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5 School Refusal Strategies

Starting School


5 School Refusal Strategies


It’s the beginning of a new school year and while many children, and parents, have anticipated this week with great excitement, the start of a new school year can also bring with it a range of not so pleasant emotions and uncertainty. If your child is expressing school related anxiety, read on for a summary of helpful school refusal strategies.



The first few weeks of school represent a First in other ways. First day of School. First day of High School. First day in a new school. First day with a new teacher.

A ‘First’ often represents a milestone, something to look forward to and celebrate. We inherently know the importance of recognising milestones and the positive effect that celebrating these has on our sense of self; of who we are, where we belong, and who we are becoming. In fact, the notion of ‘Being, Belonging, and Becoming’ is so important for a child’s sense of wellbeing that it forms the corner stone of the Australian Early Years Learning Framework.

However, the thing about Milestones is that they can’t happen without Change. And Change can be scary. Few of us like Change, least of all our kids. This is where those not so pleasant emotions and uncertainty come in.

While the ‘First’ can bring mixed emotions around this time, there are many other contributing factors to school related anxiety. Your child may struggle academically or socially, they may feel that they don’t fit in, or perhaps you have a free-spirited energetic child who prefers the laid-back flexibility of holidays as opposed to the rigid structure of the classroom. Or it may just be that it’s the end of the holidays. Let’s face it, who enjoys going back to work after a long break?

And just in case all of that isn’t enough, let’s throw COVID into the mix. Depending on the age of your child and their level of awareness, this alone can be responsible for a great deal of Anxiety. Emerging Minds has some great information on supporting your children’s return to school during COVID.



1: Determine the Threat

First of all, check to see if there is a real threat, as it may not be obvious on the surface. An example of this could be bullying. If the threat is imagined, e.g. What if I fail?  or a relic of a past experience which is no longer a threat, it’s important to help our kids to work through it and to not enable avoidance, because when we support avoidance in our children, we are agreeing with their self-belief that tells them they can’t do it. But how do we help them work through their fears?


2: Validate Feelings

The best way to help our kids work through these fears is to start with validating their feelings. Validation builds trust and sends a strong message to your child that someone ‘gets it’, someone is on their side. It’s the key to helping them move forward. Statements such as Of course you’re going to feel scared, it’s all completely brand new, you’ve never experienced this before! or I know this feels huge!  will help your child understand that there is nothing wrong with them, that it’s normal to feel this way.

It’s important that we never belittle a child or minimise or laugh off the fear. You don’t have to agree with the feeling to validate it, however, it’s important to honour and respect your child’s feelings before they can begin to move forward. In addition, your child doesn’t know the difference between a real or imagined threat, it all feels the same, so if we minimise or laugh it off, we risk them not coming to us when there is a real threat. 


3: Risking on Purpose

Risking on Purpose is a key Protective Behaviours Strategy. It’s where we feel the fear but do it anyway. This is the place where Resilience and Personal Growth happens. In short, this is the process of choosing to be Brave. Being Brave doesn’t mean there is no Fear. It means acknowledging the Fear and choosing to move forward because there is a good reason for it.

You can support your child by helping them to identify their Good Reason. Remember, the Reason has to be meaningful for your child. It helps to start with weighing up the Pros and Cons.


4: Affirm and Confirm 

Confirm that you’ve got their back and Affirm that their Teacher is there to help if needed. Along with the teacher, help them to identify other people in the school that they could turn to if needed. This could be the Chaplain, the School Pysche, the Pastoral Care or Student Services Team, or another member of school staff. Build confidence in these people by modelling trust. If you don’t feel safe that your child will be supported while you are not there, your child won’t feel safe either. 


5: Managing Your Own Feelings 

Remember, anger, distress and tears are not manipulation. This emotional response is simply the brain’s response to a perceived threat.

Their distress will cause distress in you, so you will need to manage your own emotions before you can help your child. Managing self is hard, especially when we feel manipulated, or we want to protect our kids. 

Managing your own emotions doesn’t mean ignoring them. Have you ever done a fantastic job of speaking calmly to your child while all the while your insides are screaming, only to have them accuse you of yelling at them? That’s because your child/teen isn’t listening to your words, they’re listening to your heart. They’re feeling what you’re feeling.

It helps to acknowledge what you’re feeling by picturing the child within you. Speak to that child, acknowledge their distress, ask them to wait and promise you’ll come back once you’ve dealt with the child in front of you. Once you’re helped your child, go back to your inner child and practice some self-care. This could be in the form of affirming words You handled that so well! Or it could be listening to some music or engaging in a favourite creative pursuit. Or you may prefer going for a run or any other physical work which helps to release stress.



Think about when you taught your child to walk. At first you carried them everywhere, then you provided safe places for them to crawl and pull themselves up to stand, eventually you held their hands, until they took that first wobbly step without hands and eventually developed the strength and co-ordination to walk and run. In the same way, Co-regulation teaches your child how to self-regulate.

Co-Regulation is ‘Being With’.  Words and advice will often make things worse, but your presence and reassurance, basically all that has been laid out in the above 5 steps, will help your child to calm. Don’t underestimate the power of your presence. 



If you would like to know more about developing Resilience and helping your child manage feelings of Anxiety, we still have places available in our Children’s Emotional Wellbeing workshop. Click here to find out more and book your spot.

Sarina Elder

Sarina Elder

Sarina Elder has worked with families and children for over 25 years and is the Parent Workshop Coordinator at KEYS. For more information on upcoming workshops
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