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About reluctance to attend school

Children or young people can be reluctant to attend school at any point during their education. Although this may happen in primary school, it is far more common for young people in secondary school. 

There are many reasons why a child or young person may be reluctant to go to school. The list below gives an idea of some of the possible reasons. This is not an exhaustive list, however it shows that attendance issues are complex and wide-ranging. It is useful to identify all the possible reasons that could be having a negative impact on the child or young person's attendance at school. Creative approaches may be required from parents, schools and other people involved to work together to promote and support attendance.

Individual factors:

  • Personality e.g. motivation, curiosity, anger
  • Learning needs
  • Behavioural needs
  • Emotional state e.g. school related anxiety
  • Not wanting to get into trouble
  • Psychological or mental health difficulties
  • Low self-worth
  • Embarrassment at personal attributes e.g. overweight

Family / Home factors:

  • Parents putting a low value on education
  • Expected to act as carers / worries about parents’ wellbeing
  • Domestic violence
  • Recent family transition e.g. parental separation, divorce, birth of a sibling
  • Parents working long and atypical hours
  • Family history / acceptance of non-attendance
  • Loss and bereavements
  • Financial stress e.g. families not being able to provide uniform or equipment

School factors:

  • Problems with lessons e.g. boring, and teachers e.g. dislike of, poor relationship
  • Punitive approaches to discipline, low expectations and poor school ethos
  • Social / peer difficulties e.g. bullying
  • Primary to secondary transition and complexity of secondary school
  • Disruptive behaviours in class
  • Opportunism e.g. inadequate monitoring
  • Peer pressure
  • Social isolation and low sense of belonging to school

Informed by: Kearney C A (2001) School refusal behavior in youth: a functional approach to assessment and treatment. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.  

Things to think about

  • Has there been significant change, loss or bereavement for the child or young person?
  • Are there ongoing circumstances for the child or young person at home that may impact on their ability or motivation to attend school?
  • Is there anything that could be making them anxious in school or making them feel disconnected from it?
  • Does the child or young person feel they are different from their peers in their identity? 
  • Is the child or young person confident and socially integrated with strong friendships and alliances? 
  • Could the child or young person be subject to teasing or perceived bullying?
  • If a child or young person complains of feeling unwell when there are no obvious physical symptoms, could this be an attempt to avoid school? 

Think about your response

It is important to separate your own feelings and experiences from those of the child or young person. It can be useful to empathise with the child or young person, but remember to be aware of the way you respond so you can help the child or young person effectively.

What you can do

  • Contact the school as soon as you notice a reluctance to attend so you can work together to try to solve any problems. The earlier issues and needs are identified, the easier it can be to find solutions.
  • Talk to the child or young person and find out if there is anything specific that is bothering them at school or at home. Remember that they may find it difficult to share their worries.
  • Explain to them that you understand how upset they feel and that you are going to try and help.
  • Help the child or young person to resolve any specific worries they have about home or attending school.
  • Support and encourage parents to be firm in their expectation that the child or young person will attend school. 
  • Explain to parents that allowing the child or young person to stay off school is likely to increase their reluctance to attend and make the problem considerably worse.
  • Give the parents information about reluctance to attend school, and discuss with them how they are dealing with the child or young person’s reluctance. 
  • Work closely with parents to help the child or young person return to school.
  • Draw up a plan of gradual steps to get them back into full time schooling with support.
  • Encourage support from their friends, for example get them to call for the child or young person on school days. 
  • If a child or young person is complaining of physical symptoms, talk to parents to find out if this is only on school days or non-school days as well.
  • Before sending a child or young person home when they complain of feeling unwell, first check that the symptoms are genuine and not because they don't want to be at school. 
  • Keep a diary of the child or young person’s reluctance to attend school or non-attendance at school to determine if there are any patterns. Note any factors that might be impacting attendance, including any physical symptoms. 

Other resources

School anxiety and refusal, from YoungMinds:

Who to contact for support

If you are concerned about a child or young person's reluctance to attend school, please contact their school for support.