School Refusal, the new pandemic in Australia.

School Refusal, the new pandemic in Australia.

When a child experiences school refusal it can be overwhelming, confusing and can create a divide between students and school. Many parents blame themselves. It is not reasonable or logical to blame ourselves as parents and the reasons behind avoiding school can not be easy to identify. Autistic students and students with ADHD are twice as likely to experience school refusal.

Maryanne still struggles with the issue of school refusal.

Maryanne’s autistic son was in year 7 when he started to hide in his room and would refuse to get dressed for school. At first, she thought it was just a phase or there may have been some issue with bullying. After talking the with the school and appointments with her son’s psychologist and paediatrician she was at a loss on how to help her son with the chronic school refusal issue.

“At its worst James would just refuse to leave his bed. We couldn’t physically pick him up and even if we could, we couldn’t force him to get dressed”

“School tried to adjust his work and teachers gave him options. School allowed him to have recess and lunch in the library, however it did not help”

Maryanne’s story is not unusual, it is estimated that in 2019 between 2% and 5% of all students were experiencing school refusal, reports suggest that it has trebled over the pandemic period in Australia.

What is it?

According to Jill Sewell A.M. FRACP is Deputy Director, Centre for Community Child Health. Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, Victoria, the term ‘school refusal’ refers to difficulty attending school associated with emotional distress. Noting that a common definition is ‘child-motivated” Refusal to attend or difficulties remaining in school for the entire day.

It can also be defined by its timeline. For example, self-corrective school refusal behaviour refers to absenteeism that remits spontaneously within 2 weeks. Acute school refusal behaviour lasts from 2 weeks to 1 year, and chronic school refusal behaviour lasts longer than 1 year. Greater chronicity is related to greater difficulty reintroducing school.




What does it look like?

School refusal can manifest in different forms. Refusing to attend school, physical complaints such as headaches or stomach issues, being disruptive in class or failing to complete homework or school directives. We can’t always assume physical symptoms are not real. It is important to investigate these as they are often genuine concerns for your child. It can be distressing for you and your child.

What leads to this issue?

School refusal can be the result of one issue or a combination of many. Including, anxiety, lack of attachment at school, sense of not being safe, separation – (What if…), friendships, yard conflict, school discipline.

What is important is to ensure the school makes reasonable accommodations and supports for your child. Fundamentally it is the school’s responsibility to ensure your child has access to school and treat each child experiencing school refusal as individuals. Addressing their own needs and requests rather than assuming each child has the same obstacles . It is also important to recognise school refusal is often a result of a psychological distress resulting in a state of emotional suffering. It is associated with stressors and demands that are difficult to cope with in daily life. School refusal is rarely a child just wanting to play computer games rather than attend school as the sole reason.

School Refusal Webinar.

Pauline Aquilina from Autism goals recently hosted a webinar for Kids on the Spectrum on school refusal. The Webinar addressed ways to help your child and to help you navigate your child’s rights in regards to requesting accommodations and supports. Pauline is a former school principal, special education teacher and is now a school advocate assisting hundreds of Australian families navigate this growing issue.

We have made the recording available to purchase for a limited time only and you can purchase a copy here.

For further details about Autism Goals and how Pauline can assist you and your family, you can visit

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