How can I help my child? School issues and support

School refusal: why does it happen and how can it be helped?

Boy with grey hooded jacket, looking upset

For a lot of children, schools aren’t exactly the most welcoming places. There may be lessons they don’t like or, worse still, teachers and fellow pupils who get on their nerves. It’s absolutely necessary for your kids to get some kind of education, but what if they don’t feel like going to school?

When this happens, it’s known as ‘school refusal’. It’s quite common amongst autistic children, who may have a number of reasons for not wanting to go there. If it’s not managed, it could have long-lasting damage to kids’ future prospects, but it’s worth understanding how it happens and what can be done to help. This is what we’ll explore in this blog post.

Signs of school refusal

School refusal can be spotted pretty easily. There are many tactics your child may resort to when trying to get out of it, including:

  • Taking longer than usual to get ready – spending ages brushing their teeth and dawdling whilst changing clothes, for example
  • Deliberately sleeping through their wake-up call or alarm
  • Pretending to be ill
  • Resisting attempts to take them out of the house
  • Pretending to be asleep by hiding under their duvet
  • Playing dead when being asked to move

However school refusal presents itself, it’s important to be patient. It’s essential to know why your child is refusing to go in the first place; this may help you and their school to get to the root of the problem and do all they can to ensure they get an education.

Reasons for school refusal

Refusing to go to school can be caused by an intense dislike for one particular aspect of being there. For some autistic kids, being at school can be quite overloading. In lessons, when asked to a group task, hearing all the other kids talk at once can be difficult to cope with, whilst at break times, this noise becomes louder with more pupils around.

Speaking of sensory issues, the design of the school building could be triggering. Bright colours, strip lighting and busy walls can all be difficult to deal with on a daily basis. There may also be scents such as cleaning products that cause school refusal.

Another possible reason for school refusal is bullying. If your child is bullied by some of their peers, it’s perfectly understandable for them to prefer staying at home so that they’re not confronted by their bully. Speaking of their peers, it’s possible that there’s someone at school they cannot stand; a teacher, fellow pupil or perhaps both.

Finally, the lessons being taught at your child’s school may be causing refusal on their part. They may not like a certain subject because it either involves group work, is too difficult for them to grasp, isn’t very interesting or is seen as unnecessary. Seeing something as not being worth spending time on is common amongst many autistic kids.

Helping your child

Rather than forcing your child to go to school straight away, there are ways in which you can help them to get back there in a more subtle way. The first thing to do is understand why they don’t want to go. Talking to them and offering to listen is a great start; by showing them you’re supportive, they’ll feel more confident to open up about their school-based anxieties.

Offering your child advice can be useful too. Think about what they’ve told you and suggest ways to ease back into going to school again. Giving them a notebook or diary to write down everything about what makes them want to avoid school altogether is a good idea – they can vent their frustrations in writing and is very effective if your child doesn’t want to talk.

Allowing your child some space can help too. If they’re given some alone time, they may feel ready to explain how they’re feeling later on. It could be during the daytime or late in the afternoon – whichever is best for them.

Small steps

To get them back into school, launching into it straight away could backfire – if something bad happens straight away such as confrontation by a bully, it will prolong their refusal. Taking baby steps, such as going to maybe one lesson per day, then one afternoon, can work.

Going into school with your child for the first few minutes can help too. Doing so is offering them reassurance, but make sure to phase it out over a period of days.

Speaking of baby steps, it might be worth recreating a school-like environment at home. First thing in the morning, you could set up a pencil, paper and textbook on a desk and ask them to do a little work. Doing a timetable may work as well, with specific times set aside for different subjects and tasks e.g. lunch.

If the cause of school refusal is too serious to handle at home, it’s worth contacting the school themselves. After speaking to your child and finding out why they don’t want to go, discussing it with the headmaster, form tutor or head of year will help them to understand the problems and think of a solution with you.

Possible solutions could include suspending the bully from school, providing a quiet learning space or making reasonable adjustments to things like lighting or decor.


See also:

School refusal strategies from the National Autistic Society
School refusal – won’t go or can’t go?
Attending to school refusal
Not Fine in School – a Facebook group for support with school refusal

About the author

Luke Aylward

Luke Aylward

Luke is an Aspie copywriter and designer based in Leeds. He's the chairman of a local support group and enjoys providing accessible info around all things autism.