How schools can combat student anxiety and absenteeism

How schools can combat student anxiety and absenteeism

In recent years, Australia has seen a concerning rise in the phenomenon of school refusal, with an increasing number of students struggling to attend school due to anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges.

School refusal – when a child experiences severe emotional distress and anxiety, leading to persistent resistance or refusal to attend school – presents educators with yet another complex youth mental health issue to navigate.

According to The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), the national student attendance level declined to 49.9% from 71.2% in 2021.

Michael Hawton, a distinguished Australian psychologist with 30 years of expertise, specialises in addressing child and teen anxiety, challenging behaviours, and navigating tough conversations. He said part of the student absenteeism phenomena is that some parents succumb to their child’s wishes to stay at home and to avoid school, even when illness is not the presenting reason.

“While in the past children may have missed the odd day due to illness or medical appointments, going to school would have been the norm and a routine part of every child’s life,” Hawton told The Educator.

“Recently children have been allowed by parents to miss more school days for a variety of reasons. More frequently, it has been because the child did not want to go to school, possibly due to feeling anxious about the schoolwork or dealing with their peers or teachers.”

Hawton said while this can seem like the kind thing to do in the short term, it can soon turn into a pattern of behaviour that can be difficult to reverse.

“Going to school is a ‘normal life challenge’. That means that we need to equip our children with the skills to face life’s difficulties, including going to school for 90% of the time, unless they are unwell or there is a good reason for not going to school, like medical appointments or family commitments,” he said.

“The resources I have developed are a roadmap for getting a child back to school on a regular basis. They are based on a theory of gradual exposure for the child to return to school and rewards for attending. The step-by-step nature of the guide helps parents to undertake the return to school process gradually, with the support of their child’s school.”    

In 2003, Hawton founded Parentshop as a resource hub for parents, educators and child and family specialists. It has since grown to be one of Australia's leading professional development training organisations and parenting resource hub.

Recently, Parentshop released a free resource containing seven simple steps that enable parents and carers to support their anxious children to return to school consistently.  

“Principals want children to return to school after an absence and they also want the child’s attendance to be regular. It’s so easy for a child to fall behind in the curriculum if they are not at school,” Hawton said.

“Teachers work hard to ensure students who have missed days of learning are provided with support to catch up but the longer a child is absent from the classroom, the more they will miss. Often parents are looking for solutions for their child’s school refusal.”

Hawton said the 7-step plan is an important resource for school leaders to publish on their school website or put on their school’s Facebook page.

“It’s one thing to insist that a child return to school; it’s quite another for parents to know how to make that happen,” he said.

“All of a child’s care givers should watch the short film together so that they’re singing from the same song sheet, and they can place the accompanying printable infographic on their fridge door, as a prompt.”