School refusal impacts two in five Australian families – survey

School refusal impacts two in five Australian families – survey

Two in five Australian families are experiencing school refusal, a new poll of public and private school parents has found.

The Greens-commissioned Lonergan poll of 1,003 Australian parents found that 39% of all parents of school-age students said their child had been unable to attend school in the past year because of anxiety or stress. The breakdown for public and private schools was 41% and 35% respectively.

Greens spokesperson on Education (Primary and Secondary), Senator Penny Allman-Payne said the finding reinforces the need for urgent action on the recent Senate inquiry’s recommendations.

“This polling shows that school can’t is not simply a niche phenomenon experienced by a small minority of school students – it’s a major problem impacting hundreds of thousands of families across the country,” Allman-Payne said.

“It should be a wake-up call for governments and education departments that the school system is not capable of responding and adapting to the complex needs of our kids, and that it is increasingly not fit-for-purpose.”

Allman-Payne said while school refusal is often blamed on disability or mental health challenges, or passed off as misbehaviour, the reality is that it is the product of an extreme stress response which leaves a child simply incapable of attending school, even though they want to.

“This is a crisis of exclusion. Students are being forced to adjust to the needs of rigid, commodified educational systems and institutions, rather than the other way around – and massive school refusal rates are the result,” she said.

The Greens are calling on federal, state, and territory education ministers to act on the 14 recommendations of the Senate inquiry into school refusal, including establishing a funded peer support organisation for parents and developing a national action plan.

“We must ensure all public schools are resourced to at least 100% of the Schooling Resource Standard, so that teachers and support staff are able to give every student the attention they need.”

How can principals respond?

Linda Williams, clinical lead at ReachOut said when principals become aware that a child is disengaging from their learning, they should engage with the family to try and gain a deeper understanding of what might be happening with the student.

“These initial conversations with both the student and family can be difficult. The NSW Government and ReachOut have some practical conversation resources to help you prepare and feel more confident about handling these situations,” Williams told The Educator.

“Once you have identified the underlying cause for school refusal, work with relevant support services to get advice on the types of support and strategies the student might need.”

Williams said this might include consulting the school’s wellbeing team, learning support team, pastoral care team or external sources of support such as professionals in the wider community.

“It’s important to keep in mind that each student’s experience with school refusal is unique. Collaborating with the student, family and other support services will help you come up with a school return plan that works for the individual student's needs,” Williams said.

“The plan might involve gradual return to school or a flexible learning program. Once the plan is in place it is important to keep up the contact with the student and the family.”

Williams said regularly check-ins can ensure the plan is still working for the student and keep the family updated on progress.

“Managing school refusal can be a challenging and emotional experience for everyone involved, including educators. Importantly, don’t forget to prioritise your self-care during this time.”

Parents must beware of unconstructive patterns of behaviour

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.

As part of his work with Parentshop, founded in 2003, Hawton has developed resources which he calls “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,” he said. “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.”