By Raising Children Network, with the Centre for Adolescent Health
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Unhappy high school student sitting at desk

did you knowQuestion mark symbol

  • Truancy is much more common than school refusal, especially in secondary school. Almost half of secondary school students have truanted at least once.
  • School refusal affects only 1-2% of students each year. It’s the least common reason for missing school.
 
Your child might miss a day of school every now and then – that’s pretty normal. But if it happens a lot, it might be truancy or ‘school refusal’. In this situation, it can be hard for your child to feel like he belongs and keep up with schoolwork. So it’s important for you to help your child get back to school.

About truancy and avoiding school: why it happens

Avoiding school often happens around the same time as major changes in teenagers’ lives. These changes might include changing classes and schools, or starting secondary school.

Another big reason for avoiding school is friendship problems. Teenagers might avoid or wag school because they feel that nobody likes them or they don’t fit in.

Also, teenagers might be anxious about family circumstances – for example, a period of illness or stress in the family – and want to stay at home because of that.

If lots of these things are happening at once, it can be so upsetting that teenagers might feel disconnected from school or anxious about leaving the house. Once a child feels this way, truancy becomes more likely.

Signs that your child is wagging school

If you’re worried that your child is wagging school, you might notice signs of problems at school. In particular, your child might:

  • avoid talking about things he’s been doing at school
  • change the normal ‘getting ready for school’ routine
  • not talk about friends or teachers anymore
  • stop doing homework.

Also, your child’s school will contact you if your child has been missing school without any explanation.

It’s vital to pick up early on problems with going to school, before the problems become chronic. The longer your child is away from school, the harder it will be to get her back again.

Helping your child go to school regularly

You can support and encourage your child to go to school every day by showing interest in and support for his education. You can do this in simple, practical ways, like:

  • actively listening when your child starts a conversation about school
  • asking about the links between your child’s schoolwork and what he wants to do when he’s finished school
  • asking whether there’s anything you can do to help with schoolwork or homework
  • helping out at school – for example, in the canteen or during school fundraisers
  • going to parent-teacher interviews, school performance nights and other school activities.

If your child is sick for more than a few days, you can help by finding ways for her to keep in touch with school friends and teachers, perhaps by social media or by email.

Your child has been wagging school: what to do

If you know your child is missing school, talking to your child is an important first step. This will help you work out ways to help him get back to school. You might want to try the following:

  • exploring with him why he doesn’t want to go to school – for example, ‘The school contacted me today to say you weren’t there again. I think we need to talk’
  • listening to any fears and concerns about school that he has – for example, ‘Nothing bad will happen to me while you’re at school’
  • working with him to find a way to address the problem – for example, ‘Let’s talk to the school about you starting back one or two days a week’.

You can also:

  • talk with school staff to find out how they can help – in particular, year coordinators and student wellbeing staff are there to help teenagers deal with problems
  • talk with school staff about strategies to keep your child attending and engaged – for example, the school might be able to organise a ‘staged return’ for your child
  • talk with parents of your child’s friends to find out whether they can help you – for example, they might be able to help you with school drop-offs or pick-ups.

If your child is missing only particular classes or avoiding particular teachers, the year coordinator or student wellbeing staff might help you and your child pinpoint the problem. Once you’ve spotted these, you can work on finding solutions.

Why young people need to be at school

If your child goes to school on a regular basis, she’ll:

  • have a better chance of making friends and fitting in at school
  • get to know her teachers and other staff who can help her deal with difficult times
  • keep up with schoolwork
  • be more likely to go back to school if she has to miss it for illness or another reason
  • be less likely to engage in risky behaviour
  • have the best chance at reaching her full potential.
Young people who stay in school for longer have better outcomes, not just in education, but also in future employment, income, health and wellbeing.

Absenteeism, truancy and school refusal: what’s the difference?

Absenteeism
Absenteeism is when children don’t go to school on a regular basis. It usually happens with a parent’s knowledge and consent. Students who are absent are usually at home.

Your child might be having problems with absenteeism because of:

  • illness
  • negative school experiences like bullying
  • difficulties with learning or keeping up with homework or assessment tasks
  • family or financial difficulties that make it hard for him to get to school
  • work or family commitments, including caring duties.

Truancy
Truancy is when students are absent from school without their parents’ knowledge or permission. It’s also called ‘wagging’ or ‘skipping’ school.

If your child is truanting, it might look like she’s going to school. She’ll leave and come home at the usual time, and she might even go to school some of the time. But she’ll miss particular classes or even whole days at school.

School refusal
School refusal is when children refuse to go to school. It’s a more serious emotional problem involving fear of attending school or anxiety about leaving home. It’s different from truancy.

Your child might show symptoms like crying, panic, tantrums, aggression or threats of self-harm.

Children and teenagers who refuse to go to school might also be dealing with depression or anxiety.

 
 
 
  • Last updated or reviewed 13-12-2017
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with the Centre for Adolescent Health, The Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne, and Dr Liza Hopkins, Dr Julie Green and Mrs Frances Burns, The Royal Children’s Hospital Education Institute, Melbourne.