How to help a teen who doesnt want to go to school

Every parent has trouble getting their teen out of bed and off to school every now and then. However, if your teen is regularly asking to stay home and seems upset or worried about school, it could be a sign of a bigger problem. 

This could help if:

  • your teenager seems upset or worried about going to school
  • your teenager refuses to go to school
  • your teenager has had problems with school refusal in the past

What’s going on?

School refusal is different to ‘wagging’ or ‘jigging’ because it stems from a teen’s anxiety about school. They might be worried about their school work, interacting with other kids, dealing with teachers, playing sports or being away from their family.

Why does it matter?

  • Your teen is likely to fall behind in their subjects and this can have a serious impact on their learning in the long term.
  • Your teen could miss out on important social activities and may lose friends or struggle to make new friends.
  • It could be against the law. All Australian school-age children are legally required to attend school everyday. Unexplained absences can cause legal problems for your family, including financial penalties. Legal requirements are different for every state and territory. Check out the Lawstuff website for more details.

Dealing with school refusal

It can be hard to cope when your child refuses to go to school. You might be feeling frustrated, worried, confused, angry, or disappointed. Watch the video below to hear how Lucy Clarke, author of Beautiful Failures and mother of three, coped with her daughter’s school refusal.

How can you help?

  • Try to speak to your child about what’s been happening.  Check out our tips for figuring out what’s up with your teenager for advice on how to do this.
  • Let the school know what’s going on. You could talk to your child's teacher, year coordinator, deputy principal or the Wellbeing staff. If the first person you contact at school isn’t helpful, you can ask them to refer you to someone else.
  • Find out about the school’s attendance policies and procedures. This will help you to avoid any legal or financial penalties while you try to address the problem.
  • Cooperate with the school and your child to improve their attendance. Working together with the school will give your teen the best chance of overcoming their anxieties about school. Focus on trying to make school a structured and predictable part of your teen’s life. Some practical steps could be to ask the school to:
    • share lesson plans with you and your child
    • excuse your child from activities that make them anxious eg. reading aloud
    • let you know if there will be a substitute teacher
    • organise regular meetings with your main contact at the school.

If you feel like you’ve tried everything

If you’ve tried chatting to your teenager and their school and school refusal is still an issue, it may be time to look into flexible learning options or to seek professional help.

  • Ask the school if there are any options for gradually transitioning your child back into full-time schooling. This may involve changes such as shorter school days or fewer subjects.
  • Make an appointment with your GP. If there are no physical reasons for your child’s school refusal, the GP may refer your child to a mental health professional such as a counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist. A mental health professional will help your child to learn skills to deal with their anxiety about going to school.
  • Look into alternative schooling options. These options are different for each state and territory but may involve homeschooling or distance education. Check out your state or territory’s Education Department website for details.
  • Sign up for ReachOut Parents Coaching and get some one-on-one support. The support sessions will help you to understand your child’s school refusal and assist you to create an action plan to help your teen.

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