You can’t fix school rejection with ‘tough love,’ but these steps may help

School attendance levels in Australia are a huge problem, according to Education Minister Jason Clare. As he told reporters last week, he hopes to speak to his state colleagues on the issue at a meeting later this month.

There is evidence that school attendance rates have been falling for 10 years, and we see it among boys and girls, we see it every year from kindergarten to the end of school.

Clare’s comments add to a growing concern over school rejection. A Senate inquiry is due to report on the issue next month. Presentations from teachers and parent groups describe an alarming trend that has been exacerbated by Covid.

Related: School refusal: Parents are forced to quit their jobs to care for children who can’t make it to class, a Senate inquiry said

Victoria’s shadow education minister, Matthew Bach, a former teacher, suggests it’s up to parents, not governments, to fix this:

Tough love is what the growing number of children who refuse to attend school need most. Going to school simply shouldn’t be negotiable.

But will tough love help, let alone work? How can we support children who have difficulties attending school?

How many students refuse to attend school?

School refusal is not truancy. It occurs when children or adolescents regularly refuse to attend school or experience significant distress at the prospect of going to school.

School refusal rates vary widely based on factors such as age, cultural background, socioeconomic status, and mental health.

Estimates of school refusal vary, with higher rates being observed in certain groups, such as those with anxiety disorders. In Victoria, the school refusal rate increased by 50% between 2018 and 2021 to about 2% of that in public schools. Our previous research has shown that the resilience of some young people declined during Covid. This may have contributed to the disengagement from going to school.

The consequences of school refusal can be serious. In addition to affecting your academic progress and education, it can negatively affect the development of some social skills or put pressure on your mental health and family relationships.

Why do some children refuse to go to school?

The reasons why children and young people may refuse to go to school are complex. And it may be related to:

  • Learning difficulties: Some children struggle with the academic aspect of school, which can lead to feelings of frustration or lack of motivation.

  • social anxiety: Some children may be afraid of social situations, which may cause them to avoid school.

  • mental health problems: Children who suffer from depression, anxiety or other mental health problems may have trouble getting to school.

  • Family problems: Problems at home, such as divorce, financial problems or trauma, can affect a child’s emotional well-being and willingness to go to school.

  • negative school experiences: Children who have had negative experiences such as bullying may be less likely to attend school.

Why tough love doesn’t work?

It seems simple: just force your child to go to school. However, research shows that an authoritarian approach can have a negative impact on children who refuse to go to school.

If children are forced or punished for refusing to go to school, they may develop low self-esteem, lack of independence, and difficulty forming healthy relationships. They are at higher risk for anxiety and depression, and may experience challenges expressing emotions and communicating effectively.

Children can often feel a sense of hopelessness. They may feel embarrassed or embarrassed about missing school. They are in a vulnerable and challenging situation, and they need to feel that they are being heard and supported.

When they are extremely fearful and stressed, forcing children to attend school does not help. Arguably not possible for older children either, who can be much more independent.

What can parents do?


If a child refuses to go to school, it is important that parents and educators deal with it in an understanding way that does not punish the child.

They need to work together to find a solution that works for the child. For example, sometimes homeschooling or online education can help over a period of time.

Each child and family will be different but it is important, in the first instance, to identify the reason a child is not going to school. This may involve talking with the child, looking at triggers for her behavior, and talking with teachers or other professionals such as a GP or psychologist.

Then some other steps may include:

  • Develop a plan together: Once the reason for the refusal is understood, parents can work with the child and the school to develop a plan. This may involve working on academic skills, seeking counseling, or making changes to the school environment and routine.

  • Be receptive and supportive: Children experiencing school refusal may feel anxious, stressed or overwhelmed. Parents can provide emotional support and encouragement to help the child feel more secure and comfortable about attending school.

  • Fosters positive relationships: Helping your child build positive relationships with their peers and teachers can help them feel more connected to the school community and more motivated to attend.

  • Seek more professional help: If a child’s refusal to attend school is severe and persistent, mental health professionals can help.

It is important to approach rejection in a collaborative and responsive manner, with the well-being of the child as a priority. Clear communication and common goals between the school, the parent and the child are essential.

Related: Readers share stories of school rejection in Australia: “It marked us and changed us forever”

Does the age of a child matter?

Responses to school refusal may differ between younger children and adolescents.

For those in elementary school, the focus may be more on identifying the cause and addressing any early learning difficulties or behavior problems that may be present. Parents can work with teachers to create a positive and supportive school environment and can provide additional support at home.

For those in high school, the focus could be on addressing any underlying mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression, or looking for any learning challenges that were overlooked in the early years. They may be more resistant to intervention from parents or teachers, so it can be helpful to involve them in the process and encourage them to suggest solutions that might work for them.

Regardless of the age of the child, it is important to approach the situation with empathy and understanding, and to work together with the child, the school, and other professionals.

  • If this article has caused you or someone you know a problem, you can call the Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800

  • Christine GrovĂ© is a Fulbright Scholar and Adjunct Senior Lecturer at Monash University and Alexandra Marinucci is a PhD candidate at Monash University’s School of Educational and Counseling Psychology. This article was originally published on The Conversation

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