Practical strategies to help you manage your teen's school refusal

Father and daughter sitting at desk 2

If you are the parent or carer of a teenager who refuses to go to school, you may be feeling helpless or frustrated by the situation. It’s common to feel this way, especially because school refusal can be constantly changing – your teenager may be okay some days and then refuse to go to school on others.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing school refusal, so this article explores a variety of practical strategies you can try.

This can help if:

  • you’re looking for school refusal strategies that aren’t punitive

  • you want to know what things have led to school refusal in your teen

  • you’re wanting to know how to motivate teenagers when it comes to schoolwork and attendance

  • you’re a parent looking for ways of how to deal with school refusal that consider both you and your teen.

The first step on how to deal with school refusal: knowing what’s within your control

Reflecting on what is and isn’t in your control can help with difficult situations. Once you’ve done this, you can focus on what you can control and try to let go of what you can’t.

Some things in your control may include:

  • trying strategies to create or maintain a positive relationship with your teen

  • practising regular open communication and being non-judgemental

  • taking care of yourself and getting help if needed

  • working with your teen to develop or maintain a healthy lifestyle

  • encouraging your teen to seek the support they need

  • working with the school to find potential solutions.

Some things not in your control include how your teen feels about school, their relationships with people at school, and the opinions of other parents.

This resource on how to acknowledge and accept things that are out of your control can be helpful to both adults and teenagers.

When it comes to school refusal, take things day by day

It can be helpful to take each day as it comes when dealing with school refusal. This is important because school refusal can be unpredictable: your teen may be willing to go to school one day and then the next day refuse to go.

Here are some ways to move towards living in the present and managing issues as they arise:

  • Practise mindfulness. Mindfulness is about being fully engaged in the present moment. You can make almost every activity into a mindful activity by taking the time to slow down and engage with your senses. This might look like a mindful walk or a mindful cup of tea or coffee.

  • Be flexible. School refusal can be unpredictable, and life doesn’t always go according to plan. Be open to adapting your plans and expectations as needed.

  • Prioritise your to-do list. If you think it might be helpful, write a list of everything you need to do to deal with your teen’s school refusal. Prioritise the tasks by both importance and urgency.

Focus on mental health first, then school attendance

While encouraging your teen to go back to school is the main goal, parents may find that being strict and enforcing school attendance can sometimes backfire and even make things worse. This is because school refusal is different from simple truancy (or ‘wagging school’). With school refusal, there are often underlying issues at play, a common one being mental health.

Mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, or even distressing situations such as bullying or issues with schoolwork, can contribute to school refusal, so it’s essential to support your teen’s mental health as a priority.

Your teen’s mental health can explain their reasons for school refusal

Spend some time researching different mental health concerns so that you can recognise any signs of these in your teenager. For example, signs of depression can include negative self-talk, withdrawal from friends and family, and changes in sleep patterns and appetite. Signs of anxiety can include fear of or concerns about specific situations (such as going to school), inability to concentrate, and avoidance of social situations.

By learning about mental health, you can also help to identify what is everyday teenage behaviour and what isn’t. It’s also worth exploring treatments for different mental health concerns so that you feel empowered to try them and put them into action.

Encourage healthy habits

Encourage your teen to maintain a healthy lifestyle by getting enough sleep, eating a nutritious diet and engaging in regular physical activity. These habits can help your teen to maintain or improve their mental health. You could send them these ReachOut resources on healthy food choices and healthy habits.

Seek professional help when needed

If you notice signs of mental health issues in your teen, support them with making an appointment to see a GP, who will be able to suggest treatment and support options.

Encourage open conversations

Create an environment where your teen feels safe to share their thoughts and feelings. When talking with your teen about their school attendance, try your best to approach it with an open mind, rather than approaching it like a school refusal intervention.

Try these ways to encourage open conversations with your teen:

  • Practise active listening. Listen to your teen without judgement by practising active listening – you can learn more about it here. It's important not to always offer advice or try to fix problems; just be there to listen, and try to understand their perspective.

  • Use the ‘Scale of 1 to 10’ method. Regularly checking in with them to ask ‘How are you, on a scale of 1 to 10?’ (then asking them follow-up questions) can help you to gauge how they’re feeling and get an idea of what’s bothering them.

  • Talk to them about school. After trying some general conversation and the ‘scale of 1 to 10’ method, you can move on to talk to them directly about school. Check out this conversation guideto help you figure out what to ask and tips for having the conversation, including school refusal strategies for your teen.

