As the 2024 school year begins, Orygen has teamed up with young people, families, research leaders and clinical experts to produce two new resources to help address the rising issue of school refusal.
Defined as “school non-attendance that parents and carers are aware of”, school refusal is associated with severe emotional distress at the prospect of attending school.
“The start of the school year can be a particularly daunting time as students encounter significant changes such as new teachers, classmates and schools. With that change comes an increased chance of anxiety that can lead to school refusal,” says Professor Rosemary Purcell, Chief of Research Translation at Orygen, Australia’s Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health.
As well as the immediate impacts of missing school, there is also emerging evidence that one-third of young people who present with school refusal are likely to experience serious adjustment difficulties in adulthood (for example, social learning phobia and learning difficulties), and that this could result in reduced future employment or education.
The resources highlight that early intervention is key to addressing school refusal, with research showing that intervention is less likely to be effective when non-attendance has persisted for more than two years.
There is limited data on exact school refusal rates, but a 2023 parliamentary paper on the subject identified that schools, parents and clinicians have reported increases in the prevalence of school refusal in Australia following COVID-19 disruptions. Victorian data submitted to a senate enquiry showed that the rate of school refusal grew by 50 per cent between 2018 and 2021. More recently, a 2023 survey conducted by the Greens found that 39 per cent of parents agreed or strongly agreed that their child had experienced school refusal in the past year.
Prof. Purcell said both new resources (links above) have a particular focus on including and supporting families in identifying and responding to school refusal.
“Not only can school refusal have a significant impact on a young person’s learning, development and health, but it can also take a significant toll on the family unit, with parents reporting feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and guilt supporting a young person,” Prof. Purcell said.
The resources include a checklist of potential early warning signs students may display at home and at school, including:
Difficulty attending school after weekends and holidays
Disrupted sleep cycles
Tearfulness, clinginess and dawdling before school
Feeling sick before school (eg; waking up with a headache, sore throat or stomach-ache)
Excessive screen time
Absences on significant days such as tests, speeches or physical education classes
Social isolation or withdrawal
“These guidelines offer ways of identifying young people at risk, and those experiencing school refusal. They also highlight practical strategies for schools to work with young people, families and the broader school community to increase school connectedness, and provide young people with tailored, strengths-based support to meaningfully participate and engage in school,” Prof. Purcell said.
She added that other advice for parents experiencing school refusal includes understanding that there may be different factors contributing to school refusal and the importance of remaining patient – given the frustration that this can create for parents – in managing and not resorting to forcing the child to attend school.