Every parent hate hearing it: ‘I don’t want to go to school!’ Refusing to go to school is maybe more than just a case of ‘Mondayitis’.  It could be more serious like separation anxiety, adjustment issues, learning difficulties or bullying.  If left untreated, these underlying issues may have a long-term impact on your child’s mental and emotional development. 

What is school refusal?

School refusal is when a child refuses to go to school or becomes emotionally stressed when forced to attend school.  School refusal is not a psychiatric problem.  It is an emotional and behavioural issue. 

According to the University of Sydney’s clinical psychologist, Dr Judy Hyde, children generally enjoy going to school, socialising with their friends, and learning.  But when they are stressed by a situation beyond their control, they may start rejecting school. 

What are the signs?

Allowing our kids, a day off school is acceptable but if their refusal to attend school becomes a pattern, you will have to uncover the root problem.  Unfortunately, most children find it hard to express their feelings and emotions.  So, it is up to parents to look out for the signs that their child is stressed by the school.  


Here are some common symptoms to look out for:

  • Crying and throwing tantrums.
  • Begging or pleading not to go.
  • Refusing to get out of bed.
  • Showing high levels of anxiety.
  • Complaining of illness before school but gets better when allowed to stay home.
  • Feeling listless and lethargic.

What are some of the common causes?

The source of the problem could come from the home or in school. These can include separation anxiety, adjustment problems, learning difficulties or social problems like bullying. 


Separation anxiety, for example, occurs when the child picks up the anxieties of his or her parents.  In this case, the child is refusing to go to school not because he or she hates school but because they think it will make you feel better if they stay home.


A five-year-old going to school for the first time can be overwhelmed by the experience. Some children are frightened by unfamiliar things, loud sounds (for example the school bell) and crowds.  The fear is real until their parents can help them resolve it. 


Unfortunately, peer group pressure exists in school. A child who is not performing in class or on the field may lose self-esteem and confidence.  Likewise, a child who is picked on by others in the school.

Refusing to go to school may start gradually or it can happen out of the blue.  It can happen at the same time as or after:

  • Stressful events at home or in school or with peers.
  • Family and peer conflicts.
  • Academic and non-academic performance problems.
  • Starting or changing schools.
  • Moving home.
  • Bullying or teasing in school.
  • Problems with a teacher.

Generally, girls who are suffering from school-related anxieties tend to become quieter, withdrawn, and lethargic.  Boys, on the other hand, will act out to deflect others and become more unmanageable at home. 

How to help your child if he or she hates school

Staying away indefinitely from school does not solve the problem. The longer your child stays away, the more he or she will fall behind in their studies. It becomes harder for them to return.   

If you think your child is distressed by the school and the problem is deeper than just the ‘I hate homework’ scenario, there are practical steps you can take to support them and to encourage them to continue with school.


Talking to your child

Talking to your child

Children who are struggling can manifest their anger and frustration by acting out. No children act out because they enjoy tormenting their parents. They do so because they are not in control of the big emotions that are overwhelming them.

Get your child to open up to you about his or her problems in school. When talking to your child:

  • Take time to listen to what they are saying. Don’t just finish the sentence for them. Be patient. Give them the space to express what they are feeling.
  • Show them you understand what they are going through.
  • Assure them that they are not alone and that you will be there to help them. Say: “I know you are going through a difficult time in school, but it is important you continue to go to school. Your teacher and I will help you.”
  • Say positive and encouraging words like: “You are being brave going to school. I am proud of you.”
  • Commit to your child on the solutions to his or her problems so they can feel safe going to school. If it’s a bullying issue, go and see the teacher or principal. If it’s a learning challenge, try sitting down with them to help them with their homework or seek professional help. Learn more about our homework support program.
  • Be clear about going to school. Use words like “When you return to school…”, not “If you return to school…”.
  • Make definite statements that don’t allow them to give you a ‘No’ answer. When you are getting them out of bed say: “It’s time to get up and get ready for school.” Don’t say: “Are you ready to get up?” Or “Do you feel like going to school today?”

Talking to the school

If the problem is serious, for example, bullying, you will have to talk to the teacher or school principal. Here are some things to remember when approaching the school.

  • Discuss face-to-face. Don’t send an email.
  • Talk to the teacher or principal on ideas to help your child. Teachers and principals have vast experiences and will be able to give you good advice and support.
  • Ask for a referral to other support staff. For example, a school counsellor or psychologist if needed.
  • Ask the school for help if your child needs ongoing support for attendance.
  • If the problem is serious and your child is not able to return to school immediately, talk to the school about a gradual start date.
  • Talk to the teacher, school counsellor or principal for regular updates on your child’s progress in school.

We will be featuring a special edition on bullying in the coming weeks.  Sign up for an email alert here.

Managing your child at home

  • Stay calm when dealing with your child. Do not lose your temper.
  • Establish morning and evening routines to help your child stay focused on what is important. For example, pack school bag and lunch box in the evenings, prepare a soothing bath for your child every evening to relax and calm them before a school day.
  • Don’t turn day away from school into a treat. Minimise activities for example restrict television and mobile phone usage.
  • Get your child to continue to do schoolwork when he or she is at home. That way, you can minimise the risk of them falling behind in their studies.
  • Ensure your child has a healthy and balanced diet and plenty of rest.

Getting to school

  • Give your child assurance of their safety. Be frank with them about how you and the teachers will keep them safe.
  • Hug your child, tell them you love them and how proud you are of them.
  • Tell them that getting results are not as important as putting in the effort to try something.
  • Reward your child for making the effort to go to school. Don’t bribe your child with toys and gifts.  Try spending quality time with your child doing something he or she likes instead. 
  • Try role-playing, reading books on schooling, or watching an educational video if they are facing adjustment issues in school.

Your child not wanting to go to school is stressful not just for your child but for the entire family. Going back to school after a traumatic experience is not going to be easy.  Your child will need your support and understanding.  It is equally important to look after yourself as well so be sure to have plenty of rest, eat properly and seek professional help if you need it.  Parenting is not easy but the pleasure we get from watching our children blossom into wholesome adults is why it is so rewarding.   


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