What do you do when school just isn't working?

Not all teens will fit the mould for school. But what do you do if school just doesn't suit your teen? In this video Lucy Clarke, mother and the author of Beautiful Failures, shares her experience as a parent with a teen who struggled at school

Read the transcript.

Reasons why teens might refuse to go to school

For Lucy, school refusal happened gradually, but for others it can come up all of a sudden. These are some of the factors that could contribute to school refusal:

  • difficulty keeping up with schoolwork

  • bullying and friendship challenges

  • big life changes, such as divorce or separation, moving home, or grief

  • challenges with neurodivergence; for example, teenagers with ADHD may have trouble focusing or staying organised, while autistic teens may have difficulties with a change of teacher or unpredictable social situations

  • mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

Keep in mind that school refusal is different from skipping or ‘wagging’ school, where teens try to hide their absences from their parents, carers or teachers. School refusal stems from the teen’s belief that they can’t cope with school because of the distress and anxiety the thought of attending causes them. 

Understand more about school refusal.

How to talk to your teen about what’s happening for them at school

Your teen might be hesitant to talk about what’s bothering them at school, or maybe they haven’t fully processed their feelings about what’s going on. These are some ways to have a productive chat:

  • Ask questions in a calm, non-judgemental way, and practise active listening when they respond.

  • Start the conversation with open-ended questions, such as: ‘What are some things you don’t like about being at school?’

  • Alternatively, ask very direct questions if they need help identifying their stressors. For example: ‘Are your classes making you feel anxious?’

  • Try asking hypothetical questions, such as: ‘If you could change one thing about school, what would it be?’

  • Ask questions about the future, such as: ‘Do you imagine what finishing school would look like? What could we do together to make that happen?’

Read more advice and examples of what to say in our conversation guide. 

Lucy’s tips for supporting teens struggling with school

Here are some of the learnings Lucy took away from her experience:

  • All parents and carers are busy, but making time early to support your teen can show them that you’re on their side.

  • Make sure they’re also getting support at school. You might need to identify who exactly at their school can support your teen. It could be one of their teachers, the school’s wellbeing or learning support team, or a pastoral care staff member.

  • If school makes them feel stressed all day, take the pressure off at home so that their home life is a haven for them.

  • Instead of making grades and rankings the focus of their education, shift the conversation and ask them about the topics they’re enjoying and what they want to learn more about. This can help to reframe school as a place for exploring curiosity, instead of as a place where they feel pressured to perform at a certain level.

More ideas on how to deal with school refusal

You’re not alone in dealing with school refusal – it’s something a lot of parents and carers go through with their teens. Here are some suggestions from others in our parents discussion forum who’ve been through similar situations:

Talk about your own challenges

This can help your teen feel more comfortable with opening up about what they’re going through.

It’s surprising what kids will tell us if we talk about our own feelings – e.g. “I’ve had a crappy day. I missed the bus … How was your day?” Instead of always focusing on them, it can make them aware that helping each other is a two-way street.


Chat to the wellbeing team

Find out if your teen’s school has staff who are trained in supporting student wellbeing and whether they are experienced in helping with school refusal.

My teen’s school has a wellbeing team and they have been invaluable. I’ve been surprised by how common school refusal is for teens, particularly post-Covid, and so the wellbeing teams are skilled in this area.


Shift the focus away from learning

Take the pressure off the idea that they need to keep up with their peers.

We stopped trying to get them to school and focused on building good relationships and easing their anxiety. One day they said they wanted to go back. We are focusing on feeling safe and comfortable at school with the hope that once that happens they will engage with learning again.


Seek support

Encourage your teen to talk with a mental health professional. They can help your teen feel heard and encourage them to open up about what they’re going through.

Our teen felt their psychologist understood them and wasn't judging them. It allowed them to offload some of the burden they were feeling.


Make time for yourself

It’s normal to worry about your teen and to want to do the best you can for them, but make sure you also take the time to relax and recharge yourself so that you can continue to support your teen.

  • Self-care: Take time to do something that makes you feel happy. Not only will this make you feel more energised, but it can help you to have better interactions with your teen. Role modelling self-care will also encourage your teen to make this a habit in their own life. 

  • Talk to someone about it: This can help you to feel less alone, provide some stress relief and give you some new perspectives. Your own friends and family can be a good starting point. You can also connect with other parents or counsellors through phone or online services.