Work with your teen’s school to address school refusal

Talk to your teen’s school about what’s happening, and work with them to find solutions. Ask who are the best people at the school to talk to. You can also ask the school to:

  • organise meetings with the school counsellor

  • offer options such as late start times or reduced school hours

  • excuse your teen from activities that make them feel overwhelmed (such as public speaking)

  • share lesson plans with you and your teen

  • keep you in the loop with your teen’s attendance and progress at school

  • let you know if there will be a substitute teacher or other changes that might cause your teen to feel anxious

  • organise regular meetings between you and your main contact at the school

  • provide information on alternative pathways of education. Just knowing they have options can be a huge relief to your teen. Some other pathways include apprenticeships and traineeships, educational support classes, or home schooling.

How to motivate your teen’s school attendance in other ways

Talk about the positives of school

Ask your teen what parts of school they find enjoyable or meaningful rather than just focusing on problems. These positives might be:

  • their favourite subjects

  • teachers, counsellors or coaches they connect with best

  • activities or sports they enjoy

  • friends they have at school, or peers they like.

Work out a school refusal treatment plan and take small steps<

Talk to your teen about small, actionable steps they can take towards better mental health and school attendance. For example, if your teen hasn’t started an assignment that’s due, you could suggest they start by writing 100 words.

If you want to try one of the tips listed in this article, discuss it with your teen and take a small step towards achieving that goal. Celebrate any progress your teen makes towards achieving self-set goals.

Cultivate healthy media habits

Encouraging your teen to have healthy media habits can be really positive for their mental health. Here are some ways to do this:

  • Talk about the positive and negative experiences of media, including social media. For example, your teen may tell you that watching an episode of their favourite show helps them to unwind, but that bingeing a whole series interferes with their sleep.

  • Discuss what types of media make them feel good, and what types make them feel bad. Come up with a way to focus more on the media that contributes to their wellbeing.

  • Introduce them to digital wellbeing tools such as Apple’s ‘Screen Time’ and Android’s ‘Digital Wellbeing’. We’ve got more information on these kinds of tools in this article.

Encourage a regular sleep schedule

It’s really important for teenagers to get enough sleep – the optimum amount is estimated to be 8-10 hours a night.

Support your teen to establish a routine around sleep and wake-up times. This isn’t always easy, but explaining why it’s important might help.

Encourage them to avoid screen time an hour before bed. Instead, they might read or listen to relaxing music to wind down.

Establish a morning and evening routine

Routines can help teens to feel safe and secure, and help them to deal with stressful events. We’ve created a planner template you can use with your teen. Here are some tips for establishing a morning and evening routine:

  • Involve your teen in the process so they feel some ownership of the plan. Ask them how they feel about the routine.

  • With your teen, write down the categories of all the things they need to get done, including school, housework, meals and bedtimes. Then put a time on these activities; for example, breakfast is at 8 am, lunch is at noon and dinner is at 6 pm (or whatever time works for you and your teen).

  • Build in time for your teen to chill out and do something they enjoy. You could ask them what activities they enjoy doing and write a list of these.

Practise self-care to help you both deal with school refusal

Everyone needs self-care, and everyone practises it differently. Find some tips below, and remember: reaching out and finding support can sometimes be the most important self-care activity of all.

Self-care for parents

It’s important to remember to take care of yourself as well as your teen, especially during this challenging time. It will also show your teen how important it is to practise self-care to stay healthy and well.

Here are some tips for practising your own self-care:

  • Reflect on what activities make you feel good and recharged, and then plan to do more of those.

  • If the self-care activity is too time-consuming, see if you can break it down. For example, a day-long hike might be unachievable right now, but perhaps you can go for a 20-minute walk to the local park.

  • Put self-care activities into your routine and see them as an ongoing wellbeing plan, not as a one-off thing.

Self-care activities look different for everyone, but some common ones include taking some time out to watch a movie, listen to music or read a book, doing some exercise, or talking to a friend or loved one. You can find more tips for practising self-care here.

Self-care for teenagers

Encourage your teen to practise self-care on a regular basis. Ask them what activities recharge them and write down a ‘self-care list’ together.

Here are some ways teens can practise self-care:

  • Do exercise they enjoy, such as swimming or a YouTube yoga class.

  • Watch a movie or a TV series.

  • Listen to their favourite podcast.

  • Make a cup of tea and drink it mindfully (or try another form of mindfulness).

  • Choose a random book at the library and take time out to read it.

  • Talk to a friend or loved one.

If your teenager needs more ideas for self-care, you can send them some of ReachOut’s self-care resources.

Try ReachOut Parents’ one-on-one coaching

Remember that support is available, and that it’s completely okay to reach out and ask for help whenever you need it.

ReachOut Parents One-on-One Coaching offers free, personalised support for parents. The coaching sessions will help you to understand your teen’s school refusal and assist you to create school refusal strategies to support them.

You can find more support options here.

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