Stay as calm as you can, taking your child’s worries seriously and listening to how they’re feeling.
  2. Even though the situation may feel stressful, don’t shout, tell them off or physically force them to go to school. This is likely to increase their anxiety.
  3. Speak to your child’s teacher or form tutor as soon as possible. Have they noticed any changes in their behaviour, or in their friendship group or class? Tackling the problem early can be really helpful, as the longer your child is out of school, the harder it can be to go back.
  4. Ask their teachers if there are particular moments when they seem to struggle. For example, it might be during lesson changeovers, break-times, particular subjects, the journey to school or through the whole day. This can help you identify triggers.
  5. Keep in regular communication with key staff at the school, and work with them to make changes that will help. You can use the tips below to help you.
  6. Make a log of the days when your child doesn’t want to go to school. This will give you a better sense of when and how often they feel like this, and can also help you raise it with the school.
  7. Be consistent with the strategies you try to help them get back to school. Let your child get used to them and remember that it might take a while for something to work. Changing between lots of strategies quickly can be confusing, so only move on when you’ve tried something for a while without it helping.
  8. Try to stick to the same routine and praise your child for every small step they take. This could be getting out of bed at the right time, eating breakfast, washing and brushing their teeth, getting dressed and eventually leaving the house.

If things are difficult and have already been going on for a while, you can also:

  • Ask the school to arrange a reduced timetable, with only a few lessons each week – with the aim of building back up when it feels manageable for your child
  • Discuss the possibility of changing forms, sets or tutors if your child thinks this would help
  • Request a home visit from the school, where a staff member can check-in, show your child the school cares about them and discuss strategies for moving forward
  • Think about small, achievable targets your child can work towards

Our Parents Helpline team discuss school refusal

Tips for working with your child's school

  1. Organise a meeting with your child’s teacher or form tutor as soon as you can. Let them know how your child is feeling and raise any issues that are making school particularly difficult. It might help to write down a list of concerns beforehand, and to bring along a family member or friend to support you,
  2. Agree with the school which strategies you will try to make things better, and arrange a time to check-in on how it's going.
  3. It might help to use a home-school book, in which you, teachers and your child can record important things that happen. This helps maintain regular communication – giving you a better sense of what things are like at school, and the school a better sense of what it’s like for your child at home.
  4. If you are concerned about bullying, read through the school’s anti-bullying policy. This should set out how the school needs to respond and support your child. It is usually on the school’s website but if not, ask to see it. You can read our advice for young people on bullying here.
  5. Try to maintain a positive relationship with key school staff, including by recognising the things that are being done to help your child. Ultimately, this will help you get more of the support you need.
  6. Record evidence of the action you and the school are taking. After meetings, put your concerns and agreed actions in writing by sending an email or letter. This will help to keep things moving, for example you can ask the school to send you a follow-up email when they agree to do something.

Depending on how difficult your child is finding things, you can discuss some of the following strategies with the school:

  • Linking them with a member of staff, for example from the pastoral team, who they can chat to
  • Linking them with a peer buddy or mentor
  • Finding a way for them to feel more part of the school community, for example by joining a club
  • Thinking of ways they can structure break-times if they are finding them difficult
  • Offering them a new role or responsibility, such as library or book-corner monitor, or learning mentor
  • Offering a flexible start-time or timetable
  • Referring them for additional support such as counselling

If you are unhappy with the way a member of staff is responding to your concerns, escalate them to a more senior person – such as a more senior teacher, a deputy head, or the head teacher. If this doesn’t work, you can contact the school governors (their contact details should be on the school’s website), and lastly the Local Education Authority or the Academy Trust.

Finding professional help

School counselling

  • A school counsellor or therapist can provide emotional support and help your child to express and make sense of their feelings.
  • If this is offered by your child’s school, talk to their teacher about making a referral.
  • If your child’s school does not offer counselling, or your child would not feel comfortable seeing a counsellor at school, you can use our guide below to help you access it elsewhere.

GP and Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS)

  • If you’re worried about your child’s mental health or wellbeing, you can speak to your GP (with or without your child) about next steps and finding support.
  • Together you can discuss whether referral to CAMHS and/or an assessment by a mental health specialist is needed.
  • Your child’s school can also refer your child to CAMHS. If you would like their support with a CAMHS referral, it might help to talk to the school nurse.

Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND)

  • If you think your child may have additional needs or learning difficulties, speak to their teacher or the school’s SENCO (Special Educational Needs Coordinator) about whether they need to be referred for an assessment. They may then be able to access additional support through the school.
  • Children and young people under 25 who need more support than their school can provide are entitled to an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan. EHC plans identify their needs and set out the support that will be provided. You, your GP and your child’s school can ask your local authority to carry out an assessment for this. The process can take a long time, so it’s often a good idea to try to get support through the school fist.
  • Your local authority’s ‘Local Offer’ also outlines how parents of children with SEND can access information and local services. You can search for this on your local authority’s website.

Alternative Provision

  • Children and young people who can’t attend mainstream school are entitled to alternative provision of education in a different setting.
  • This could be a separate unit within or outside the school, an independent provider, home tuition or online tuition.
  • Every local authority website should set out its Alternative Provision options.

Finding more information and support

ACE Education

Provides independent advice and information for parents on education issues in England.

You can also find information about exclusions, special educational needs, bullying and other issues on their website.

Phone: 0300 0115 142

Opening times: 10am - 1pm, Monday - Wednesday (term time only)

Child Law Advice

Provides free legal advice about education issues to parents, carers and young people.

You can also contact them using this online form.

Phone: 0300 330 5485

Opening times: 8am - 6pm, 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

Phone: 0345 123 2303

Opening times: 1pm - 4.30pm, Monday - Friday

Contact

Supports families with children with disabilities, providing information and advice on issues such as education, benefits and finances, childcare, social care and health care. 

Live chat service also available.

Phone: 0808 808 3555

Email: [email protected]

Opening times: 9.30 - 5pm, Monday - Friday

National Autistic Society

Supports people with autism and their families.

Their Education Rights Service can help with information about educational rights and entitlements, as well as with specific issues such as school problems, assessments and education plans. Leave a message on the 24-hour answering service and someone will call you back, usually within 3-5 working days. Or contact them using their online form.

You can also find details for other services, including an educational tribunal helpline, a school exclusion helpline and a parent-to-parent support line on their website.

Phone: 0808 800 4102

British Dyslexia Association

Provides information, support and advice for people with dyslexia, and for those who support them.

Phone: 0333 405 4567

Email: [email protected]

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.

Phone: 01462 454986

Opening times: 9am - 1pm, Monday - Friday

National Careers Service

Provides information, advice and guidance to help young people make decisions about learning, training and work.

Webchat available via the website homepage.

Phone: 0800 100 900

Opening times: 8am - 10pm, 7 days a week.

The Mix

Offers support to anyone under 25 about anything that’s troubling them.

Email support available via their online contact form.

Free 1-2-1 webchat service available.

Free short-term counselling service available.

Phone: 0808 808 4994

Opening times: 4pm - 11pm, seven days a week

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